I was at a bonfire last Friday night where I met some new people. As we were standing around stoking the fire and keeping our hands warm, the conversation turned to job search and networking. Everyone had a story about what worked, or didn’t, for them at some time in their careers. By the time the fire burned down, the consensus was clear, networking is a valuable skill.
Let me start by defining “networking” – To me, networking is connecting with and learning from other people to help move closer to your goal. Done well, it’s a reciprocal process where you help others in return, either in the moment or in the future. Also, it’s not a one-time event, but a continuous activity that takes different shapes throughout your life and career.
It seems to me there are variations on networking that are worth exploring. I decided to call November “Networking Month” and go with the proverbial “Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” theme to write a series of articles about how to use networking for various goals. Today’s focus is networking when you’re out to make a change in your job or career and you’re not completely sure what that change may be.
Many of my clients who are considering a job or career change aren’t completely clear about what they want the next thing to be. Networking is an ideal way to get a better understanding of what work is like in a different department/field/setting to help make the decision clearer.
The reaction I often get to the suggestion of networking when one doesn’t know what they are networking for is, “I don’t want to show up without knowing what to ask for.” Of course, one should not show up unprepared, but that doesn’t mean you need to know everything before you begin networking.
Marcia Ballinger, Ph.D., in her book “The 20-Minute Networking Meeting” tells us that there are three objectives in networking for a job:
- Gather new information
- Add new contacts to your list
- Gain an evangelist
I couldn’t agree more. The objective is NOT to ask for a job, but rather to build a relationship and get closer to your goal. As Dr. Ballinger says, in any single networking meeting, don’t expect more than a few nuggets of information.
I highly recommend the book “The 20-Minute Networking Meeting” by Marcia Ballinger, Ph.D. and Nathan Perez because it offers a structured process for keeping the networking meeting brief, on-point and productive.
Here’s an example of a client who was looking to make a dramatic change in careers. His main objective was to go from working behind a desk to being outside as much as possible. Other than that, he didn’t have a clear picture of his ideal job. We identified his strengths and interests and took into account his past experiences. When it came time to look for networking opportunities, he was nervous about appearing lost when he spoke with others.
We worked through what he would say and how he would approach potential networking conversations. In the exploratory phase, we looked for people who were doing jobs he might be interested in doing, just so he could talk with them to learn what the job was like and what background it took to get the job. As he approached these people, he could be honest and say, “I’m doing X work now and am exploring careers that involve spending time outdoors. Your job looks interesting to me and I’d like to hear more about it.”
As it happened, one of the first people he met suggested land appraisal as a potential career. As luck would have it, his best friend from high school was a land appraiser – a link he already had but had never considered until this serendipitous networking meeting connected the dots for him. He called up his long-time friend who quickly helped him get the training he needed and now he’s doing work he’s always wanted to do. This example demonstrates how the outcome of networking may not be predictable. It requires a certain openness to see what emerges. To me, it’s like following a trail of breadcrumbs – you make the first contact, which leads to the next and the next and the next, until your path becomes clear.
Even in my client’s example, there were phases of networking, then interviewing, that he needed to go through. He still needed to determine what kind of appraisal career he wanted to pursue and then determine how he would prepare for it. At each stage, his networking became more focused. As he narrowed in on his goal, his questions became more direct. Also, the closer he got to his ideal job, the more likely the people he was networking with were potential employers or associates and thus, the stakes became higher in those meetings.
To start networking, you don’t have to have it all figured out, but it’s very important to be prepared. When requesting a networking meeting, set the context of the meeting by telling the person specifically why you want to meet with them. People generally want to be helpful, but they need you to help them by framing the conversation in such a way that they understand what you are looking for. Be intentional and be open to serendipity.
So, who would you like to invite for a Pumpkin Spice Latte?