The Life Saving Art of Networking
Hephzibah is a 3rd-year student at Earlham College. She has a love-hate relationship with the process of networking but believes that we should all have the tools to be successful at it.
I bet you’ve never heard the word networking described as an art or conferred with the title of life-saving. So let me break it down for you in this quick summary:
Most of us subscribe to the time tested model of the 4 -year higher education institution as a driver for economic advancement and life fulfillment. However, this same system is also responsible for reinforcing class inequality right from the gates of admission to the 4-year cost of education. Tie that in with the capitalistic society we exist in that has yielded so many social failures that make nonprofits and other social ventures a necessity and you may see that lives are always at stake. So yes, when we network our way into opportunities and funding that were never meant for us and form deep authentic connections in the process, we are actively saving lives: our lives, the lives of the generations ahead of us and the lives of those impacted by social ventures that are the result of efficient and intentional networking.
As an African woman attending a small liberal arts college while aiming to work in the management consulting industry, the topic of networking is very dear to me. This industry is notoriously selective, recruiting only from select schools and Ivys, and my only way in was through rigorous and intentional networking. Whether you’re trying to get that elusive job, or partner up with like-minded individuals to create social impact, this article is going to take you through the lessons learned from my experience networking my way into my current role and some other opportunities.
Networking is simply the process of creating and maintaining relationships in order to reach a certain goal or for personal development. I use the word “simple” because a lot of the skills that are required to maintain strong everyday relationships are required in networking as well. As you begin the process of building a network, here are some tips:
1. You already have a network: A lot of us tend to panic when we’re faced with our maybe 50 LinkedIn followers and the daunting task of creating connections especially when there’s a specific goal or timeline attached to it. The first thing to remember is that no matter where you are, you already have a network, you just have to activate it. If you’re in a typical college, you have peers who are in college with you and probably some college alumni in your target field and once you connect with them, you have access to the people they know as well, provided that they are interested in offering that access. If you’re in a noncollege setting, you may have family members who may know someone that could be beneficial to you. If you have access to Facebook and LinkedIn, then you also have access to the millions of Facebook and LinkedIn groups that cater to lots of different subject matter (be discerning with this one, don’t get scammed). Don’t just think of this as passively following people on social media/LinkedIn and liking their posts. Engage with people, reach out and start conversations, give people a chance to learn about you and maybe, want to assist you, and take the opportunity to learn about them and their career journeys.
2. Be Rigorous and Intentional: Before you start going for any conferences or cold calling people, you need to have a game plan and a mission. Whenever you have a clear idea of what your goal is (specific or broad goal), you need to construct a networking map for how to reach that goal and define the specific pathways you might take. If you’re going to attend conferences, list them on a spreadsheet, and define what kinds of value and people you might want to connect with at that conference. If you’re going to cold call or email people, put those down on a spreadsheet, and make sure you have a specific question or request from them. Chronicle your feedback and consistently implement, experiment and see what works for you. If you’re a person who is motivated by challenge, it might help to set timelines on your spreadsheet as well. Now listen up: just because you have a plan, does not mean that you ignore every other opportunity. Talk to some people in the room who aren’t exactly in the industry you’re aiming for. Great advice isn’t tied to one industry and people offer all kinds of value that you may not have foreseen, so don’t be blinded by your plans. The unexpected might actually be the very breakthrough you were hoping for.
3. Conferences: Once you’ve activated your already existing network, you might start to look for other networking opportunities that align with your goals. For the most part, this involves attending conferences, virtual insight series, or connecting with affinity organizations in the company of industry that you’re interested in. Conferences are either held by independent organizations or by the specific firm or organizations that you’re interested in. In both scenarios, this is an opportunity to come in contact with firm representatives, recruiters, and your peers in the same field as you. This is your chance to connect with people within your target organization and learn what the entry process is like, what they personally like about the organization, and what the day to day job looks like. This is also your chance to make an impression, so have your elevator pitch ready and come with genuine questions of interest. Conferences are also a great opportunity to connect with people in similar situations with similar goals. Forming relationships with these people gives you access to great career advice, the opportunity to learn together and share experience, and better ideas for how to refine and improve your networking plan. If you can’t physically attend conferences, be on the lookout for virtual opportunities to connect with people. I recently attended a virtual career fair that included a networking section where you are paired up with another participant for a 3-minute video call. So don’t despair if you can’t physically be there.
