You’ve probably seen telephone commercials about being in an organization’s “network.” In building your own personal network, however, you don’t need to limit yourself to a particular brand or plan. When I was a teenager my father used to always tell me, “It’s not necessarily what you know, but who you know.” Of course, as a teenager I didn’t take his statement very seriously, thinking that it was typical “parent talk”. In my professional life, however, I have witnessed the absolute truth of that adage in many instances, especially when it comes to searching for a job.
The meaning of the word “network” has evolved over the years. Originally “network” was used primarily as a noun and it meant an informal system in which persons having common interests assist each other. Nowadays the word is also used as a verb meaning to make connections or build alliances among people of a like kind. You should also think of networking as a process of utilizing sources and resources.
Networking is not about using people; it can be mutual and it’s about building relationships. In the job search process networking is a powerful tool. If used properly it can be the most effective job search strategy. Despite the use of technology and the on-line application process most jobs (80%) are still filled through networking. Some positions may not even be posted if a referral has already been made from the inside.
So what’s the first step in the process? Before you begin reaching out to others, do some introspection and think about what you desire to do job-wise. Think about how you would like someone to help you. Do you want them to hand out your resume or would you benefit from doing an informational interview with them? In either scenario you must be prepared to do business. Your resume and cover letter must be updated, should look good, and be error-free. If you want to conduct an informational interview, remember that it should be brief – no longer than twenty minutes – and the object is to gather information only. Don’t ask for a job in an informational interview. Let that be your follow-up tactic.
Have your script ready. If you are networking via telephone, have your questions prepared ahead of time. Be brief and to the point. Consider the time of your call. If you live in the Eastern Time zone and you call California at 8:00 a.m., it’s only 5:00 a.m. there. Always mention if a third party has referred you to someone because that can make them more willing to speak with you. If you leave a message for a return call, give your phone number and also a time when you will be available for contact. By the way, what kind of message will someone hear when they call you? Does it sound professional? A 50-something hiring manager might not be too thrilled to listen to 2Chainz before they can leave you a message.
Consider having business cards printed. Since this is a business tool which represents you, it should be clean and simple with your name, address, phone, email, and school name. Purchase a business card case vs. pulling a card from a stack tied with a rubber band. Don’t present your card upon immediately meeting someone. Wait until you’ve spoken with them and exchanged some information.
Who is in your network? Everybody! Let your friends, relatives, neighbors, gym buddies and church members know you are job hunting. Don’t screen anybody out based on the level of their job. Your barber or hairdresser may also do a CEO’s hair. Everything we do in life is relationship driven, and business is based on relationships.
When attending a networking event, remember that you are there to greet, not to eat. Act like a host, not a guest; introduce yourself first. Set a goal for the number of people you want to meet and don’t be shy about approaching people. Dress appropriately, and wear your nametag on your right shoulder because when you extend your hand (giving a firm handshake) the other person’s eye will go to your name badge.
Career fairs present excellent networking opportunities, with one caution. You should not approach an employer and ask them what their company does. Learn how to “work” a career fair. Prior to the event, research the organizations that interest you so that you can ask specific questions. Have your 30-second “commercial” ready when you introduce yourself. Collect business cards so you can send a follow-up thank-you note.
Social media is an obvious method of networking. This too has its caveats. Be careful with your on-line image that’s on Facebook. LinkedIn.com is a website where you can create a professional profile. Keep your on-line profile updated as necessary.
One of the most important steps in the process of networking is follow-up. If you have secured a position based on someone’s referral, let them know. Inform your entire network that your status has changed and you are now happily employed. It is also very important to say thank you. Whenever someone helps you at any stage of the networking process, don’t forget to thank them!
There really shouldn’t be any final step in networking. Networking should be a life-long process. You should be willing to give as well as receive. Keep in touch with your network. Send them a Christmas card or a congratulatory note if they receive a promotion, or an article you think they might enjoy reading. Attend professional meetings of groups that interest you. If you attend a conference, don’t just go to the lectures; attend the social events as well. If you already have a job, don’t just stay at your desk all day. Go to the lunchroom and eat with someone you don’t know. Company social events (picnic, ball game, etc.) are critical not only for networking, but for survival, as much business can be conducted in a social setting.
However you choose to network, remember that it is a reciprocal and on-going process. As a college student you can begin to build your professional network right now. Some of the contacts you make may last for many years, and then you too will see the power of networking.
Carolyn Thomas has been the director of career services at Xavier
University since 1983.