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Is Networking Dead?

Many newspapers, magazines, and books have declared that networking is dead!   They say that times have changed and:

  • No one wants to take his increasingly valuable time to talk with someone who probably can't offer him anything in return

  • So many people are asking for networking appointments the process has lost itís luster

  • Professionals who are working view their unemployed brethren with disdain because they unconsciously fear that unemployment might be contagious

 Add to this cultural mindset the attitudes of individual job seekers who:

  • Perceive networking to be a trivial social activity

  • Think the process is only useful to glib professionals

  • Feel they are supposed to rely exclusively on their friends for contacts

  • Can't fathom how a friendly conversation can lead to finding a job

and you have a process that "don't get no respect". 

Yet, in assuming this negative perspective, both societal nay-sayers and job search skeptics lose sight of an important key to human nature:  people like to associate with friends and colleagues whom they respect and trust.  When you consider the assumed ways employers find new recruits (want ads, executive search firms, college recruiting, and an occasional direct mail candidate), it's not hard to understand why these methods aren't nearly as effective as networking, which fills approximately 80-90 percent of openings.  Along with being a more people-friendly approach, networking is a lot cheaper and often much less time consuming than any other strategy for matching the best person to the job.  And it offers some intangible benefits to an employer that other techniques do not:

  • A savvy networking candidate makes sure her contacts know their expertise is extremely valuable in helping her make a critical life decision, and

  • She strokes their egos by reiterating how their unique understanding of a    company, industry, or career is especially useful in her search for the right niche.

How often do stroke-deprived professionals have the opportunity to give their opinions and know that someone is genuinely interested?   For many potential employers a networker's undivided attention is worth at least one-half hour of their time.

Unfortunately for employers and candidates alike, relatively few job seekers are aware of how to develop their network or take advantage of its positive effects on their job search, self-esteem and relationships.  To get honest feedback on what networking has done for them, how they went about it, and what has and hasn't worked, I asked two job search veterans for their opinions.  Larry Frantz, a Fortune 500 CFO, wanted to start his own investor relations business, and David Bell, an aerospace engineer who opted to move into hi-tech sales or marketing support, were both skeptical about  networking for all of the reasons mentioned above. But they were willing to give it a try.  Below is summation of their experience.

THE PROS

Both Frantz and Bell mentioned that the benefits of networking were much greater than they had anticipated.  Aside from uncovering "hidden" job and project openings, securing insider information on companies, industries, careers, and management philosophies, and obtaining names of more people to contact, they were pleasantly surprised to find this method of looking for a new career:

  • Gave them a much greater sense of control over their job search than answering ads, applying to search firms, or mounting a direct mail campaign
  • Buoyed their self esteem by proving they could network just as effectively as their extroverted competitors
  •  Forced them to clarify their career goals so they could explain them to others
  • Offered valuable practice in relating to professionals they didn't know
  • Helped them develop skills essential for successful interviews and client presentations
  • Restored their faith in human nature as they found their interviewees were enthusiastic about brainstorming with them, offering advice, and promoting their capabilities to potential employers and clients.

It seems that contrary to networking critics, Americans still enjoy helping each other, even if there is no barn to raise or levee to sandbag.

THE CONS

Even though Frantz and Bell had generally positive networking experiences, each endured some frustrating moments.  Frantz was particularly annoyed by the people who wouldn't take or return phone calls.  As a CFO he made it a point to return his calls within 24 hours.  As a job seeker he found himself cooling his heels for days waiting to communicate with individuals he thought would be interested in seeing him.  Some of them were even his "friends".

At first he took their lack of response personally.  He began to wonder if his approach was wrong, or he was no longer perceived to be worth their time.  But gradually, as he persisted through the weeks, he was able to make appointments with most of the people he wanted to see and achieve positive results from their meetings.  Eventually he concluded that business professionals have varied impressions of proper telephone etiquette, and an unanswered call is generally not a sign of disrespect.

