What Is Networking and How Does It Help You Find a Job?

Miriam Salpeter

Networking. For some, it’s a dirty word. Does it conjure up images of people standing around a room, balancing drinks in one hand and plates of overcooked, fried appetizers garnished with wilted vegetables in the other? You may wonder, “Is it really possible to harmoniously manage the plate and glass, simultaneously shake hands with strangers, and sport a warm, welcoming smile featuring eye contact that is neither overbearing nor disinterested?”

Unless you’re exceptionally skilled or have training in the restaurant service industry, this may actually be impossible, but don’t despair! Successful networking does not require a physical balancing act. However, it does help to understand networking’s important role in job searching. With the right expectations and a little know-how, professional networking is a lot easier (and maybe even more fun) than you may imagine. Even if you haven’t been able to leverage this challenging job search tool in the past you can still overcome obstacles and use networking to accomplish your professional goals in the future. Approach it with an open mind and you’ll be ready for a fresh start!

Why Network?

You’re busy and have a lot of things vying for your time and attention. Why should “networking” be near the top of your list? CareerXRoads, an international consulting practice that works with corporations to identify recruiting solutions, surveys employers annually regarding their hiring practices. According to their research, referrals (when a current employee suggests a candidate for consideration) are still the top sources of new hires. Persuasively, the CareerXRoads 2014 Source of Hire Report (http://www.careerxroads.com/news/2014_SourceOfHire.pdf ) notes, “A job seeker who is referred is conservatively three to four times more likely to be hired (some studies found that a job seeker who is referred is 14 times more likely to be hired) than someone who applies for a position without a referral.”

Those are compelling statistics. When you consider how much better your chances of landing an opportunity become when a current employee forwards your resume compared to applying on your own, it is clear why it’s important to spend time making connections with people who have the potential to send along your resume for consideration.

What Is Networking—and What Is It Not?

“Professional networking” is easiest to define by first explaining what it isn’t. For example, telling everyone you know you’re looking for a job isn’t networking. Asking people for names of those employed in places where you want to work isn’t networking, nor is approaching strangers to ask for jobs.

The most successful people view networking as an opportunity to connect with others to share useful information and resources. That’s right: networking isn’t about asking for assistance or collecting names. In the most perfect form, it’s about building relationships and helping others. As a professional with skills and professional expertise, when you network, you should identify contacts to build mutually beneficial relationships and follow up with them to nurture the potential for continued engagement and interaction.

If you don’t like to ask for help and therefore avoid networking, this is great news. Networking isn’t about asking for help, it’s about people helping each other. Identify what value you add to a potential or existing relationship. Employers and others gravitate to people who offer ideas. Know the answer to questions such as, “Why are you an asset?” and “What do you offer?” Be generous with your resources, knowledge, and skills, and you’ll be prepared to create two-way networking relationships that can make a big difference in your career.

Networking Myths

Are you convinced networking can help your career, but still have questions about how to do it well? You’ve come to the right place! To be sure you have a good handle on the topic, let’s address some prominent networking myths.

Networking only happens at professional events. If you think you can only successfully meet people who will influence your career at events with “networking” in their title, think again. Luckily for those who believe they “hate” networking, you can meet new people and begin to foster relationships any place there are living, breathing humans, either in person or online.

You can only network with people once you have a strong relationship with them. Networking is about relationships, and you may be most comfortable exchanging information and ideas with people once you’ve established a strong connection. However, research suggests weak ties (people you know casually, or those you just met) are most likely to be your best networking contacts. This is because people in your circle, or sphere of influence, probably have contacts and access to information similar to yours. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone you met at your friend’s Thanksgiving dinner or that talkative person you see at the tennis courts. These people may be the best networking contacts for you.

Introverts can’t network. If you are an introvert, you may not enjoy social situations where a lot of formal networking typically happens. You don’t need to love working a room or begin every day hoping you’ll find someone who wants to hear your life story to successfully network. If you’re shy or introverted, you can take advantage of the innate skills you may have to excel at networking. For example, you could be a great listener, even if you aren’t interested in commanding an audience. People love listeners, and often want to connect with and get to know people who don’t try to do all the talking.

Choose networking venues well suited to your skills and interests. For example, if you prefer small-groups, avoid large conferences and networking events likely to overwhelm you. If you love writing, but not talking, turn to online social networks, where you’ll have the opportunity to connect with like-minded colleagues without leaving your home or office.

You must create a two-minute “elevator pitch.” When is the last time you said hello to someone for the first time and paid attention to their reply as they launched into a prepared pitch? No one has the attention span for a boring, two-minute diatribe about you. Instead, learn to introduce yourself in 30 words or less and, more importantly, to target your introduction based on the people you meet.

If the person is interested, he or she will get back with you. Wrong! Most people, like you, are busy. The best networkers don’t ever leave it up to the other person to get in touch. Perhaps you exchanged business cards, or even connected on LinkedIn. However, that doesn’t mean your job is done. If you want to continue the professional relationship, it’s your job to reconnect and follow up.

