April 15, 2008
Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By Susan Balcom Walton
The following article appears in the April issue of PR Tactics.
I often find myself talking with students and job-seekers about how they’ll land that first big job. In these conversations, networking comes up a lot. Everyone has heard of it; everyone understands it’s essential. But often people either don’t understand it or are afraid they’ll do it the wrong way.
So the questions become: How can I establish relationships without seeming fawning and self-serving? How can I leverage my network with confidence and initiative, but not with desperation? How do I network without brownnosing?
Smart questions. The instinct to avoid brownnosing shows a certain self-awareness that’s important when networking. That said, networking is essential so we must move past our sensitivity and learn to do it well. As Jim Masuga, vice president, Heyman Associates (an executive search consultancy) notes: “For PR people, networking has to be second nature, because it has such tremendous business and personal value. Communications and networking are nearly synonymous.”
Here are some tips on how to network:
Understand what networking can and can’t do
Contrary to what some believe, networking cannot get you a job outright. Fair hiring laws and practices guide employers, and the notion that you get hired because of who you know is oversimplified. No matter who you know, you will still be judged on the quality of your preparation, your competitiveness with other candidates and how effectively you present yourself.
What networking can do is guide you to opportunities and put you and specific companies on each other’s radar screen. Networking is similar to those treasure hunts we went on as kids. We’d find a clue (a note hanging from a tree or hidden in a flowerpot) telling us where to look for another clue. We’d keep following clues until we found the reward at the end. Networking is the same way. It may not lead you straight to a job, but it leads you to one organization or contact who may refer you to another organization or contact, and so on.
Develop your network in times of plenty
Often, job seekers view networking as a silver bullet to use only in an employment crisis. But, stresses Masuga, “Networking is something you should have done months, if not years, ago — not when your job situation is falling apart. Many people think that networking is building new contacts. However, it’s really about using your existing connections. Those people can help you get the ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ down to two or three.”
He adds, “Don’t go into networking with the idea that you’re doing this just for today. As my good friend and colleague Bill Heyman [president and CEO, Heyman Associates] says, ‘Networking is a muscle that continually needs to be exercised.’” By keeping in touch with people regularly, you won’t seem to be brownnosing when you really need their help.
How do I maintain my network?
You don’t need to go to every social event or keep a monthly correspondence. But do make sure you track where people are and what they are doing. One strategy is to touch base with people in your network at regular times of the year, such as holidays. Masuga notes that the frequency of your contact should be determined by two factors:
I’ve been asked the question: “If I met someone at a party five years ago, has it been too long for me to get in touch with them?” Heyman offers a frank answer: “If you’ve waited five years to contact someone in your network, shame on you.”
Help people in your network
Offering to help others can also dispel the impression that you’re networking only to advance your own cause. Follow the trends and news. Send people information that might interest them.
If people in your network contact you, answer their e-mails and calls. Being responsive is an important networking strategy, Masuga says. He recalls communications professionals who never returned his calls requesting recommendations about searches. But when their job security was threatened, they became constant callers.
Don’t be afraid to ask people in your network to help you. Be honest and sincere. Just ask — clearly, courteously and with respect for the person’s time. Tell your story briefly and directly, like pitching a reporter.
When you do have an opportunity to network with an important contact, don’t let your pride stop you from admitting you may need another job. If you need advice, contacts or recommendations, say so. Again, if you have kept in touch, this won’t seem self-serving.
When it’s time to network, do it well
Be sincerely interested in the people with whom you’re networking. Don’t make the conversation all about you. Reciprocate attention and interest even when it isn’t going to help you get a job.
When networking at a social event, be authentic and well mannered. Know something about the attendees and some general topics of interest. Masuga recommends passing along a business card at that point, rather than a résumé. Afterward, follow up with your contacts if appropriate, but don’t ask for anything. Again, remember: If the relationship is genuine, sincere and reciprocal, you won’t always be asking for favors.
If you promise to do something for someone, do it. Follow up and follow through. Personally thank everyone who helps you — in writing (not the electronic kind). Let your contacts know the outcome of their help. If you get a job they recommended, you should be the first to tell them.
The bottom line on networking: Be truly interested in your contacts and the information or opportunity they present, and show that you value their networking investment in you by being your best before, during and after. To me, that makes all the difference in networking. And to job seekers, it could make all the difference in finding that ideal opportunity.
Susan Balcom Walton is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. She previously held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies. E-mail: email@example.com.
Broaden your skill set with access to an extensive library of live and on-demand professional development webinars — one of PRSA's premier member benefits.