When one of our writing team had trouble finding work a number of years ago, she mentioned this to her friend, whose mother was visiting from another country. “Oh,” said the mother, a vivacious business person, “I guess you’ll have to join a few more clubs.” She made this statement before the phenomenon we know as “social media” even existed. What she was referring to is the common knowledge among career transition and recruitment specialists that job-seeking is a person-to-person business: so much so that an estimated 85 to 95 percent of jobs are found through networking (Myers, 2008b).

Giving, not taking

If the above facts horrify or intimidate you, you are not alone, but you needn’t feel worried. Career coaches are quick to point out that, contrary to what many believe when “their feet begin to meet the street” (Myers, 2008a), networking is not (mostly) about asking to take something from someone, but about being willing to engage in ongoing relationship with the idea of mutual giving and taking. As one put it, the networking vow goes: “Meet. Respect. Connect. Release attachment to results” (Rae, n.d.). The idea is that, when a networking conversation has finished, the person you have been speaking with should feel glad you contacted them and enriched somehow by your authenticity, your generosity, and possibly something else in the experience.

Here’s one more tough truth from the experts: if you don’t have a job, networking is your job; you should be doing it 85 percent of the time (as opposed to everything else fitting into the remaining 15 percent) (Myers, 2008a). It is that important! You build up your networking muscle (think: leverage) by helping others, no matter what is happening at a given time in your career. In the long run, it will always pay big dividends.

Let’s look first at why a contact might be willing to help you, identify a few general tips for networking success, and then get increasingly specific: looking at networking for job seekers (including a scripted approach), at events, and with respect to social media.

Why they’ll help you

Believe it or not, many people will be very happy to help you when you ask for advice or information in a networking way, and they may not feel that you are imposing on them. Here’s why:

  • You might be bringing perspective or information about your mutual industry/field; how better for the other person to get the “goss” than chatting with you: especially if you are leaving a company or industry because you are dissatisfied?
  • Observing how you go about networking toward a new job might give the other person tips, or embolden him or her to try something similar, for a proposed career change
  • People like to be in the role of “the expert”, so when you ask for advice it allows the person to feel validated and knowledgeable
  • Your networking companion may be happy to help because the person who told you about him or her is a dear friend
  • The person may have just recently gone through the career transition process and is thus highly empathetic to its challenges
  • Some people just like to help; it relieves an otherwise hum-drum routine and makes them happy! (Myers, 2008a)

The “how” of networking

General tips

A few simple tips can help de-mystify the process of networking for those who don’t believe they know how to do it (in truth, you are likely to be doing it at some level in your life already). These tips are not controversial; they are culled from what career change advisors say that their highly skilled networking clients do.

Figure out who is in your networks and make time for them. This one really covers several steps. First, you must go through your data bases of contacts and weed out all “dead” entries: people whom you know are no longer at the listed number/in the country/on the planet. Your job now includes keeping the database updated, partly by immediately recording information about new contacts when you meet them (i.e., what the person does, where you met him/her, who else was at the meeting, what the names of their partner and children are, how you might become a resource for the person, and so on). Even a hastily scribbled index card will do, especially if you can write the information down right away before those inevitable lapses of memory. Once you have an updated list of contacts, start contacting them; advanced networkers try to be involved in keeping up with people at least 20 to 40 minutes daily, on average (Robinson, 2008).

Let your genuine interest in people show through; find common interests with new contacts. If you both like tennis (or stamp-collecting or gardening), the common interest is a great stimulator to get future conversations going. When you are authentic, you are at your most attractive.

Send a short follow-up email expressing appreciation for having met a new person. At the same time, provide something of value (perhaps an article you mentioned in your conversation, the name of a third party whom your contact would like to meet, or something else the person will be happy to receive).

Take the initiative to keep up contact. This may not be good news if you think of yourself as an introvert, but by initiating things you can keep some control over the process, as opposed to feeling that some contacts are fading and you “can’t do anything about it”. Even brief emails, texts, or notes asking how the person is and how things are going (especially when you have no immediate agenda in mind) are appreciated and will do much to maintain the relationship. For some contacts/groups, you may wish to organise after-work drinks, lunch, or collective attendance at a speaking event of mutual interest. Of course, here you get to express your personality by initiating in a manner that suits you: that is, in writing, by phone, through organising social or charity events, or whatever.

