As Jane (the 56-year-old woman from California navigating her way back to the workforce) realizes that she needs to network far out of her comfort zone, she asked me this question:
“I have connections at organizations where I would love to work—but they are either people I am not close to or feel uncomfortable approaching. Call it anxiety or an old-fashioned sense that I would be “using” them to get a job. How do I get over this? Just be pleasant and directly state what I want? That’s it, done?”
Yes, that’s pretty much it…as long as:
You establish even a very loose connection. Networking involves a shared connection—not just out-of-the-blue cold calls to strangers. Networking connections do not need to be people you know well: you can establish connections through relatives, fellow school or employer alumni groups, club members or a friend of a friend of a friend. Figure out how to give your connection a comfort level that in some way you are connected—it could be as simple as having children in the same soccer league or being members of the same Linkedin group.
You’re specific about the help you need. No one wants to hear “I’d just like to pick your brain about fundraising opportunities”. That’s a conversation that could wander aimlessly with no easy end. Busy people want to slot you in for a quick brain dump of specific information they have at hand. “I’m trying to get an idea of how most large fundraising departments are allocating responsibilities among functions, and I’d like to see how yours is structured in relation to peer organizations” is a targeted example. If you lay this out in advance, your connection can think about and summarize a worthwhile, bite-sized response. This very focused networking request would help you see, generally, where and how your skills and experience would most likely fit at your connection’s organization and many others. When you ask a dozen networking connections the same general question, you have some valuable anecdotal research.
You limit the amount of time your connection needs to invest. Networking meetings over coffee and lunch should really be reserved for people who know you well—and people who offer that valuable block of time. When you don’t know people well, it’s best to say “I’d like to schedule 15 minutes to talk to you about these two things…” This approach is more likely to get you on busy calendars because there’s a specific timeframe and agenda.
You practice networking quid pro quo. Networking is a two-way street, and you’re likely to build fruitful relationships when you offer, as well as request, help. It can be as simple as a polite “please let me know how I can help you as well”, but it’s better to offer something tangible and real. One great option is the “you should know” approach. Think of who you know that your new connection might like to know as well. If it’s difficult to offer a new business connection, key off something more personal that comes up in your networking conversation (or a tidbit of information you can glean from Linkedin in or a Google search). A book you’d recommend, an interesting course you’d recommend to further an interest, an introduction to mother who has navigated the college application process, an article on balancing work and family…anything that shows even in a small way that “I want to be of help to you, too”.
The important thing to remember is that networking among strangers and acquaintances is both socially acceptable and expected. When you do it right, you’re not being pushy, you’re not bothering anyone and you’re not wasting anyone’s time. There are more than 380 million members of Linkedin—and all those people join with the expectation that they will somehow connect with people they have never met. Beyond Linkedin you can tap into large networks of alumni who have shared your (and your children’s) educational and employment experiences, fellow members of professional/social clubs and religious affiliations, people who live in your town or have the same attorney. It’s all fair game in an interconnected world where networking is the way to get informed, get noticed and get ahead. —KAS
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Photo credit: Aleks Melnik/www.freedigitalphotos.net