Networking is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the job search and professional development skills. On one hand, the data proving networking is effective is readily available. For instance, the 2013 IEEE-USA Employment Survey found that, out of seven common job search tools and techniques, networking was the ONLY one that survey respondents found to be reliable in helping them find new work! On the other hand, most people have only a very vague idea about how to network. This article will help set the record straight on how to network effectively.
First, a word about what networking is NOT. There is an old cliché that says most people begin networking the minute they realize they need help finding a job. Nothing is more awkward, for all parties involved, than a conversation that basically starts, “I need a job, and I hope you can help me find one.” Don’t let that happen to you!
Very simply, networking is about building meaningful relationships with people in your profession. These relationships should be mutually beneficial. In fact, consider removing the word “network” from your vocabulary, and replacing it with the term “professional friendships.” In the best networking circumstances, no one has an immediate need for help – good networking is simply meeting and getting to know people who share a common professional interest with you. As you focus on building these relationships, you avoid the desperation that accompanies the “network out of necessity” approach. If and when the time comes that you do need help, your professional friends will be there for you.
So how do you meet and get to know professional friends? It’s a lot easier than you think especially if you keep thinking less in terms of “network” and more in terms of “friendship.” Start with family, friends and peers (co-workers or fellow students). Then look a little outside that inner circle. Local chapters of professional societies are a fantastic place to build your network, even when you are a student. But remember: get involved because you want to build relationships, not because you need help. That means you should have an honest interest in the activity you are focusing on, and you should have an honest desire to get involved. Hold an officer position, or volunteer to run a local meeting. Become known as a person who is willing to help because that virtually assures others will be there for you when you need them.
How about social networking web sites like LinkedIn? Undoubtedly, these services are becoming very important. Once again, the statistics bear that out. However, be smart. Don’t think you are effectively networking by becoming first level contacts with total strangers! The most effective way to build a solid network on a site like LinkedIn is to make sure you actually know your direct connections, or at least have met them and agreed to connect. The power in using these services comes in the fact that your direct connections give you access to their direct contacts. The multiplier effect of this cannot be understated. As an example, say you have 50 first level contacts (a pretty easy number to reach). If each of them has, in turn, 50 contacts, that means you have access to 2500 people who you can very legitimately be introduced to. However, remember that these are considered quality connections, not just quantity. It’s important when using professional networking sites to think quality over quantity.
In summary, networking, if defined as building professional friendships, is an activity that all professionals should look forward to and embrace. The fact that your network can help you find employment should be a happy byproduct of what is, in and of itself, a rewarding activity. It’s never too early to start. Just as importantly, it’s never too late to start either!