Take on being a resource. Not just asking for information and advice, you are giving same when you become a resource for others. Especially when you help one contact connect with another, you are doubling the help you are offering your networks — and doubling, likewise, the number of people who will be glad to look out for you when you need to connect with a particular person or role.

Plant the seeds, then let them grow in their own time. Each contact, each networking conversation, is a seed; not all seeds bear fruit. So you must acknowledge the mathematics of networking: to have a lot of help you need to plant a lot of relationship seeds. Good farmers know, however, that after planting, they may water the seeds (as you will undertake to nourish your contacts, new and old), but they don’t dig them up every few days to see if they are growing. You just plant and then allow nature to go to work; the “results” will take some time.

Maintain high visibility. Again, this probably seems like bad news if you are quite shy or have visibility issues, but if you will want help at some stage, there is no point in hiding under a rock. You may not be throwing product (or your resume) into someone’s face, but you certainly can let them see samples of the sort of work you do (say, writings, artworks, or events organising). You can post on forums, volunteer for causes, and of course, let all your social media networks know when you have professional changes or have been very active professionally. Merely by raising your profile, you are creating opportunities (and perhaps motivation) to connect with you and to personally experience the value you bring. And, of course, you will always want to be prepared with the “elevator speech” (the answer to the question of what you do that takes no more than the time it takes the lift to go from one floor to the next) (adapted from Rae, n.d.; Myers, 2008a; Robinson, 2008).

And if you’re a job seeker…

All of the above general tips still apply if you are currently in the market for a job. However, there are a few extra recommendations in this case, and we have scripted some prompts to help you. Obviously, it is much easier to reach out to people you know during a career transition if you have been keeping up contact with them throughout your career; we are reminded of the old adage that, by the time you need your networks, it is too late to develop them. If that is your situation, promise yourself now that you will keep up contacts even after you get your dream job. In the meantime, while you are looking:

Broaden your contacts list by writing down any contacts you can think of. This means everyone from former classmates during your training, ex-colleagues and bosses from former companies, and team members (from clubs, associations, and sports) to people you know from the hobbies and leisure pursuits you are involved with. Don’t exclude people just because they are not working in your intended new field, or they seem not to have influence, power, or money; often it is not your contact, but your contact’s contact (or even one more contact down the line) who ultimately will be able to help you, so pre-judging is not allowed here! You might, however, be discerning about ringing contacts whom you dislike, or who don’t like you.

Prepare (in writing) a clear, concise message to say when you contact people. This is about where you have been professionally (for instance, that you have just received a Diploma of Human Resources and worked in retail before that), who you are (again, professionally), what you are seeking, and what value you can add (see the prompts below).

Do NOT say that you are asking for a job. Rather, you are seeking “advice” or contacts: again, look below for scripting aid. Also, explain your professional objective and involve the other person, asking for helpful contacts. And as above for general networking, the “thank-you” email is crucial (Career Partners International, 2013).

Networking Step One: Doing the networking groundwork

If you are like many people eyeing up the networking thing, it seems like a mountain of unaccustomed social “work”, and rather draining work at that. But if we break up this huge mass of networking activities into smaller units, the tasks don’t seem as difficult to get through. So this first exercise is about simply preparing to propel yourself out into the world of contacts. It is about getting your contacts data base ready. We say data base, not bases, because the idea is to create one unified data base of contacts and information which you can update regularly and to which you can refer repeatedly.

  • Gather together contacts data that you may be storing in different places (for example, in a hard copy diary, in electronic devices (which you can hopefully print out), or loose business cards and bits of paper with names and numbers on them.
  • Go through each of the collections systematically, deleting or throwing out those contact names and numbers which are no longer relevant. At this stage, you still have the same disparate collections you started with (e.g., hard copy lists, electronic lists, and loose items).
  • Decide which format will be the most useful for long-term storage of the data. Some people still like the old “Rolodex” system, or an alphabetised system of index cards. Many others these days prefer electronic storage, particularly because they can synchronise data between their various devices and the information is typed.
  • Commit the time (for some it is significant) to integrate the various contacts into whichever format you have chosen (so you may be typing in new contacts to your phone or computer data base, or alternatively, adding contacts’ names/numbers to a solely hard copy form). To keep the system going, you must also commit to regular updating sessions, wherein you convert, say, business card data to your computer list, or whatever format you have chosen. Yes, this takes a bit of time, but you will thank yourself when it comes time to send out your Christmas cards!
  • After weeding out defunct or irrelevant contacts, go in the other direction, completing the first step above: broadening your contacts list by writing down any contacts you can think of and adding them to your chosen system.

