Networking is not a mere exchange of business cards at a cocktail party nor is it bragging about yourself or begging for help from people you barely know. According to most experts, networking is building relationships on the basis of trust that involves a give and take. Lynne Waymon, co-author of the book "Make Your Contacts Count" says, "It's about teaching and giving. Teaching people who you are… and what kind of opportunities to send your way. And it is about giving -- listening so generously that you can also help people accomplish their goals."
Networking is not optional anymore; it is a crucial skill to master.
Most people wait to build their network after a crisis hits them -- like a job loss- then they scramble to make contacts and find a job. But such an attempt is doomed to failure. You should already have an effective network in place that can help you in such a situation, experts advise.
"One of the biggest mistakes that people make is that they stop networking once they get their job," explains networking coach Diane Darling of Effective Networking, Inc. Not only does networking help you find a job, but if you want to grow in your career you need to network within your current company and outside your workplace. Your network, once efficiently in place, becomes not only something you maintain on a regular basis like a chore, but it becomes a part of your lifestyle. After a while, "networking is maintaining a type of friendship," explains HR expert Lily Garcia.
Quite simply, it works. In an August 2009 survey conducted by global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., human resources executives were asked to rate the effectiveness of various job-search methods on a scale of 1 (least effective) to 5 (most effective). Networking averaged a 3.98. About half (48 percent) of the respondents gave networking the highest effectiveness rating of five.
In today's workforce finding a job is not as simple as attending a job fair or sending out a killer resume. "It is a very competitive job market and people who know people in the right positions are going to get jobs," says Garcia. "And this is especially true the further along you get in your career."
It is possible to get entry level positions by going through the normal application process, but very often when it comes to landing senior level positions, having an inside contact will make all the difference, Garcia says.
When starting out with a networking effort it is important to have a clear goal in mind. The goal could be finding a job, changing jobs or growing on the job -- whatever the desired end result -- you need to strategize accordingly.
It is hard for many people to fathom that networking needs a goal and a plan. As William Simmons, president of the executive search firm Management Advisory Group points out, "Networking is a highly strategic function. People often mistake it to be just handing out cards, but networking done right is sophisticated. It involves research; it involves getting to know people well; it involves following up."
Once you have defined your goal, any networking effort can be broken down into two key strategies: social networking and informational interviewing. Each strategy has three basic components: developing, organizing and following up. Below we outline how each strategy works.
Whether you are employed or unemployed, volunteering with an organization is a first step toward expanding your contacts in a field. "You never know where new business or a new job is going to come from. If you keep helping people it will pay off in the long run," explains Simmons.
At work look for a company softball team, a committee, club or an organization that interests you and exposes you to a new set of contacts. If you are unemployed, volunteer in the field that you would like to find a job. A graphic artist could volunteer to create a program or design portfolio for a non-profit organization. If you have the time and money join a networking organization outside of your company. Ask for suggestions from friends and peers or do an Internet search to find a networking organization that you'd like to join.
Tap into your social networks online, such as Facebook, Plaxo or LinkedIn and join groups online to organize and meet more people in person. Online you have a database of people you know from school to adult life; categorize them (friends, family, co-workers) and approach each person to see if they know a contact in a particular field or company. Ask if they would be willing to make an initial introduction.
If you decide to join a networking organization, don't join ten things. "I receive resumes or membership applications that I review and people belong to ten organizations and I always wonder, how much can you get out of all of them? How do they have the time?" says Bill Stokes, founder and chairman of the Washington Network Group, one of the first networking groups in the D.C. area. "Join two, probably three and commit to one at least where you make leadership, so you become involved. Become part of the membership committee or the marketing committee or the programming committee, because that's where you build the relationships that really then matter in terms of finding that next job, or finding the mentor," he says.
Whatever you decide, remember to be diverse in which organizations you join, notes Stokes. He recommends picking an organization that is aligned with your profession first. So if you are a communicator join an organization like the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or Washington Women in PR.
