Networking is like the flossing of job searches and career development: We all know how important it is, and most of us skip it anyway, with predictably negative outcomes. With 45% of jobs being found through networking, neglecting your informal business connections will have consequences in both the short- and long-term. So how do you tackle this intimidating practice with the added challenge of staying home?
It’s not as hard as you think. Networking itself gets a bad rap: “People get in their heads too much about networking,” said communications coach Dorie Clark to LinkedIn. “Networking is no different than making friends with people.”
Furthermore, the principles of effective engagement are basically the same online and in-person, whether you’re connecting with customers or running a meeting. You just need to master new platforms and be extra diligent in overcoming barriers to communication. Just as you’ve learned to maintain friendships from home with social media and Zoom game nights, you can also maintain business relationships virtually.
Asking for help requires vulnerability. In today’s competitive job market, admitting you are out of work or seeking new clients can seem like a weakness. But friends cannot help unless they know you need it, and hiding your availability could cost you opportunities.
Networking begins with those closest to you whom you can most depend on to provide support. Your close network consists of people you speak with regularly, so they will not be surprised to hear from you. Close contacts should also unhesitatingly recommend you for jobs. Since relationships with these people are already strong, they will likely want to help however they can.
An online presence is indispensable in today’s job market. It’s often the first thing that potential employers and colleagues see about you. Make sure that it presents a professional and appealing image.
LinkedIn is a great place to start since your profile is essentially your resume. If you are out of work, update your profile and post a status update explaining the change as you would in a job interview (i.e., “I left to pursue new opportunities,” or “As a result of the economic downturn/corporate restructuring, my department was eliminated.”).
If you are currently employed but still want to network, make sure your information is up-to-date. Status updates are a great way to let your network know about needs and accomplishments. Either could open the door to a conversation. You can also let recruiters know you are open to job opportunities.
But employers and clients look at more than just LinkedIn. Assume that potential supervisors and coworkers will check any public profiles—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Even non-public profiles could be seen by friends of friends, depending on your settings. Google yourself in a private browser or after clearing your cookies and search history, and see what comes up. Make sure that it is what you would want a business contact to see. If it’s not, remove anything inappropriate and add some positive content.
Online presence isn’t just about your profile—social networks have “network” right in the name. If you haven’t already, join groups for people in your industry and geographic area. These groups can be a great way to stay informed about developments in your industry and region. If you regularly contribute meaningfully to discussions, the groups can also lead to new connections. Just be careful not to immediately bombard the group for help and connection requests. Take time to build trust and rapport.
One way to network is to get others to pursue a connection with you rather than the other way around. A great way to attract connections is by writing about your industry on LinkedIn, Medium, or Facebook. By showcasing your expertise in your field, you will bring connections to you. You also may generate goodwill if your insight is helpful to others.
Reconnecting with connections is one of the most difficult parts of networking, especially if you need something urgently. (Note: The time to connect or reconnect with someone is before you need something from them.) Networking is supposed to be about genuine relationships, but what to do when you genuinely need help now?
Impatience will get you nowhere. Consider this anecdote from Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, the world’s largest hiring and recruiting consulting firm. An acquaintance approached Burnison and immediately asked for introductions to recruiters. The acquaintance had previously pleaded guilty to insider trading and had just spent a few months in prison. Burnison was fine with the prison part, but he hadn’t spoken to the man in more than a decade! He was declined.
If you’ve let your network connections lapse, you can’t dive back into them immediately. Initiate conversations by genuinely inquiring about the other person’s well-being and current work. Ask for an informal chat or informational interview by phone or video, not a job interview. The other person will likely figure out quickly that you are searching for a job, but that’s ok—let them know you have no expectations and just want to catch up.
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote an entire book about giving to others as the key to efficiency. You don’t need to go to such extremes, but it is worth thinking about how you can help others before asking if they can help you. Help can be provided en masse by offering on your networks to provide your professional services for free to those who are struggling or out of work. Or it could be more targeted—if you see an article or job opportunity that you know would be of particular interest to a friend, send it to them. Offer to make an introduction if you can.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again,” says Burnison, “if you want to be successful at networking, you must keep in mind that it really isn’t about you. It’s about building relationships—and relationships aren’t one-way streets.”
If you can’t have the traditional catch-up coffee or drinks that so often define networking, you can still have a phone call or Zoom meeting. When possible, opt for the latter. Seeing each other face-to-face adds a human dimension that will create better communication and a stronger connection.
If you can’t find virtual networking events, then create your own. Invite friends, colleagues, and new connections from your field and/or geographic area. Organizing an online networking event will accomplish several things: You’ll have an informal reason to reach out to both old and new connections; you will be helping others; and you will be promoting your expertise and leadership in your field.