When I was a child, my mother told me not to talk to strangers: I took her words to heart. To this day, I am a little bit fearful when it comes to starting up conversations with people I don’t know. My six-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has little problem approaching new people, striking up conversations and making friends with other children. So, how did she gain her awe-inspiring networking skills?
In order to make friends, according to a news article in the Boston Globe, “Children need to be able to carry out sophisticated social maneuvers, screening potential pals for certain positive qualities and making careful assessments about how much common ground they share.” Based on that, kids seem to know whether or not—and how—to initiate interactions. “It may be as simple as saying, ‘Hey, do you want to get together on the playground?’” says Duke University psychologist Steven Asher. “Kids don’t go out for coffee, but they go for bike rides, they go to each other’s houses, they talk on the phone.”
Those are the same skills adult professionals need to network with potential clients, employers and colleagues.
Reasons to Network
Erin Ewart of Erin Ewart Consulting explained in a recent career webinar that, along with developing your job story and your plan, networking should be one-third of your active job search strategy.
Networking’s importance in career change and advancement has also been researched. In 2016, Lou Adler (CEO of performance-based Hiring Learning Systems) and LinkedIn conducted a survey of former job seekers, asking how they landed their current job. According to the findings, “85 percent of critical jobs are filled via networking of some sort,” showing that having a strong network is essential. The trick as a job or information seeker is getting comfortable with the networking process.
“Networking is at the heart of many human activities: We are social animals and love to meet new, interesting people,” says Julia Schaletzky, Ph.D., Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s Henry Wheeler Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases and the 2018 NOW Conference speaker on networking skills. “If you have a project you’re passionate about, make sure people know about it. If you have a problem that you’re trying to solve, make sure people know about it. Few things get accomplished in isolation, and you might be surprised how good things can come out of talking to others about what you do.”
Schaletzky also suggests looking at networking in a different way. “A big part of networking is helping others; it lays the foundation for a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship,” she says. “And it is ideal to develop a strong network in times when you can give to others, so people are ready to help when you need it—for example, in case of a sudden layoff or life change.”
When there is an unexpected life change, we could all use some extra help, too. Did you know that approximately 80 percent of new jobs are never publicly listed, but instead are filled via networking and internal references? Eighty percent. That’s a lot of potential “next career moves” in a hidden job market. Let’s look at what we need to know to land one.
1. Network with contacts you already have.
Your friends and family make a great network. Schaletzky points out, “Even if you haven’t consciously networked outside of your workplace, you still have a large network of people to contact outside of work. Invite contacts that work in an area you’re interested in for coffee; talk about their work and what they like and dislike about it.”
However, depending on the company and field you are interested in, job boards can be the least effective method of getting a new job: “less than 5% of people find their jobs that way.” Part of the reason is that human resources departments tend to post a “one size fits all” description. Also, without a personal contact within some companies, your unique skills might not be recognized on paper.
Instead, Schaletzky suggests, “Use online tools such as LinkedIn, Meetup or online forums to get in touch with people in certain areas in a more deliberate way.”
2. Find common ground.
In order to expand your network, you need to find opportunities to talk to strangers. It doesn’t have to be at a business conference—any event with like-minded people will work. You can be waiting in line at your favorite restaurant, watching your children play at the playground, or attending a friend’s wedding, and still find an opportunity to introduce yourself to someone new or strengthen a weak connection.
Volunteering with an organization or for a cause close to your heart is also an excellent way to gain experience in speaking with people you don’t know or know well, but with whom you have something in common. Bonus: Volunteering in your intended field may also lead to eventual employment.
3. Work on your introduction.
This includes tweaking your initial handshake. “A great shake is the best way to establish a favorable first impression—and a weak or shy one isn’t going to leave anyone wanting to learn more,” says Anneke Jong of themuse.com.
As for what you can say after you shake hands, Schaletzky says, “Be prepared.” Introverts like me will benefit from practicing small talk well in advance and following Dr. Carol Fleming’s three-step ARE Method:
Anchor: Say something about your shared reality.
Reveal: Share something about yourself in relation to the shared reality.
Engage: Ask a question related to what you revealed.
“Small talk is something that can and should be practiced,” emphasizes Schaletzky. “For small talk, anything to engage the other person will work. The idea is to introduce yourself, ask some open-ended questions, have a conversation with a give-and-take, and learn something interesting about the other person.”
Tips for Practicing Small Talk:
- Find something in common
- Show genuine interest in the other person
- Know how to leave a conversation
- Give your contact info, gain a business card
Focus on introducing yourself to 3–5 people. This will help you avoid being overwhelmed or seemingly flitting from person to person without really getting to know anyone. Of course, if you realize that the person you are talking with cannot help you accomplish your networking goals at this time, kindly excuse yourself and move on.
4. Set goals.
Networking might be like helping, but it is also a whole lot like dating. Be sure to get their email or their digits. (You can even hand them your cell phone so you know the information entered is correct.)
Sound too forward? If your contact has a business card, take it and make notes of your meeting on the back soon after you part ways. Doing so will help you remember at which event you met and what you talked about or had in common.
In the days after the event, deepen that new relationship with follow-up conversations related to topics already discussed. In the first call or email, it’s fine to recap, but in the next contact learn more about them and what they do. As with any relationship, you need to stay in touch to maintain it and build trust.
If you haven’t gone out to events to meet new people, you can still build your network with “cold calls.”
Matt Youngquist, the president of Career Horizons, advises in an NPR article: “Individuals looking for work should make at least 100 new contacts a month by making phone calls, sending emails or even showing up at a company's door. It's the same type of work a sales representative often has to do—making cold calls and hustling to find new business.”
Schaletzky agrees, “If you’re friendly and have mastered the art of the cold call, you will see that most people are happy to talk to you about their experience.” What are her tips for cold calling in today’s business world?
The Art of the Cold Call
- Know to approach people you don’t know
- Get introduced, if possible
- Email is preferred
- Be courteous: be too formal rather than not formal enough
- Use their first name only if the other person uses yours first
- Flatter them (within reason)
- Be clear what you were hoping to get from the person, and be concise
- Give them a choice
- Make it as easy as possible on them
- Thank them for their time
5. Be results-oriented.
Ultimately, the goal of networking is to get a new job, learn about a new company or gain information about a different field. In order to meet your goal, you need to be intentional and results-oriented.
“If you want to get results, you need to know beforehand what result you’re looking for!” emphasizes Schaletzky. “While both are important, networking for no special reason versus networking with a clear, defined purpose are very different. When it is about meeting people and telling them about what you want to do, what you want to achieve, which problem you want to solve, you’ll get results. It is like a sales pitch: It shouldn’t dominate the conversation, but if you need a certain thing and you never tell the other person, of course you won’t get it.”
It All Works Together
You researched your future career. You reached out to those who know you and to strangers. You’ve established a common ground, and you put yourself out there—just like those kids on the playground. Your network helps you tell the story of your strengths as you plan out your next career move. Use it. Your next job may likely be the result of a simple conversation you never thought you could have.