Next, pick an organization in your jurisdiction. If you live in Fairfax or Anne Arundel County pick a local chamber of commerce to build your local network, says Stokes. And look for something broader, that's aligned with a hobby or personal interest. A younger worker interested in international activities could choose an organization like the World Affairs Council.
"As a recruiter I find that people make their very best contacts in places they least expect, at a club, church or temple or mosque or whatever. I have met amazing people on the soccer field. If you can structure a strategy to network then I think it is good to be diverse," says Stokes.
In order to follow up with a contact you met at a networking event or volunteer job, you'll first need to remember his/her name correctly.
Waymon suggests using the Forest Gump rule from the popular Tom Hanks flick. "Remember, he said, 'I am Forest. Forest Gump.' He said his first name twice. It gives more opportunity for someone to catch your name." The whole point is to linger longer over the name and repeat it back, she says.When you get a business card, write the name and a little about the conversation you had with the person on the back of the card. There are ample ways to organize the information. Things to include in your personal networking file: phone numbers, e-mail address, contact information, where the person worked in the past and other memorable data points. But most importantly, use the database to follow up promptly, once you've made initial contact. Schedule 10 to 15 minutes on your calendar once or twice a week to ask yourself: What can I do right now to build relationships within the company or outside the company?
"I would say I meet 20 to 30 people at a networking reception and only about three or four will send me a message in the first week," says Stokes. "I will get one or two a month later and I cannot remember who they are and the others… may be there was no reason for them to follow up."
People who follow up effectively, however, are the ones who send a note in the mail with a stamp on it. "I open it and I read it and that makes them stand out, because I know they took an extra effort," he says.
This strategy of networking involves more one-on-one contact and literally translates to face-to-face interviewing for information.
"Informational interviewing is an expanded form of chatting with your network contacts. It's the process of engaging one of your network contacts in a highly focused conversation that provides you with key information you need to launch or boost your career," explains Katharine Hansen, Ph.D. and creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers. You don't have to make a cold call to ask for these interviews. Start developing this network list from initial contacts made at an event or from your online social networking contacts.
"If you are looking for a job, create 20 paper folders that represent the 20 companies that you would like to work for and you can choose them according to any criteria," says Waymon. Once you have these 20 folders, research each company thoroughly. Be clued into industry news and executive changes at your target companies. Make a list of questions you'd like to ask if you met the company's leadership at a networking event. If you do your legwork, you will be able to have an informed conversation.
Similarly if you are looking to grow on the job, make 20 folders of people you'd like to know within your company. They could be peers, senior executives, someone not in your team or someone with a specific skill you'd like to develop. After you make your list, do some research. If you happen to meet the key colleague in the office elevator, you will be able to make a better connection if you know what they do and what their hobbies are.
Wait for a chance meeting, but if it does not arise, ask for a formal informational interview over a quick lunch meeting or a coffee.
There are three key moments of networking and six stages of developing a relationship with a contact before they can trust you to recommend your name to another party, says Waymon, who outlines this approach in "Make Your Contacts Count."
Once you have established initial contact and an interview, have spontaneous ideas and stories that you can share with contacts on a regular basis to keep the relationship alive. Send e-mail updates or have conversations with your networking goal in mind.
Waymon calls this having an agenda. "The things that you are excited about, giving or talking about or the things that you are looking for, [keep them in mind] then you are never at a loss for what to talk about," she suggests. "You have to be prepared to be spontaneous. You would think we would know this, because we decide what to wear [to an interview], we find directions on MapQuest, so we figure we'll think about what we will talk about. But people don't; they are not that strategic," she says.
Finally, if you've asked for help, don't just disappear. Follow through and let the contact know what happened. If you would like to maintain the contact, keep in touch with updates on what's happening with you and what you have achieved. It is also smart to reciprocate and send along information that may help them. It is this give and take that keeps the contact strong for the future.