Networking is an essential tool for career advancement, there is no way around it. Whether you’re comfortable with the activity or not, and that goes for those who are looking for a job, and those who are employed and looking for professional growth. At its core, networking is a simple idea, which is - connecting to others, with purpose. The purpose can vary, including wanting to talk to someone in a company where you’d like to work, an industry about which you’d like to learn, a potential mentor in your workplace and beyond. If you’re confused about the protocols, this article will give you the etiquette to network more effectively, and with confidence.
For the wary ones who need reassurance, let’s review what networking isn’t. And I offer this as a seasoned career coach who has heard just about every reason why people don’t want to network. Here are the concerns that top the list:
I don’t want to beg
I don’t want to be pushy
I don’t want to seem needy
I don’t want to look desperate
And my all-time favorite for its cinematic detail (which is an exact quote from a coaching client who used to work on Marvel movies):
“I don’t want to be like a vampire sucking someone’s blood.”
These commonly-expressed sentiments are rooted in a wobbly premise that I’m about to reframe in two different ways. And the premise is that connecting with someone to ask for help (particularly during the vulnerability of a job search) is a negative thing and it makes you appear needy, pushy, desperate and like a beggar or even worse, a vampire.
Reframing And Focusing On Your Value
As a person who prides herself on a fierce sense of independence, I recognize the feeling of being hesitant to ask for help. But through the years, I’ve learned to move past my reticence, in part, because of what my clients also discover during their networking experiences.
Most people actually want to help. It gives them an opportunity to feel valued and needed. The second aspect of my reframing of the premise may require self-reflection, but it’s worth the effort. I’m asking you to do whatever deep digging it takes to appreciate your intrinsic value (even if that means doing battle with your inner critic) to know that with your unique combination of talent and experience, you have something to offer to the person with whom you’ll be connecting (who might easily be engaged in their own networking, even from the C-Suite).
Where to reach out to get a networking meeting
The prequel to reaching out for a networking meeting is assembling a list, which should be a combination of people you already know and people you’d like to know. I’m going to assume you’ve taken this first step and assembled your list.
From here, it’s helpful to prioritize the list, and I suggest starting with your allies, and by that I mean people in your circle of connections with whom you feel the most comfortable. You’ll get the quickest results with them, and the stakes aren’t so high.
The way to reach out depends on the nature of the relationship and which method you have access to, whether by phone, text, or email in the preferable tier, and LinkedIn and other social media platforms in the next tier. Social media platforms fall into the second tier because messages are often not checked as regularly, and a note can linger unseen. Text is the most familiar, and I’d reserve that for the closest contacts. Calling can provide a surprise factor, and is sometimes the best way to break through the clutter of electronic messages that we all receive. But make sure you’re fully prepared if they answer the phone and get straight to it.
If you’re looking to connect with a strictly professional contact, email is my preference. And, if you don’t have access to the first tier, LinkedIn is an accepted, professional way to connect too.
What to say when you connect
Unless you’re connecting with friends who already know everything about you professionally, these communications with networking in mind should consist of the same basic elements that need to be personalized, depending on the recipient and the situation. And, bottom line, keep it short:
1. Credentialing statement:
Lead with the strongest sentence or two about your background that makes the case for why they should pay attention to you. If you have any impressive quantitative results about your work, put them here.
2. Tap into the recipient’s self-interest:
This part needs to be the most personalized. If you’re in a job search and reaching out to someone at your target company, a recipient’s self-interest could be related to what value you might be bringing to their company. If you’re connecting because of career development goals, someone’s self-interest might be how much you admire their work and would be excited to learn more about what they do.
3. Clear ask at the end
It’s this end part of the outreach note that I usually have to tweak the most for my clients (other than editing for brevity), and that’s because the “asks” are often too hesitant or ambiguous. I’m not suggesting to be as direct as asking for a job in an initial message. The ask will usually be about getting a meeting, and I advise against putting that as a yes/no question, which could easily elicit a dismissive no. My preference is to close with a sentence like.… “I’d welcome the opportunity to have a brief conversation with you, and would like to know the best way to get on your calendar.”
What if I reach out and I don’t hear back
The number one rule to the “what if I don’t hear back” dilemma is to not assume the silence means anything related to you. I want this to sink in, so let me say this again. It’s probably not personal. I’m emphasizing this because of the tendency to descend into negative spirals of speculation after contacting someone for a networking meeting and not hearing back.
The main problem with such negative speculation is that it zaps momentum. If someone doesn’t respond to your initial outreach, wait a week and try again with the briefest of notes. Keep trying at least 2 or 3 more times. During my own networking, I’ve continued to reach out for a span of months and sometimes even a year, employing what I call “polite persistence.” If you’re wavering, this is the perfect time to tap back into your intrinsic self-worth. You’re not being needy, desperate, or a vampire. Remember your potential to bring something of value.
How to make the most of a networking meeting
The most important part of a networking meeting takes place before it happens, and that’s your preparation for it. Write out what you’d like to achieve during the meeting, being as clear as you can about your goals. And then, once the meeting begins, keep track of the time to make sure you’re able to say what you need to say, and ask the questions you want to ask. Listen for specific ways you can bring value to the person with whom you’re meeting. And always follow up after a networking meeting with an appreciative thank you note in writing.
Networking is like a muscle. It needs to be flexed regularly to build strength. The more you build networking into your routine, the easier it gets. Really. And just as staying in physical shape is one of the cornerstones to good health, networking is something to be a regular part of your career development strategy, for the short and the long term.
Outside and In
While most of this article was written with networking outside your current organization in mind, networking inside your existing organization is less talked about but is just as crucial for sourcing great ideas, finding inspiration, and exploring a potential move to another team or department.
So often, teams get siloed and we forget that we have a network within the company that can help us complete our tasks more effectively and help us take that next career step too.