Published On : August 18, 2009
The Riley Guide: Network, Interview, & Negotiate
One of the most common pieces of career advice is, "Network, network, network." But people who offer this advice aren't always clear about what they mean by it. Network with whom? How? With what goal in mind? The answers to these questions depend on where you are in your career and what you need in order to take your next steps – but networking does tend to fall into a few broad categories; and in each of these categories, it follows some specific rules. Read on to find out how to build up your professional network, how to nurture the network you already have, and how to turn that network into career opportunities for you.
In its most basic form, networking simply means staying on good terms with people who've helped you in your career, or who may be able to help you in the future. Thus, it's important to call to say thanks for an interview (regardless of whether you get the job or not), to thank someone for a referral or for sharing other information – or just for meeting to talk with you. Along similar lines, you can foster strong professional relationships by calling to offer a useful piece of information, or to check up on how a particular project or meeting went. Calls like these convey respect for the other person's time and energy, demonstrate that you're thinking about him or her, and also help keep yourself in his or her thoughts.
Other forms of networking are more goal-oriented – for example, the 30-second elevator pitch covered in this Riley Guide article is designed to introduce yourself and your work to influential people you bump into; say, in an elevator, in the hallway or in the cafeteria. You may also have opportunities to use a pitch like this at conferences and tradeshows, at speed-networking events, and at company lunches. In cases like these, the general idea is still the same – to give the other person reason to think about you – but the "ask" may be more specific then in a friendly conversation. There's no reason to be shy about pitching yourself like this – you can be sure your competitors are doing it all the time.
The bottom line is that any conversation can present an opportunity to network, whether that means pitching yourself or just sharing your story. As this article says, "One Friday afternoon after another unsuccessful interview, the accountant pulled into his local gas station on the way home. After the station owner struck up a conversation with the accountant and asked, 'how are things going,' instead of giving his standard reply of 'just fine,' the accountant answered honestly. He explained that he'd lost his job a few months before, and wasn't having any luck finding a new position close to home. The station owner asked what he did, and when the owner heard he was an accountant, he said: 'My sister was telling me last weekend what a hard time her company is having finding a new accountant, and she's just a few miles from here.' Needless to say, the accountant had a job interview a few days later, followed by an offer within a week, which he accepted." As this story demonstrates, if you don't share your skills, you'll never know what opportunities you might be missing.
At the same time, though, you'll get better results if you focus on quality above quantity. It's much more effective to foster genuine relationships with five people than to shake hands with a hundred. Don't freeze anyone out – but don't try to divide your time equally among everyone, either. As the famous "80/20 rule" says, 80 percent of your results will come from 20 percent of your activities – so keep an eye out for the 20 percent of your professional contacts who'll genuinely engage with you and your story. Get proactive about contacting those people, give those relationships time to grow, and be ready to jump when one of them offers a referral or an opening.
So where can you find people to network with? Aside from the obvious sources – your co-workers, your friends list and so on – your email contacts are probably full of people who'd be willing to talk with you and offer advice. Just fire off a short message along the following lines:
Dear Mr. Smith:
We met last year at the Western Advertising Show, where we chatted about your work on the BeverageCorp advertising campaign. I've really admired your work on that campaign – especially because my dream is to design advertising for beverage companies – and I'd like to ask you couple of questions about how you got to where you are today. Is it OK if I send some quick questions your way?
In addition to people you've recently met, you can also try reaching out to former employers and co-workers, to former teachers and classmates, to members of organizations you've worked with, to people in professional associations, and even to elected officials and minor celebrities you admire (you can often find contact info for these people on their websites, or on the websites of organizations they work for). You'll be surprised how many of these people respond well to an email or phone call asking for advice – especially if you remind them of themselves at a younger age, and if you convey an honest respect for the work they do. The worst they can do is ignore you or say "no" – and if they do agree to talk with you, you may gain access to insider insights you'd never have found anywhere else.
No matter how and where you network, though, don't stop once you've landed a good job. Networking isn't just something you do when you're chasing a particular outcome – it's a lifelong practice that leads to stronger professional relationships, better access to insider information, and increased access to the experiences you dream of. And what's more, networking isn't just about looking up the ladder – many psychologists and life coaches say the greatest fulfilment comes from teaching some people while learning from others; serving as a mentor and a mentee at the same time. So as your networking brings you success, pass it on. After all, you're where you are today because someone did the same for you.
Professional conferences, tradeshows and meetings can provide loads of opportunities to expand and foster your network – provided you come prepared and act strategically. Start by reviewing the list of attendees in advance, and doing a little background research on particular people you particularly want to meet. Even if you don't have access to a list of specific names, some research on companies and departments that interest you can still provide talking points when you introduce yourself. And of course, bring plenty of business cards and practice your 30-second pitch.
Once you're at the event, make a point of stepping out of your comfort zone and socializing with people you don't already know. Challenge your inner introvert and start conversations with total strangers. Introduce yourself, shake hands, look the person in the eyes, smile, and start with a question about why they came to the event, where they're from, or what kind of work they do. Don't worry about filling every silence in the conversation – a few seconds' pause is often all it takes to get the other person talking more.
You can also boost your social capital by introducing people to one another at conferences. If you meet someone who you think someone else ought to meet, arrange the introduction – even if all you do is pass along contact info. Better yet, invite people who ought to meet each other to have lunch or coffee with you, and start the conversation with a topic that interests both of them. This builds your reputation as a hub of professional connectivity, and may also inspire others to return the favor – potentially major returns for comparatively little effort on your part.