The best way to start off a networking conversation is by letting the person know you are looking for a job. Wrong! If you’ve been attending networking events, extending your hand and saying, “Hi, I’m _______, and I’m looking for a new opportunity in _______,” stop now. Do not parade around events with a virtual “J” for job seeker on your forehead. Instead, focus on what you have to offer everyone you meet. Inspire them to want to know more about you instead of telling them what you hope to get from them.

The best time to network is after you see a job posting. False. It is best to network your way into an organization before a position is posted. Once a job is on the line, your networking may look more like applying for a position, and people may hesitate to provide the type of transparent information you need when you’re investigating an organization and trying to learn everything you can about the company. Do your best to connect with people in organizations where you’d like to work before they post positions, and you’ll be more likely to access information you want more easily.

You should only network when you’re looking for a job. Unfortunately, most people believe networking is an item for their job search “to do” list. However, growing the network of people who know about you and your expertise is something you should include in your plans on a regular basis.

Network for Success

Whether or not you relish the idea of working a room or glad-handing with people you don’t know to enhance your professional prospects, it is possible to improve your networking outcomes via a little preparation. Don’t leave it up to luck. Consider adding these items to your mental networking checklist, and you won’t regret it.

Sleuth Out Attendees

Whether you’re attending a friend’s Super Bowl party or an event hosted by your professional organization, it’s usually pretty easy to discover who plans to attend. Between electronic invitations that post guest lists and RSVPs on social media sites, you often have a head’s up before you walk in the door. Look through the list with a critical eye. Where do the people work and what do they do? Who has interesting backgrounds? Does anyone share your alma mater? Visit LinkedIn profiles to discover whom you’d like to meet and learn a bit about them. Make notes, and you’ll be well prepared to start great conversations.

Look Beyond the Obvious

During your research, don’t underestimate the networking potential of anyone you meet, and don't assume the only people who can help you professionally are those who are in your field or who have high-powered, executive careers. The best networking contacts are often people who spend their professional lives meeting a lot of different people in many professions. For example, bartenders, waitstaff people, receptionists, or hairdressers probably know a lot of people who might be good contacts for you. Don’t limit your networking preparation to new contacts in your industry.

Understand What You Offer

If you accept the point of networking is to provide resources and information to people you meet, and for them to do the same for you, it’s important to have a strong handle on what you offer. Identify what you can provide by way of introductions, resources, or information to the people you will meet. It will be easier for you to engage in networking relationships if you are at-the-ready with how you can help.

Never Ask for a Job

Even if people tell you to let everyone know you’re looking for a job, you want people to view you as a competent professional, not as a job seeker. Ask for contacts and information, not for a job. Otherwise, if people do not know about opportunities, they will assume they cannot help you.

Consider Your Timing

Sometimes, a new contact may seem hesitant or disinterested in you or your information. If you’re convinced the person is an important contact, don’t give up on building a relationship. You don’t want to stalk the person, but its okay to touch base a few times before you consider the door closed. Be cognizant of the person’s busiest times and avoid engaging when you’re pretty sure you won’t hear back. Even if you’re not able to schedule an extended meeting with the person, don’t hesitate to stay in touch via less invasive ways, such as social networks or infrequent follow-up notes.

Be a Good Listener

Most people don’t listen well; it’s a lost art. You will be surprised by how much people appreciate someone who listens well and remembers what they say. You’ll make a great impression and potentially win new networking contacts by listening and asking questions about people you meet. Most people appreciate the opportunity to talk about themselves. Be the person who wants to listen more than talk, and you’ll be that much closer to networking success.

Stick to It

Don’t let setbacks convince you networking isn’t helpful. Even if several people fail to return your phone calls, or everyone seems to ignore your e-mails, look at your approach and identify what you can do differently the next time. Be persistent in pursuing contacts you need to help manage your career, and be flexible enough to shift your approach when what you’re doing isn’t working, and you’ll grow a useful professional network in no time.

Miriam Salpeter is owner and founder of Keppie Careers (http://www.keppiecareers.com/), a coaching and consulting firm helping job seekers and entrepreneurs leverage social media and other tools to achieve their goals. She has appeared on CNN, and  major media outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Forbes and others have quoted her advice. In addition to her own blog, Miriam writes for U.S. News & World Report and for AolJobs.com. She is the author of the books, Social Networking for Career SuccessSocial Networking for Business Success: How to Turn Your Interests into Income, and  100 Conversations for Career Success. Named to CNN’s list of “top 10 job tweeters you should be following” and a “top 5” influencer on Twitter for job seekers by Mashable.com. Miriam also had her blog selected as a top career resource by Forbes. A vice president for a Wall Street firm prior to earning a master’s degree from Columbia University, Miriam ran the Career Action Center at the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University before launching her own business.