When networking, count your contacts -- and make them count

By Vickie Elmer
Sunday, April 18, 2010

When Jennifer Folsom left a major consulting job, she wanted more time for her twin sons, then age 4. So she picked up a few freelance projects from her huge network of friends. After a year, a college sorority sister contacted her about Momentum Resources, which places mothers and others in professional jobs that allow time for living.

After opening its Washington area office two years ago, Folsom continues to expand it through her connections and word of mouth. "All our candidates and all our clients come from networking," she said.

Networking helped her career and her business, and she and many others say it is "the smartest way to manage your career" or land a new job.

Yet before you don your hot power suit and hand out hundreds of business cards, you need to understand what networking really is. It's developing mutually beneficial relationships based on trust and goodwill so information, assistance and resources can be shared. Folsom calls it "building your own village" and it relies as much or more on kindness and karma as business savvy, job leads or social media.

So at the next networking event, think how you can help others, said Nancy R. Mitchell, owner of The Etiquette Advocate in Bethesda. "It's a whole lot more comfortable making connections and helping other people," she said, with a secondary goal of seeing where those connections could lead you.

A helpful attitude may remove any desperation or dreariness you may harbor and help convey an attitude that says, "I'm so confident I still have a lot of talent to offer," Mitchell said. "You want to be an individual, not just a business card, not just one more desperate job seeker."

Folsom agreed: "It's crowded. You've got to stand out."

She suggests a three-tiered approach:

-- ONLINE. Develop your LinkedIn profile and "track down everyone you've ever worked with." Ask for introductions and testimonials. Put a reminder on your calendar to set aside a half hour twice a week to look for new connections and groups, and build your profile.

-- OFFLINE. Set a goal for how many events and one-on-one meetings you'll go to each month. (Folsom's goals are one and six, respectively.) Choose great events by asking people which ones they find valuable and which are a waste of time. Schedule individual meetings over coffee -- figure 20 to 30 minutes of time. Then appeal to the person as an expert, asking them about their challenges, career path and perhaps some advice.

-- FOLLOW UP. She figures on spending two hours on e-mails, thank you notes and the like for every one hour spent networking. "You're actually building a relationship" this way, she said. As often as you can, help people with a Web site or book title or other need you identified when you met them.

Remember that it takes six to eight contacts before a new contact really knows who you are, "before they assess your character and your competency enough to recommend you," said Lynne Waymon, CEO of Contacts Count, which teaches professional networking.


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