That’s plenty of work to start with! Reward yourself for staying with this task until getting a reasonable data base of contacts from which to launch your serious networking effort.

Structuring the networking approach

Ford Myers, president of Career Potential, a career-consulting firm, proposes the structure below for networking calls, with the concomitant assurance that networking is really not that scary, and that, in fact, some of the best networkers are not the professional salesperson type (perceived as aggressive and out for themselves), but those who are able to listen effectively and genuinely engage the giving side of the networking exchange. Myers states the case for networking unambiguously: “The quantity and quality of your networking time is directly related to the personal, professional, and financial satisfaction you’ll have in your next job” (Myers, 2008b). So, you have the contact’s number and details in front of you, phone in hand (or perhaps you are lucky enough to be face-to-face with the person). What do you say and do?

Build rapport. You can state, “I was referred by our mutual colleague/friend (give name), who suggested that…” (name a common area of interest to discuss). “I’m contacting you about a career matter, but let me assure you that I am not calling to ask you for a job, nor do I expect you to even know of any job openings. Let me start by telling you a bit about myself and my professional background.”

Give your positioning statement by stating where you’ve been. This is the brief statement we advised you above to write (you should learn to say it well so it flows confidently). It could sound like: “I am a youth worker with ten years’ experience in community organisations, and I have just completed the Youth Justice diploma. My strengths include excellent liaison and communication skills, the ability to help service users cut through bureaucratic red tape to get results, and strong rapport-building skills with adolescents. I am seeking a position with a focus on juvenile offending.”

Share “what happened” with an exit statement. If you are coming straight out of student mode — a having just completed a course of studies — state that, along with any work in the field you may have already been doing (such as volunteer work or any practicum or apprentice placements). If you are trying to leave a company or have just left one, make a concise statement as to why you have just left or want to. Your exit statement must be expressed in positive terms so that there is no suspicion that you did something “wrong” wherever you were/have been up until now.

Ask for help. Just ask, “Would you be willing to help me?”

Reassure the other person. At this stage, there is a serious possibility of anxiety on the part of your contact, so your job now is to take the pressure off, reiterating that you are not asking for work: “As I said, I am not asking you for a job, nor do I expect you to know of any appropriate positions. However, I am interested in any advice or guidance that you could offer, in addition to ay networking contacts you could provide. (Name of friend/colleague) said that you’d be a great person to talk to for this purpose. Would you be willing to review some of my credentials and give me candid feedback? I could send the materials right over.”

Again ask for help. Whatever it is that you are requesting, be specific. Contacts often wish to help, but are not always clear on what the person requesting help actually wants. Is it to expand your contacts network? Are you looking for advice or guidance? Or perhaps just feedback on your documents? When you get names of contacts, ask for their contacts. And a reminder: networking is at least as much about giving as taking, so be on the lookout for ways that you can help others.

Share your documents and set a time to get back to the person. Here you can say: “I’ll email you a one-page professional biography and list of my target organisations. Then I’d appreciate it if we could have a follow-up conversation. When would be better for you: Tuesday afternoon or Friday morning? I know your input will be really valuable and I appreciate your willingness to help.” If/when you have the follow-up conversation, the requirement is still in place to be on the lookout for the other half of the exchange: things you could do for the contact. If the contact is a “centre of influence”, try to arrange a face-to-face meeting (if the person is not too far geographically).

Myers reiterates that people generally want to help you; it makes them feel important, good about themselves, and useful as a connector of people — so no excuses of not networking because you are afraid you will impose on someone (Myers, 2008b)!

Networking an event

Whether it’s an industry event or conference in your new field or a social or professional development event organised by leaders in your field, get there! People cannot help you if they do not know you exist. Job fairs can put you in touch with hiring managers and recruiters in your new field and also offer insight into the hiring practices, typical experiences needed, and types of jobs that are open.