4. Quality over quantity: Sometimes, when we’re in the thick of it, we tend to focus on concrete things to signal our progress. Things such as how many LinkedIn followers we got in x amount of time or how many business cards we exchanged at a conference. While these could sometimes be useful indicators of progress, in order to have truly impactful networking experiences, it is better to focus on quality over quantity. Business cards and LinkedIn follows don’t make a difference unless people can remember you enough to want to follow up with you or help you out. At conferences, instead of trying to speak to everyone, try spending a good amount of time speaking with a couple of people. Don’t just tell them about yourself and your mission/goals, ask about them and their career journeys and really try to form a more authentic connection. When you follow up with this person after the conference, the likelihood that they will remember you and your specific goals is much higher than if you spoke to them only long enough to bag a business card. The content of your connections is much more than the quantity of your connections.
5. Be authentic: Don’t get too caught up trying to be what you think people want to see. Focus instead on using your actual story to demonstrate the qualities that employers are looking for. There is no shortage of “perfect” sounding stories at conferences or announcements of the “perfect” job on LinkedIn however, these are only one side of the coin. Not enough people talk about their struggles or their weaknesses in these spaces. A balanced account of yourself helps you connect better with people because it validates their struggles as well and it exemplifies your authenticity. Don’t aim to look good. Aim to look real and let your track record, past experiences and personal projects speak to your excellence.
6. Follow up: After conferences, career fairs or LinkedIn connections, it's extremely important to send follow-up emails or establish alternative communication. This helps you continue the conversation, deepen the relationship, or in some cases begin a mentorship process. Additionally, the relationships we form during the process of networking do not simply end once we’ve achieved our goal. These people have become integral aspects of our professional journey and it is important to maintain the connections. This could include semi-annual check-ins, emails to inform them of your progress or lunch when you’re in their city. Not only does this help maintain the relationships, but it also helps us to communicate our gratitude to them especially if they helped us out in game-changing ways. Relationships are meant to be mutually beneficial but so many of us are not in a place where we have much to offer. However, simply checking back in every once in a while goes a long way in acknowledging their role in our career journeys.
7. Asking for favors: Whether or not we like it, asking for favors is an implicit aspect of networking. While some people might be networking just to gain insight and diversify their connections, a majority of us actually have a concrete goal in mind, one that usually involves asking for favors from members of our growing network. It can range from anything involving resume help or advice on certain decisions to recommending you to recruiters or putting you in contact with decision-makers. Regardless of the nature of the request, most of us can agree that this is the part of networking that makes us most uncomfortable.
This discomfort with asking for favors is something that will most likely never get old, but there are a few things that we can do to streamline this process and make us more confident with our requests.
Who can we ask: First, it is important to gauge the nature of your connections with an individual before asking them for certain favors. The nature of the connection should be somewhat equivalent to the size of the favor. Additionally, if you can ascertain the nature of a person’s feelings towards you then you might be more confident when asking for a favor. When you combine these two factors together, it can form a somewhat dependable formula. For instance, if you have known this person for a solid amount of time, have had mostly positive interactions in the past and have verbally observed them express a desire to help you, then you can feel quite comfortable in asking them for a professional favor. You do not need to have both of these factors in abundance before you can ask for a favor. Sometimes, we may only meet a person once, directly or indirectly, before they assure us of their desire to help us, and other times, we may have worked with people for years and may still not have a good enough relationship that allows us to ask for favors. These aren’t hard and fast rules and a measure of intuition is always necessary to make a judgment call.
How can we ask: The manner in which we communicate our requests can greatly affect the response that we will receive. Depending on the medium we choose, our requests should be polite, specific, and straight to the point. People are busy and are sometimes dealing with multiple requests of the same nature. Being specific and straight to the point allows them to understand your situation and to decide immediately if they have the capabilities to help you. If sending your request via email, the commonly accepted standards for sending emails should also apply here. Your email should have a subject heading that indicates the nature of your request and the wording of the email body should be grammatically correct and respectful. Finally, if someone doesn’t respond to your email request, don’t take this personally because there are so many reasons why this could have happened. Wait for an appropriate period of time, (one week or two depending on the urgency) and remind them of the request in a reply to your original email. Remember that people have whole lives outside of you and do not owe you anything so do not bug them or send multiple emails with the same request in a short period of time.
Take calculated risks: Sometimes, we find ourselves in situations that require us to ask for favors immediately even when we may not necessarily have strong connections with the people who could help us. I believe that we should take the risk anyway and ask in the most organized and polite manner you can provide. I call this a risk because aside from not getting the positive response we expect, we could also harm a growing connection which might affect future connections with other people who may ask them for recommendations about you. So be smart and calculated with your risk-taking. Provide the person with all the information they would need to make an informed decision eg resume, past projects, etc. Utilize your other contacts or work affiliations as points of recommendation.
I wish you all the best of luck in achieving your career dreams.