Throughout each conversation, be honest about yourself, your passions and your goals – sometimes just a single mention of a thing you love is all it takes to garner you the invitation or referral you've been looking for. While it's not a good idea to pester people with specific requests, there's no harm in telling them what you dream of doing. And as the conversation draws to a close – whether it seems to have gone well or not – hand over a business card as you shake hands and leave. You may discover later on that you made a much more positive impression than you thought.
After you get back from the event, send follow-up emails (or make phone calls) to any promising contacts. There doesn't have to be any specific reason for these messages – they're extremely common in the professional world, and are handy for keeping relationships intact over time. Just remind each person who you are, tell them it was nice meeting them, and reference a specific topic you discussed so they know you remember the conversation. Seeds you plant this way can sometimes grow into your most fruitful professional connections.
If you want to avoid coming across as unprofessional in your online communications, it pays to keep a few basic tips in mind. First off, make sure you send email from a professional address – ideally, one that includes the name of your company or institution; or at least one that isn't just a string of semi-random letters and numbers. If you don't have a professional email address, create a free one with Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail or another email service provider. Make sure the name that'll appear in the receiver's "From" field is your full name or that of your company (here are instructions on how to set that up in Gmail, in Hotmail and in Yahoo Mail). Make your subject line clear, short and to-the-point – above all, never just leave it blank.
Open your greeting with the word "Dear," the word "Mr." or "Ms." – or "Dr." if the person is a medical doctor or a Ph.D. – but never "Miss" or "Mrs." If you don't have a specific person's name, "Dear Sir or Madam" will work just fine – as will greetings like "Dear Human Resources Director" or "Dear Hiring Manager at XYZ Inc." – although, if you take this approach, it's important to be specific in the rest of your email, so it doesn't look like a form letter. Business communication typically uses a colon, rather than a comma, after the greeting – for example, "Dear Mr. Smith:" – although it's sometimes acceptable to use a comma (and perhaps even the person's first name) if you're already on familiar terms with him or her.
Keep your content like your subject line: Clear, short and to-the-point. This demonstrates respect for the recipient's time. In fact, the bodies of many business emails are less than three lines long, and they typically follow a formula:
- A brief explanation of the reason for the email – for example, "I'm applying for the internship position," or, "Adam Anderson told me you were the person to talk to about printouts for sales meetings."
- A short statement of need or intent – for example, "We're going to need another 50 copies of the presentation this week," or, "I'm very interested in contributing to the WholesaleCorp campaign."
- A specific question or request – for example, "Can you get those copies to me before 4:00 on Monday?" or, "Are you the person to whom I should send my portfolio?"
You may want to make your message a bit more personal by adding a small comment or compliment – for example, "I've really enjoyed working with your marketing department in the past" or "I've heard you did an excellent job with the printouts for last week's meeting" – and although this is usually fine, it's best to keep it to a minimum. Once you've closed out your main content, sign off with a "Sincerely," or a "Warm regards," and your full name – or your email signature, if you have one.
As far as formatting, please save the eyes of anyone who'll be reading your email by refraining from using bright colors, huge text or "fun" fonts – all this will do is make you look unprofessional. You can't go wrong with 12-point Arial or Times New Roman, in black. The only image that should ever be included in the body of a professional email is a small company logo (if you have one) at the bottom of your signature. If other images are necessary to the email's message, send them as attachments – never in the body of the email – and mention that you're attaching them. And lastly, don't forget to spell check your message before sending it. It's a few seconds' work that can save you mounds of embarrassment.
Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Plus, Ryze.com and BeKnown are all full of professionals and groups who'll provide great networking practice – and perhaps even job opportunities. Just run a search on each website for keywords related to your industry, then use each site's advanced search functions to target groups in your local area, or ones that include (or don't include) people you already know. Even if a group is marked "closed" or "private," you've got nothing to lose by submitting a request to join. As long as a group has a few hundred members or more, and many of them are posting actively, it's likely to be a handy resource for making connections and getting your questions answered.
BeKnown works a little differently from the other networks – it's actually an app on Facebook, and it allows you connect professionally with people in your friends list, as well as with people outside your Facebook network. Once you've created a BeKnown profile, you'll be able to browse job openings with the app, send professional communications that are only visible to others who use it, and gather shareable endorsements on your work skills. Like LinkedIn, BeKnown works as a give-and-take ecosystem – you're much more likely to receive endorsements if you give them out – so you'll want to start by endorsing people you know. Once you've assembled a good reputation on the app, you'll stand a better chance at getting responses from employers you contact through it.
When using any social-networking site for your job hunt – or just to build up your professional reputation – it's important to make your profile noticeable by including a current photo, adding links to any of your work that's viewable online, providing a detailed resume and list of your marketable skills, and including plenty of job-related keywords that'll make your profile show up in searches. Avoid sharing personal contact information, though – one of the main reasons these sites exist is to provide a safe, secure platform for communicating with strangers who may be able to benefit your career.
The 8 Keys to Networking — A short article with pointers on networking, including specific questions you can ask.
Making the Most of Professional Conferences — Tips on starting conversations, forging connections and maintaining relationships with people you meet at conferences.
Business Email Etiquette Basics — Points to consider when sending a business email. This whole website is full of articles with handy netiquette advice.
20 Common LinkedIn Mistakes Online Job Seekers Make — A list of common problems many people make in LinkedIn – and when networking on other social sites.