Any events sponsored by your peak body or professional organisation are pure gold. Not only may you access ongoing professional development and training opportunities through them, but also you may hear of unadvertised job openings. At the very least, at any event you will be meeting with highly trained and experienced professionals. Similarly, don’t forget about alumni organisations. In addition to prior alumni, you can access alumni career advisors and encounter multiple opportunities for gaining insight into the industry and connecting with new people (Howington, 2015; Zhang, 2016).

“Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” Tony Robbins

When you turn up for the event, how do you make it happen in terms of networking? Here are five practical tips:

  1. Be early. Skilful networkers arrive in plenty of time to sort out their business cards, acquaint themselves with the venue, go to the loo, and so forth. When people start arriving, the early arrivals are ready to focus on those they will be meeting.
  2. Have a plan. How will you use your time productively at this event: by checking out the attendees in the garden? Visiting the product and information stands? Or perhaps you will stand near the entrance and observe who comes in, quietly choosing some folk to engage with?
  3. Be prepared with your elevator pitch. As we said above, this is not about selling yourself, but it is an opportunity to articulate positively and concisely who you are, what you do, and why you’re at the event. The more specific you can be, the more helpful people can be. For example, if you are job-seeking, you might wish to name the particular sort of work, the role, and the type of organisation that you’re looking for.
  4. Don’t tell people everything all at once. Why risk boring or overwhelming your listeners? Better to divulge the important things and trust the process of life, knowing that you can continue to get to know the other person after the event (if you wish).
  5. Be positive. If your partner criticised you, your kids wouldn’t cooperate with the clean-up effort, and you just received your tenth rejection letter for jobs you are applying to, never mind. Consciously take your worries off (like a heavy cloak) and leave them at the door of the venue. They’ll be there for you to retrieve again on the way out. In the meantime, relax and enjoy making connections. Your job at the venue is to learn, to meet people, and to discover whatever you can — while you are having fun (Position Ignition, 2011).

Networking Step Two: Structuring and implementing your own approach

  • Review: Review the section on structuring your networking approach.
  • Prepare: Take a moment to imagine the format of your approach to a significant contact (e.g., phone, face-to-face at their office or a public place, or perhaps an event you both attend, etc.).
  • Formulate responses: Create your own set of structured responses. Perhaps the language you use is similar to what we suggested above, or it may vary somewhat. What you say should feel reasonably comfortable for you and make sense for your situation.
  • Practice: Practice saying your chosen lines until they flow well.
  • Pitch: When you’re ready, call the person, either to make your pitch for help over the phone or to request face-to-face time to do so (note: if you are planning to see certain contacts at an industry or other event, you may not be able to plan when or how you meet up. You may have to just be prepared to launch your approach when you have a contact in front of you).
  • Make notes: Make notes on how the encounter went (i.e., name of person, date, what you spoke about, what you each agreed to follow up with, etc.)

Using social media when making a career change

In the twenty-first century, we have the grand advantage of being able to use social media to reach many groups of people, who also — with their industry news and job offerings — can reach us. You would be unwise to ignore the massive boost to your job search that you can get from linking in with, well, LinkedIn or other media platforms, but the connections may not be a pure blessing if you are not careful with how you use them. LinkedIn offers seven tips for using its platform when changing careers (many of these are general and can be applied across multiple platforms, but kindly note that some refer to features specific to LinkedIn).

Become an expert on the career you want to pursue. This is an activity to be conducted as soon as you even consider changing to a new line of work. You’ll want to read as much as you can about the industry or type of role you want to call yours. Which companies are in the news? What are their hot new services or products? When are their conferences or industry meetings taking place? Not only are you more likely to discover organisations which might be hiring, but also you will make a stronger impression during your networking and then interviewing experiences. You can get online alerts to easily receive this sort of news. Specific to LinkedIn is the possibility of using LinkedIn Today, a tool to customise your news experience, bringing content from your network and the industries you wish to follow (Pollak, 2011). Similarly, Google has a tool allowing you to set up alerts when a story or news about your target organisations or field is in the news (Youshaei, 2014).

