Friday, June 4, 2010

What to Expect (and Not Expect) from Networking

by Susan Dennehy, Assistant Director of Graduate Services, Social Sciences

Many people feel awkward or uneasy about networking. Instead of thinking about networking as “making contacts” or meeting the “right” people, think of it as professional relationship building. When you enter a career path you are, essentially, joining a particular community. It behooves you to meet and connect with as many people within that community as possible. These are, after all, your potential future colleagues. If you’re interested in a particular organization/company or employment path, you should also be interested in meeting and getting to know the people who currently populate it.

It is often said that networking is an essential part of any job search (and it is). What is not always discussed, however, is how to set appropriate expectations for networking.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

Expect that it will take time to get used to networking. Be patient with yourself and with the process. Networking is a skill and, like all skills, it takes time to develop and hone. Set small, achievable goals at first, like talking with 2 to 3 people you don’t know at a reception or networking event. Then grow your goals incrementally over time. The more you approach people and talk with them, the easier it will get.

Expect that you will get better at it over time. Remember what they say about getting to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice! The more often that you make a point of talking with someone new about their line of work and professional experiences, the more naturally it will come to you. Again, this takes time, so be patient. (And be sure to keep an eye out for networking opportunities offered through CAPS, and take advantage of them! Hint: Any program with panelists is an opportunity to network.)

Expect that the people you meet will ask you a few things: What are you interested in doing? What is your background/training? What do you have to offer (in terms of skills, knowledge, and experience)? They may even ask for your business card. Be prepared. Work on your “elevator speech”—a brief introduction to your skills, interests and abilities—beforehand. Bring some business cards. If you have questions, come see a CAPS counselor!

Expect to ask questions yourself. In addition to your elevator speech, you should approach each networking situation with a set of questions like, how does someone get started in this field? What do you like about your occupation? What skills and qualities does a person need most to excel in this field or organization/company? Asking questions is a sign of respect. It shows that you’re interested in what the person has to say, and that you value their feedback. And as I mentioned above, since entering a career path is like joining a community, you should have a genuine interest in what people on that path have to say.

Expect to be organized. Keep notes on whom you have met (and where), what you have talked about, and how to contact that person in the future. Once you begin meeting and connecting with a variety of people, it can be difficult to keep everyone’s name and information straight in your head, so write it down. Review your notes before attending an event where you might meet that person again, and keep in touch with people when you have positive news to share (a job interview, an interesting and relevant article you’ve come across, etc.).

And now for what not to expect in networking…

Don’t expect that networking will always lead to immediate opportunities. Just as you have to be patient when building up your confidence and skills, take the long view here as well. It may be a few months, or longer, before someone you have met and have had great conversations with contacts you about a job lead. Don’t despair, and definitely do not give up. Remember that you are building relationships. If you do this right, they will last a long time—and when something eventually does come up, you may be the person they call on.

Don’t expect your degree, background, or even your experience to speak for you. You have to do the work of identifying what you bring to the table that is beneficial to employers. This means you have to identify the skills and experiences that are most relevant to the job you’d like, and make the case that you have what it takes to excel in that line of work. Consider all of these things as you are composing your elevator speech.

Don’t expect that someone has nothing to offer if they don’t match perfectly what you’re looking for. Think about the six degrees of separation—the idea that each person is six degrees away from everyone else. If you want to break into art, or sports, or financial services, or whatever, the person you just met may know someone (a spouse, a friend, a former co-worker) who works in that field. Don’t dismiss or ignore someone just because they are currently working in a field that is not your own target field. Instead, ask if they know anyone who might be good for you to talk to.

Don’t assume that all networking takes place “out there”. You can also network with your friends, family, and friends of your friends and family. You never know where you might find someone who works in an industry or organization that interests you (remember those six degrees again!), so keep an open mind and begin with the people you already know.

As a final note, LinkedIn is a great way to see who is connected to the people you know. Anyone who is connected to you in the first, second or third degree will appear with a 1, 2, or 3 next to their name in a LinkedIn search. This is a great way to see the extent of your own network.

Remember, CAPS is here to help you! If you would like help finding networking events, identifying your skills, composing your elevator speech, or with any other aspect of the job search, make an appointment to see a CAPS counselor by calling (773) 702-7040.