As we approach Halloween, I thought it would be appropriate to write about one of the scariest topics out there for many job seekers: networking.
I was surprised to realize I hadn’t written a post specifically about this topic, even though it’s one of the biggest things I focus on with my clients. And it’s especially relevant this time of year, when there’s so much hiring activity going on and the calendar is full of conferences and events.
There’s so much to say about networking, but today I want to focus on demystifying the process a bit and helping overcome some of the negative perceptions out there.
For many people, the idea of networking feels “icky”, transactional, or intimidating. And understandably so, if you think about it solely as a means to getting your next job.
I felt that way too when I first started doing it. It felt like something I “had” to do, but I wasn’t really sure why, or how to go about it. I think many of us feel that way and are hesitant to reach out and ask for something, especially from people we don’t know.
But if you reframe networking as expanding your professional circle and meeting new people who share your interests, it can start to feel different. It can become a habit and a way to build mutually helpful relationships, instead of feeling like a chore.
As one of my clients shares, “I know someone who is constantly networking, although he wouldn’t think of it that way – he’s just a friendly and curious guy. This translates into an impressive and active network.”
That’s the idea. Networking doesn’t have to be all about asking for favors, but there’s a key mindset shift that needs to happen for that to be true: we need to stop thinking of networking as “something I have to do to get a job” and start thinking of it as “something I want to do to create value for myself and others.”
As part of this, maybe we should stop calling this process “networking,” which does sound kind of cold and transactional. We could call it building relationships, expanding our professional circles, making new connections with other humans – whatever it takes to make it clear that this is something inherently valuable and enjoyable vs. something to dread. (Better name suggestions are welcome!)
As you think about that one, I want to share four things you can do to build valuable professional relationships, based on insights from my work and personal experiences and advice from my clients who are in the process of expanding their own networks.
Let go of your expectations
Even if you are actively job searching, try to let go of the urgency of finding your next role as you are meeting people, so that you can focus on building relationships for the long-term.
One of the reasons networking can feel so scary is that we put such big expectations on it – “if I just impress this person enough, they’ll give me a job!” When you let go of these expectations and focus on having great conversations and learning from others, it can alleviate some of this pressure.
As one client shares, “Over the years, I have learned that networking is not about getting a job. It’s about meeting interesting people. Focusing on that takes the pressure off.” This is also important because it’s impossible to predict what the outcome of a conversation will be.
Sometimes a meeting leads right away to an opportunity that’s a great fit. Sometimes there is not an immediate next step, but months or years later that person will think of you for something great (this has happened to me more than once!). You just don’t know how things will go, so enter into every conversation with an open and curious mind and seek to provide value in addition to gaining it.
Think about what you can offer
Following up on the point above, one of the most powerful ways to build trust and relationships is to create value for others. It’s like putting money in the bank – at some point you may ask for a favor, and consistently being a giver without expecting anything in return makes it far more likely that people will be willing to help you in your hour of need. (See Adam Grant’s fantastic book Give and Take for more about how having a giving mindset can drive success).
As one of my clients shares, “It can feel awkward, knowing that you’re contacting someone to ask for a favor. I’ve been focusing more on the fact that if I’ve contacted this person, it’s because I am genuinely interested in what they do, and that I have an opportunity to have a great conversation with an interesting person, regardless of outcome. Thinking about networking as an opportunity to offer some value to them also alleviates some of the inherent awkwardness!”
Another client makes a great point that asking “what can I do for you?” is always a good idea. “Recently I’ve been finding that many people are looking for opportunities, even if they’re currently happy,” she shares. “So, I can keep an eye out for opportunities for them as well.” Another great way to add value is to think of connections you can make for others; just make sure you follow the double opt in approach before making an introduction.
Be thoughtful and thorough with your follow up
This is one area where even well-intentioned people often drop the ball. The success of your networking is highly dependent on when and how you follow up. Expressing gratitude for someone’s time and advice after you meet with them goes a long way, and staying in touch ensures that they’ll continue to think of you as they hear of opportunities – and that you can continue to help them too!
Make it a habit to circle back with people you meet with to let them know how you followed their advice. If they introduced you to someone else, follow up after you meet with the contact they recommended to thank them again and let them know how it went. Email them when you see a resource or link that relates to their work, and congratulate them on successes. Regularly post interesting and relevant content on LinkedIn that people in your network will find valuable.
Having a system to track who you’ve met with and when to follow up is also key: a simple Excel sheet often works well, or free project management systems like Asana or Trello are great too if that’s more your thing. One of my clients shares, “I’ve created a tracker for my networking in Asana, so that I know who I met, when, and why. I then have reminders set to send thank yous, as well as to follow up later on. I just re-reached out to someone I did an informational interview with to share a blog post, which rekindled a dormant conversation, and now he is connecting me to another contact.”
Make relationship building part of your routine
One of the biggest regrets I often hear from my clients is that they wish they had done more networking before they were thinking about making a career transition. One client shares, “I did not understand how important it is to build a network along the way. It just wasn’t a mindset for me, and I’ve missed real opportunities throughout my career to build those connections.”
If this sounds like you, don’t worry – it’s never too late to start building your network! The key is to make it more of a habit and build it into your routine, even when you’re not job searching. Schedule time into your calendar to do outreach to new and existing contacts, and to have phone calls, lunches, and coffees.
Think of this time as an investment in your professional development and growth, just like attending a training or conference. One of the best ways to learn and grow as a professional is to consistently meet new people and reconnect with those you already know; they will expose you to new ideas that will help you in your current role and throughout your career.
To wrap up, I want to be clear that none of these ideas are revolutionary. They are ways to take a thoughtful and intentional approach to this process and to treat others as you would want to be treated. Starting with these practices, let’s reframe networking from something scary or burdensome into what it really should be: giving and receiving valuable gifts of time, information, and trust between professionals.
If there are other ways you’ve shifted your mindset around networking and made it part of your professional routine, I’d love to hear about them. And I’ll be waiting to hear what other names you come up with!
P.s. Want to work on building your own professional network in a fun and non-scary way? If you live in DC, New York, Boston or Seattle, check out my upcoming social impact networking events in each of those cities!