Optimise your profile for your new career. Not only on LinkedIn, but also on every social media platform where you have a professional presence (such as a Facebook professional profile page), an early task is to revise your profile so that it supports your new career goals. The most important piece of “real estate” on your profile is your headline, so maximise the use of this to promote your intended transition. If you are not currently employed, you could say, for example: “Experienced recruiter and graduate of HR Administration diploma seeking HR management position in not-for-profit sector”. If you must keep your job hunt secret because you are employed, you merely state the headline as, say, “Experienced recruiter and graduate of HR Administration program”. A strong summary statement follows, explaining what you are doing now and (possibly) the fact that you’re changing careers. This statement must be positive, as opposed to complaining that you were laid off because your industry is in the doldrums.

The other important component to appear is a section explaining your transferable skills — the strengths, such as sales, communication, negotiation, creativity, people management, technical skills, or general administrative skills — with an orientation toward skills that are important to the line of work you intend to take up. If you are not sure what those are, check out the profiles of people in your aspirational career area or have a look at job postings (for example, on LinkedIn or Seek). Finally at this step, be sure to ask an “insider” for feedback on your revised profile or any additional tips.

Join groups on social media platforms which are related to your intended new career area. You can build your knowledge, image, and network in your new field by joining groups related to it or your hoped-for job function. If you are doing this on LinkedIn and need to keep your career change secret, you can adjust your profile settings so that the group memberships will not appear; the default value is that they will. Remaining in one or two groups from your old field of work is not a problem, but the majority of your networking should now be taking place in the field you want to enter. LinkedIn’s Groups Directory feature can help you find which groups to join. You can also look up the profiles of people you admire in your intended new career area and find out what groups they belong to. You may only feel comfortable to observe group discussions at first, but after a while you can gain visibility and build industry relationships better by actually interacting in discussions.

Let your networks know (individually) about your career change plans. Particularly if you are currently employed and unable to announce your intended changes publicly, start contacting those you already know to explain your transition and ask for their support. And, no, generic “form letter” emails or text messages won’t do the trick. People don’t tend to respond much to these, so contact each person individually, being as specific as you can about what you want (and what type of support you are asking for). Whether it’s a coffee, a lunch together, or just a phone call, the one-on-one method will yield the best help. Of course, you will be alert for what you can do in return for the support, won’t you?

Talk to people who have worked in the field you want to join. Talking to a real person with firsthand experience of the profession you are trying to enter is pure gold as far as contacts go. Perhaps your existing contacts know someone in the field they could introduce you to? Advanced search functions on various social media (e.g., LinkedIn’s Advanced Search) may also help you find people in your intended new field with whom you have something in common (such as attending the same school, working for the same employer, or belonging to a shared group). You can tap them via a connection request to ask for a brief, informal discussion, during which you may ask for insider tips, must-read publications, and what realistic jobs are to start with. The same “ground rules” apply here as for general networking, though. That is, none of these people are fair game for requesting a job from, and each one must be personally thanked after they have given their time.

Sign up for job alerts. With LinkedIn and Seek, for example, you can sign up for job listing alerts according to job function, location, keyword, and other factors. This is worth doing early on in the transition in order to review available positions and see where your transferable skills will have the best fit. We will discuss resumes and cover letters in the next section. Suffice it to say here that the more you can show prospective employers how your strengths and experience fit their roles, the more likely you are to get an interview. The more you have researched available roles and reflected on your “fit” for them, the more likely you are to be able to write a persuasive cover letter.

Be prepared to make real-life changes. We mean here: changes in yourself. You may be a true genius at doing the research, rebranding yourself, and developing new networks, but ultimately you may discover that there is a gap between what you know or are qualified to do and what the new industry demands. So be it. Your networks may still be able to help you find a place to volunteer, become an intern, get enrolled for further study, or whatever is needed to break into your chosen new line of work (Pollak, 2011).

Networking Step Three: Getting organised on social media platforms

Review the above steps proposed by LinkedIn for maximising your presence on its network and others. You don’t have to do all of the steps at once, but to kick-start your official use of social media for networking, choose three to action this week (for example, you could choose to optimise your profile, join some groups in your new field of work, and sign up for job alerts). After these steps have been in place for several weeks, make notes on how things have gone. Which steps have yielded better results? Which steps have you enjoyed taking? What steps might you take next?

As we have noted repeatedly in this article, networking is key to accessing the people and positions that can move you in your chosen direction.

This article was adapted from Campus College’s “Career Edge Program.”


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