Professional networking is one of those things that sounds really awful if you’re at all introverted, socially awkward, or hate wearing suits. But today I am here to say that networking is for everyone, you just have to change the way you look at it.
Real talk: Knowing people is how you get jobs. Knowing the person in charge of hiring is infinitely more effective then submitting a blind resume. It seems horribly unfair, but it’s true. Moreover research indicates that “weak ties“- ie your dentist’s brother in law’s interior decorator- are the people that you can help you get a job.
That’s the good news, actually. Because it means EVERYONE YOU KNOW can potentially help you in your life and career, because they might know someone who knows someone who can help you.
In my twenties, I thought networking meant putting on a suit and making small talk and trading business cards with strangers over wine and canapes at “networking seminars.” I tried this once or twice, and it usually ended with me hyperventilating and sneaking out the bathroom window. Seriously, this kind of scenario is my personal hell.
If a networking scenario gives you a panic attack, it’s probably not going to help your career any.
The thing I’ve come to realize, is EVERYTHING is networking. Everyone you meet has the potential to open the door to something you need. You just need to be able to recognize it.
1. Everything is networking.
Last night, I was at a gay bar watching men in underwear gyrate on a pole. I also met an MPH who knows someone in Chicago doing research on transgender health (one of my primary areas of interest), and a person who has worked in HIV prevention and LGBT health for 15 years and is starting my program this year.
One of my best paying and most interesting freelance writer gigs was thanks to a guy who I went on one OKCupid date with five years ago. We didn’t click romantically, but he liked my writing and recruited me for a project when he needed knowledgable writers who could high quality work on a deadline.
My point is- you don’t have to go to a networking event in a suit to network.
2. Talk to everyone.
Don’t see people strictly in terms of what they can offer you professionally, relate to them as people. Think of it as meeting potential friends as much as potential professional contacts. People you take a genuine interest in are more likely to take a genuine interest in you. Just because someone isn’t in your field doesn’t mean they don’t know someone in your field. Social climbing is ugly, everyone has something to offer. Be gracious and sincerely kind to all you encounter.
3. Figure out what you’re looking for, while keeping an open mind.
People will be better able to help you if you have some cohesive idea of what you’re seeking. Nevertheless, stay open to opportunities you may not have otherwise considered.
4. Don’t burn bridges.
It’s tempting, especially when leaving a bad job, but the short term satisfaction is not worth the long term damage. Living well is the best revenge.
5. Use social networking.
The internet is priceless, especially if you have social anxiety issues. There is a lot you can do online. I honestly haven’t gotten much return on my LinkedIn profile (though I’d love to hear from people who have), but Facebook has worked wonders for me.
There are many people who deliberately keep their Facebook profile separate from their personal life, which makes sense in some regards, especially if you are a private person. However, there’s a lot to be said for a profile where you deliberately add potential professional contacts. I add people I meet on a daily basis to my Facebook as a sort of in-depth contact list.
As a public health student, sex educator, and blogger, I add people in my field in order to follow their careers and introduce them to my work. I am careful to keep high-drama people off my Facebook, but I do share personal details on my page, because it fosters a sense of connection with my contacts. It creates a sense of intimacy and familiarity so that when I meet a person for the first or second time, they already have some sense of who I am, which cuts down on the awkward small talk. And you have an easy way to reach a lot of people at once, whether that’s for promoting a blog post or letting the hivemind know you’re looking for a job.
YMMV here- it really depends on your field. I’m a sexual health educator, so posts related to sexuality (not my personal sex life obviously, but articles I post and such), are not taboo in my social circle. There are definitely people you won’t want to add to your Facebook, so use your best judgement.
6. What can you offer others?
Networking is a two-way street karmically. Just as you hope others will help you find what you need, you have a duty to help others when you can. Put people in touch with each other, pass along job openings to people who need them. Again, this fosters goodwill and will pay off in the long run.
An exception to this rule- you are allowed to be picky about informational interviewing. I am grateful to the people who let me pick their brains over the years, but informational interviewing can be very time consuming, and it’s ok to be selective about who you share your time, energy and professional knowledge with, and how much time and energy you share with them. If you approach a person for an informational interview and they say yes, offer to buy them lunch if in-person, or send them a thank you note with a Starbucks gift card if it’s over the phone.
What are your strategies for networking? Share them in the comments!