Networking is a lot like getting your M.B.A. -- it can work magic for your career, but it's hard to know where to turn for the best guidance. Most networking advice consists of the same timeworn clichés dished out by "career specialists" who, you can't help noticing, sound an awful lot like high school guidance counselors. While peppy entreaties to "get out there and meet people" might inspire the odd soul to whom the idea hadn't occurred, we'll focus on more specific strategies for networking your way to a top job in the new economy.
Start with what's easiest. Friends and family are natural contacts, and you may be surprised at who they know once you start asking. Make sure you update them on what came out of their contacts. Your undergraduate school is also a great resource -- many schools keep extensive databases of information about alumni, including their position and where they work.
Where You Are Now
Business schools are probably the best source for networking. Aside from your fellow students and professors (who are almost always happy to share their wisdom and help put you in touch with other alums), the best schools offer students an implicit promise that, along with their sheepskin, they will have access to a network of distinguished graduates.
Sometimes, your school name is the only opening you'll need to begin networking. "Any graduate from my school who comes out here to Los Angeles and is determined to make it in the entertainment business, I'll get them a job," promises Eric Bernt, a Northwestern University alum and Hollywood writer who has penned the feature films Virtuosity and Romeo Must Die. This sentiment isn't unusual. For most alums, fondness for an alma mater increases in proportion to their success.
Of course, this isn't always the case. But happy alums aren't the only ones who can help you find a job. "I wanted to work at a Washington magazine but could only find one alum from my journalism school in that area," recalls one magazine writer. "It turned out he hated the school as much as I did and wasn't shy about telling me. So naturally we hit it off. He passed on a tip to me several months later that landed me my current job."
You never know what seemingly random connections might come in handy. A former McKinsey consultant tells this story about the way he got the coveted position: "When I was applying to business schools, Kevin, a McKinsey consultant, conducted the alumni interview for Northwestern's Kellogg School. We really hit it off, and I got in to Kellogg, but I had been out of the country for a few years and really wanted to be in New York, so I opted for Stern at NYU instead. When I got there, I found out that McKinsey did not have a recruiting program at NYU, but that's where I really wanted to work. So I called Kevin, who fortunately remembered me. Kevin ended up supporting my efforts to get an interview at McKinsey and I became McKinsey's first NYU hire."
Networking has always been about making contacts, but how you approach people and how you follow through have changed in the last few years. In the new economy, few busy professionals have time for unsolicited phone calls seeking advice. "If somebody calls at the wrong time, you want to help, but you can't, and if you're busy, it's always the wrong time," says Kelly Laferriere, the director of interactive content at ESPN. "But if someone e-mails me first, I'm happy to provide feedback on my own time and set something up from there." An initial e-mail should be brief and to the point: Explain why you're contacting the person, what you're looking for, and how they can help you. It's a good idea to include a compelling subject line that will convince them to open your message. "Referred by --" or "Fellow alum looking for help" are two good bets. When you do reach them by phone, your call will be welcomed and expected, and your contact will be better prepared to help you.
By now the benefits of networking are received wisdom. Everyone does it. This means that potential clients and employers are much more approachable. However, this also means that it's more difficult to set yourself apart from the pack.
"You've got to show a level of interest beyond just the ordinary," says Michael Staisil, founder and executive vice president of Accelerator, a company that provides business support to the venture capital community. "Once you've figured out who you want to meet, make sure you know the person's background inside and out. Get there early. Be the last to leave. Walk a person to his car if he tells you he's on his way to a meeting." Most of all, try to make a personal connection, even if it happens outside a formal business setting. While vacationing in Hawaii, for instance, Staisil attended a cocktail reception where he met a potential client whose wife informed him it was her husband's birthday. "Two hours later, I threw him an impromptu party at the hotel grill," Staisil recalls. "We struck up a friendship, I flew back out to follow up with him, and four weeks later he was my business partner."
Follow-up doesn't have to be nearly so elaborate, but it is undoubtedly what distinguishes the best networkers. Since a potential contact has his own network of friends and colleagues, it is important that your name be the one to come to mind when he hears of suitable job openings.
Making sure your name (and the favorable impression you've created) stays familiar is a process you should set in motion as soon as you've finished your first talk or meeting. "Start with an immediate follow-up e-mail -- just something along the lines of 'Nice to meet you, keep in touch,'" advises Jonathan Aspatore, founder and CEO of eBrandedBooks.com. "Then put them in your PalmPilot and have it remind you every six months to drop your contact list an e-mail, just to keep in touch. A lot of people let contacts die soon after the initial meeting. Maintaining them is as important as making them, because you never know when they'll be able to help you." Follow up with everyone you talk to, but pay extra attention to those who are the most helpful. In the digital world, a handwritten note goes further than it ever has.
Another great strategy is to show your interest in the company you want to work for by reading and clipping relevant articles. Send them with your feedback to contacts in the field. Take it a step further by writing articles yourself in industry publications, and attending conferences and lectures.
As networking has gained currency, the outlets for engaging in it have become more appealing than they once were. Networking parties and Web sites have replaced business conferences and cold calls as the preferred methods for making contacts. The overbearing enthusiasm once encouraged by career specialists is now considered déclassé. Subtlety and charm are more valuable assets in networking's new arenas, which increasingly resemble classy social events.
Networking parties are a popular example, especially in new media circles. "Bernardo's List" is a weekly e-mail announcement of Internet parties that's indispensable to New York City's plugged-in Silicon Alley set. For the publishing industry, there are Laurel Touby's MediaBistro parties, which bring together high-powered publishers, editors, and writers. All serve the same purpose: to provide a comfortable setting in which to meet people. "I didn't go to Yale, so breaking in here was quite the feat," Touby says. "But I discovered that creating an environment where you have the freedom to walk up to anyone and talk to them comfortably is immensely helpful when it comes to making business contacts. Everyone is secretly here to meet new people. Everyone wants to meet someone who can improve their life." Touby is a reluctant networker's dream. She takes the anxiety out of approaching potential contacts by circulating, Southern belle style, among her guests and introducing them to helpful contacts.
The Online Network
For the extremely shy networker, similar help is available online. Dozens of good Web sites have sprung up to offer networking and mentoring assistance over the Internet. These sites are great for those who aren't naturally outgoing or feel intimidated at the thought of one-on-one networking. ESPN's Laferriere is a columnist for one such site, webgrrls.com, which specializes in giving networking and mentoring advice to women working on the Web. "If you can find a safe haven like webgrrls.com where the resources are available online, it is easy and painless to solicit advice and knowledge from people who want to help you," she says.
Networking sites can be valuable sources of expert advice and counseling for those about to embark on informational or job interviews. But job hunters shouldn't make the mistake of relying too heavily on online job listings. The old bit about 90 percent of all jobs never making the classifieds still applies in the new economy -- with the exception of government jobs, Web classifieds on job boards reflect roughly the same proportion of available jobs. A recent study by human resources managers revealed that personal referrals and recommendations are still the surest ways to land a good job.
If networking doesn't lead to a job, the skill itself could pay off. Laurel Touby has leveraged her flair for networking into a multimillion-dollar business. Venture capitalists were so impressed with her enthusiasm that they backed her business, MediaBistro.com. Now she throws networking parties in five cities, boasts 10 employees, and has networked herself to a great new job: CEO of her own company.