Ever have that feeling of being shocked, yet not at all surprised by a fact? I had that feeling the first time I was told that an estimated 80% of jobs are never listed. I’ll give that a moment to sink in – 80%. percent. of jobs. You still with me? Good. Those jobs are usually filled by a candidate who knew someone within the company. That probably doesn’t surprise you, but if you’re relatively new in your career, the numbers can be staggering and leave you a little bit queasy.
So now you realize networking is even more important than you might have previously thought. Recently I was a volunteer at the New York Women in Communications’ annual Student Career Conference, where industry vets share their experience and expertise with students and young professionals. While sitting in on some of the discussions and watching tons of networking take place, I started to think about what I’ve learned, what I wish I’d known earlier, and what I think everyone should know. Here’s some of the most important networking lessons you need to learn:
Network before you need to
The most important thing to keep in mind (which kept coming up at the conference) is the best time to network is before you need to. You don’t want to start looking for a job, only to realize you have little to no useful industry connections. And, as one panelist pointed out, you never want to start off a professional relationship asking for things. You need to establish and build those relationships before you leverage them.
Start with who you already know
The most powerful resource you already have at your disposal is your network of family, friends, and acquaintances. Here’s a tip from a career class I took: make a list of absolutely everyone you know, regardless of how close you are (or aren’t). Put them in groups like family, friends, neighbors, classmates, coworkers, former colleagues, acquaintances, friends of friends, etc. The list will inevitably be longer than you think. Make sure you have their updated contact information and connect with them on places like LinkedIn, Google+, or Facebook.
Get on LinkedIn, like, right now
If you’re not already on LinkedIn, I have a question for you: why not? It’s a free resource you can use to highlight your experience and show your professional growth. However its true potential is in the connections. Start connecting with people you know and you’ll have access to their connections, many of whom you may have met once or twice and sorta kinda know. Connect with them and more possibilities start opening up. Plus you can follow companies you admire, see who’s hiring, and join groups relevant to your industry. It’s not uncommon for HR recruiters to search LinkedIn for candidates who match the criteria for a position the company needs to fill (that’s how I was once contacted for an interview).
Like most social media, you only get out of LinkedIn what you put in. Use all the available tools to really flesh out your profile. Highlight volunteer work, give a sense of your interests and who you are, add links to your current and past projects. Connect with as many people as you can, but only if you have real ties with them – adding a bunch of random people to see who you can get is useless and more than a little obnoxious. Join groups and participate in the discussions. It’s a great way to show off your expertise while connecting with others. Include your profile link on your email signature, business cards, resume, etc.
Research industry networking groups (and join!)
Whether you’re in engineering, investment, academia, communications, or another field, there are professional organizations you can join which are relevant to your profession. Chances are there’s also female-oriented professional groups in your field (think Women in Technology or Women in Government), as well as minority subgroups (Cuban-American Bar Association anyone?).
Most groups probably charge a nominal annual fee, but it will pay for itself and then some. You’re way more likely to find out about professional opportunities and gain experience to round out your resume. Plus it’s a good way to meet people who share your interests. (Other groups to consider: alumni and honors fraternity/sorority networks. So while it may seem unbearably dull, go to that alumni mixer next month.)
Participate – join committees, volunteer, go to events
Once you’ve signed up for these groups, don’t pat yourself on the back and think you’re done. Go to sponsored events, join committees, and volunteer to help out. It’s a handy way to gain professional experience (especially if you’re stuck in the maddening I-can’t-get-hired-because-I-don’t-have-enough-experience-but-I-won’t-have-experience-until-someone-hires-me loop) and get an in with some influential people. And hey, doing some good is never a waste of time.
Carry business cards with you everywhere you go
Once. One time. ONE TIME I forgot my business cards when I switched purses for an event! And of course that’s when I ran into a couple of people who wanted my information for a potential position. Not only did it launch an ultimately unsuccessful search for a pen and paper, it made me look like an unprepared, not-at-all detail-oriented jackass. A former professor of mine even playfully scolded me that he taught me better (we’re former communication students, after all). The horror and shame of that unspeakable night will forever emblazon the lesson into my brain: always bring your business cards with you! You never know who you’re going to run into and the moment can very easily slip away from you.
Obviously you can go someplace like Staples and pick from their catalog of basic business cards or design one yourself and print it at home. But I really love VistaPrint because they have tons of attractive options which are customizable, you can print hundreds for very little money, and they offer plenty of great little add-ons.
Reevaluate your social media presence
Twitter is more than just a place to share pictures of what you ate today. It’s actually a good medium to show off your interests and personality while connecting with tastemakers and thought leaders in your field. We’ve already talked about LinkedIn, but are you on Google+? Do you like to pin interesting articles and infographics about your field on Pinterest? Is your Tumblr full of funny cat pictures or something more thoughtful?
We often put up this solid dividing line between our work life and our private life and social media almost always ends up on the “private” side. Start thinking about how you can utilize social media to showcase your creativity, talent, and experience. It gives employers a strong sense of your personality at a glance, which has become an increasingly important factor in the hiring process. Social media is especially useful if you’re in an industry like tech or media since you can use it to put together a portfolio or demonstrate what you can do for a potential employer. And obviously you should Google yourself and make sure everything that represents you online is appropriate and sends the message you want out into the world (translation: delete all the Facebook pictures of you drunk and passed out on the bathroom floor or at least make your profile private).
Go on informational interviews
If you’ve gotten this far and you’re ready to kick the networking up notch or two, start going on informational interviews. Informational interviews were not something I had even heard of until I got involved in networking groups. When you meet someone whose position you’re fascinated by or with a career path you’d like to emulate, ask them if they’d be willing to take the time to answer your questions about their job, how they got there, show you around their office, and explain a typical day (almost as if you were doing a piece on them). It may even lead to a future mentor/mentee relationship. Or maybe when that person is ready to hire, they’ll bring in the curious and ambitious go-getter who had the forethought to learn about the company and position.
The key to networking is really to just keep putting yourself out there, which I know is not the most natural thing in the world for a lot of people. I used to be painfully shy, and while I’ve gotten better in recent years, it can be mentally and emotionally exhausting in my time off to continually throw myself into new and strange situations. It may even feel as if you’re foisting yourself on people. But one piece of advice I received keeps popping back into my head: people generally liked to be asked for their expertise and like to feel as if they’re being helpful. Just ask. The worst someone can say is no (which, to this day, no one ever has – to me, at least). Each positive experience will leave you amped for the next one. So get out there!