Networking: Going Further

The value of networking and a few practical tips to improve your skills.

There is an African proverb I recently read that does a great job of capturing the value of networking, it says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” When I decided to explore a career change from Finance to Human Resources (HR), networking with other professionals served to be a significant enabler to achieving my transition. For me it served a twofold purpose – occupational research and sponsorship. Networking helped to bridge my knowledge and relational gaps and I’m confident it can do the same for you.

Research

Before I committed to making the transition, I needed to first gather information from those currently practicing in the field of HR to better understand if it was the right move for me. So, I went to lunch and had coffee with a number of leaders from various disciplines within the occupation – from recruitment to training and talent development. During these meetings, I was not only curious about each leader’s current role and perspective on the field, but I was also curious about them as individuals – their background, core values and personal motivations. Ultimately, I was seeking to identify the intersection between each leaders’ personal background and their professional practice to help inform which direction in HR I would pursue for myself.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to learn more about the field of HR in addition to the personal lives of those leaders, they were great meetings. Notice the “s” on the end of meeting. That’s right, all of this didn’t happen in a single event but over a course of time (weeks and months), through a series of 1-on-1 discussions and follow-up meetings. Earlier in my career, I made the mistake of believing that a single exchange of business cards was all I needed to successfully network with other professionals. It was not until I began my career transition that I learned this was far from the truth. Successful networking requires more than simply exchanging business cards, it requires exchanging stories – getting to know the person behind the title and allowing them to get to know you.

Sponsorship

Regardless of your skills, it can be fairly difficult to make the transition when starting a new career for the first or third time, especially when your experience is minimal; this is where the idea of sponsorship can be helpful. Sponsorship is the act of leveraging one’s personal or professional position to influence others for the benefit of someone else. Some believe in order to be considered a sponsor it requires one to be in a superior career level, but I disagree. I think anyone with influence can be a sponsor no matter what career level or title. Sponsorship can also take on various forms depending on the relationship and the need but it is most commonly found in the form of a professional job recommendation or employee referral.

When I was offered my first position in HR, I was introduced to that organization through an employee referral. A former classmate, now friend of mine referred me after learning about my professional background and career aspirations.  In fact, a large portion of jobs in the US are filled by employee referrals according to iCIMS, a leading provider of Applicant Tracking Systems and Recruiting Software. In a 2015 study conducted by iCIMS in partnership with Hanover Research, they found that most employers hire nearly 40 percent of their staff from employee referrals. Wow, that’s almost half! In other words you are more likely to be offered a position within an organization if a current employee refers you. Why is this the case? Well, the same study also found that the majority of employers find that referred employees outperform non-referred employees and typically work longer at a company (more than five years). If I was an employer it would be a no brainer, I would invest in an employee referral program.

With that said, here are a few tips to help you network:

1-on-1s

Grab coffee or lunch with your colleagues or decide to get to know someone new on a regular basis (e.g., monthly, quarterly, etc.). Realize that almost anyone can be a connector. There’s nothing like an in-person meeting, but if you can’t meet in-person, no worries, setting up a phone call can be just as powerful, the key is to regularly stay connected.

Social Media

Build a profile on LinkedIn or on your preferred social media site and maintain it. Whether we’d like to admit it or not we’re almost always networking and communicating who we are with social media. Updating your profile regularly is not just for seeking employment, there are other opportunities (e.g., speaking engagements) that can potentially present themselves through social media, so you should make sure your profile reflects the most accurate view of your skills and experiences.

Elevator Speech

Prepare and practice a 30-second summary of yourself that you can easily remember and naturally share with others. The 30-second ‘elevator speech’ will help you order your thoughts and ensure you share all the key elements of who you are in a short amount of time. A good ‘elevator speech’ should include your accomplishments, strengths and existing or emerging interests. The key is to make it memorable and it will hopefully lead to another longer follow up meeting. {Reflection Tips}.

Final Thought

With these tips in mind, I do have a word of caution about networking. While networking can be accompanied by tangible benefits, please don’t let that be your sole focus. Networking is not just about accumulating professional contacts who can potentially benefit to you in the near term or at some point in the future. I am usually ‘turned off’ by people who only reach out to me when they need something. I don’t enjoy feeling like I’m someone’s personal Genie and most people don’t like this either. Make sure it stays about the person and NOT about what they can do for you. Remember, successful networking is about ‘going deep’ more so than ‘going wide’, developing a few strong relationships is more impactful and satisfying than making lots of weak contacts. But this cannot happen in a single event, consider making it a new habit to connect with others on a regular basis. This is how meaningful relationships are cultivated, potential sponsorships are formed, and as the African proverb promotes, how you “go far”.

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