Bell's greatest challenge was the roller coaster ride of emotions he suffered when he heard about a job opening, then couldn't get to the hiring manager, or was judged not-qualified when he did.  It took a while, but eventually he experienced an "aha".  Whenever he networked with technical people, he was inevitably found lacking in their specialized skills.  But, when he talked with sales and marketing support reps, they encouraged him to capitalize on his unique combination of technical and people skills.  Eventually he realized that in changing careers, his transferable skills (communicating effectively, building rapport, etc.) were more marketable than his engineering expertise.

NETWORKING TIPS

At my request, Bell and Frantz have distilled their knowledge of networking into seven key points they would like to share with you:

  • Always keep in mind that you are asking people for information, not a job. A lot of networking strategies go awry because job seekers call their friends and strangers to ask them about specific job opportunities. This approach puts people in an awkward position. Even if they are aware of an opening, if they don't know you, they will naturally hesitate to recommend you for it. Often, to get themselves off the hot seat they will transfer you to personnel, the kiss of death for many job seekers. When you make people uncomfortable on the phone, you destroy your opportunity to build rapport face-to-face, get valuable information, and find out about openings that may develop weeks or months after your initial call.

  • Start your networking with people you know, then expand your contacts to their acquaintances, and finally to strangers after the process. becomes second nature. Certainly it makes sense to practice on your friends, then move on to seeing the people they have suggested. Using a referral's name when you call someone you don't know can be very helpful in facilitating a new relationship.
    But you shouldn't neglect networking with strangers just because you have no automatic "in" with them. As David Bell points out, "Talk to everyone you can, because you never know who will have the most useful information or take the greatest interest in you. Aside from helping you find a job, it's a wonderful way to make new friends, especially if you have recently moved to the community." You can find people eager to help you at seminars and conventions, university departments that teach classes in your field, professional organizations, health clubs, volunteer activities, churches, alumni gatherings, etc.

  • When you call someone for a networking appointment, have in mind what you want to say to him, but don't obsess about it. Be prepared to give the name of your referral (if you have one), state why you are calling (for information not a job), and request an appointment to ask a short list of questions about your contact's area of expertise. Putting these thoughts together ahead of time can save you the embarrassment of groping for something to say in your initial contact.
    Unfortunately, while advance preparation can be a real comfort in moving into unknown territory, it can also become a great excuse for putting off an unpleasant task, like calling a stranger. If taken to the extreme, it can even sabotage your communication when a phone conversation doesn't proceed exactly as you have planned it. (Remember the awful feeling you had in English class when you memorized a poem, then went blank in the middle of reciting it.)
    As you make calls, you will learn from your successes and mistakes, and soon develop a "feel" for how your conversation should proceed. It shouldn't take long to achieve an easy balance of prepared items and spontaneous ones.

  • Recognize that you will have good days and bad ones, that people will not return your calls or schedule appointments according to your timetable, that you may resist calling important contacts because you fear rejection, and that a sense of humor and a little persistence are invaluable to making this process successful. Maintaining your objectivity when you are on a job search roller coaster is easier said than done, especially if you are trying to do it alone. A good support system of friends, fellow job seekers, a career counselor, enjoyable activities etc. can be really helpful in smoothing out the unrealistic highs and lows you are bound to experience.
    If you dread making networking calls, figure out a plan that will be excuse proof. Promise a friend you will make 10 contacts a week, and give her weekly reports on your progress. Dedicate time on your calendar for just for calls. Tell yourself you will telephone 12 people before you do any other activities. Then reward yourself for sticking to your plan.

  • Prepare a specific agenda for each appointment. Do some research on the company, industry, or career of your interviewee. Put together a list of questions, including some that deal specifically with his background. Ask him for advise on your job search and names of other professionals who would be beneficial to contact.
    Think about ways you might help him. Bring along a newspaper or magazine article to pique his interest. Brainstorm some solutions for his business problems. Suggest contacts that he might find useful.

  • Always follow up on your networking appointments. Aside from displaying good business manners, a thank you note puts your name in front of your contact again in a very positive way, tells her specifically what you enjoyed about your meeting, reiterates how your background resonates with hers, and gives you the opportunity to say what your plan to do next. It's an excellent vehicle for maintaining momentum and keeping the job search ball in your court.
    If your contact refers you to other people, make arrangements to see them, and tell her the results. She will feel gratified that her contacts were useful, and she will admire you for seizing available opportunities.


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