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Six Networking Coups to Win Jobs

Careers columnist and former HR executive Liz Ryan shares tales of clever job hunters who scored big-time by making networking mutually gratifying


Recently we wrote about cringe-inducing networking fiascoes. In each of those stories, someone made a mess of a networking opportunity by forgetting what networking is all about. Instead of going into the interaction with the attitude that “I want to find out more about you and share a bit of myself, too, so we can see where our mutual interests lie,” the individuals were searching haplessly for some business-type holy grail—a new client, an introduction, free advice—and damaged, if not destroyed, a new relationship in the process.

Luckily, for every networker who shoots himself in the foot, there’s one (or a dozen) more making great things happen for himself and other people in the networking arena. Here are six stories of networkers who used human connections to build their platforms, credibility, and knowledge base, establishing great relationships and never losing sight of the Golden Rule.

“How Can I Help You?” Networking Pays Off

Tammy was job-hunting. She’d read reams about networking but felt uncomfortable reaching out to strangers to ask for their help. She told me, “If I research these people and their organizations, I can reach out to them to offer help with something they’re working on, not to ask for their help.” One day, Tammy called a local not-for-profit agency’s executive director. “My sister volunteered with you until she moved out of town,” said Tammy, “and she said you’re always in need of volunteers. Would it be helpful if I put a volunteers-wanted notice on the neighborhood online discussion forum?” “That would be fantastic!” said the executive director. “You’re so kind to do that. What could I do for you?” “Well, I am job-hunting,” said Tammy, “and expert advice is always welcome. I don’t suppose you would have time to meet with me one day?” Of course, she did, and she was an enormous help and job-search booster to Tammy. The executive director gave Tammy three incredible introductions for her job search. Moral: Don’t lead with “Here’s what I need,” but rather “Perhaps I can help you with an item on your list.”

Networking for the Long Haul

I hosted a weekend conference and retreat for working women, and hired a dozen interns from local universities to help with the event. All 12 of them were spunky and proactive, but one of the undergrads stood out. Her name is Swati. At the end of the conference, Swati, just 19 years old at the time, told me, “I’ve talked with all or nearly all of the women in attendance this weekend, to understand their career paths and learn from them. I got so much great advice!” Swati stayed in touch with me after that weekend, via LinkedIn and e-mail. I was a reference-giver for her first job (merchandising for a major retailer) after college. She’s kept me abreast of her twists and turns and stays current on my shifts, as well. Eight years later she is an accomplished career woman, and who could be surprised? Not many teenagers would have managed that weekend-long networking opportunity so thoughtfully. Moral: Networkers who cultivate relationships over time have huge advantages over people who treat networking as a right-now, transactional affair.

Kids Understand This Stuff

A young woman came into one of my workshops and told this story. “I saw a billboard on the highway, advertising a local restaurant. It’s an old-school, red-velvet-curtain type of place, very expensive, more my parents’ or grandparents’ kind of place than mine. I thought ‘Geez, billboard advertising must cost a fortune!’ I do social media consulting, so I called the restaurant’s marketing director.

“I told him that I’d seen the billboard and I loved it, that I’d never been to the restaurant before and had never thought about going, but the billboard got me over that hump and I’d made reservations for myself, my boyfriend, and my parents. He was elated. I said, ‘Most people my age find out about restaurants through social media and deal sites, but I’m sure you’ve got a good reason not to use those channels.’ The guy just started gushing: ‘Yes, of course, I’d never tarnish my restaurant’s good name on those tawdry coupon sites, people call me every day wanting to do my social media marketing, it’s all wrong for us,’ etc. He wanted to have his point of view acknowledged, and who can blame him for that? I listened to him on that topic for 10 or 15 minutes. Then he said, ‘You’re the demographic we really want to reach. Would you consider having coffee with me?’

“Instead of pushing anything, I’d acknowledged the wonderful marketing he’d done with the billboard and got him to think about using social media without trashing his brand. I’d rather network than cold-call clients any day. Thank goodness it works!” Moral: In networking, in a job search, and in sales, take the other person’s perspective. Everyone’s plate is loaded. Ask “What is on this person’s mind?” not “How can this person help me?”

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

I was picking up prescription sunglasses in (TGT)Target’s optical department. “So, do you love working as an optical-department manager?” I asked the young man behind the counter. “I do, but I want to work as a youth pastor also,” he said. “I have a job opportunity in my sights right now. There’s a part-time youth ministry job open in my church now, and I’ve been researching what other local churches are doing in terms of youth programming.” “What will you do with the information you’ve collected?” I asked. “I’m putting it into a (MSFT)PowerPoint presentation to show the search committee where our church is strong and where we could make our programs more useful for the kids and teens.” “How much research have you done?” I asked, incredulous.

“I’ve interviewed 25 people inside and outside the church,” said Jay. “Magnificent!” I said. “How can I help?” “You don’t mind?” asked Jay. “If it’s really no trouble, could you look at my PowerPoint?” Jay, the youth minister/optical pro, sent me his presentation, I edited it, and he was off and running—and got hired for the church job, no surprise. He told me, “You can’t believe the helpful job-search suggestions I got from Target optical customers who happened to chat with me the way you did. People will help you along your way like crazy, as long as you’re polite about it.”

Moral: Jay dealt with hundreds of people in his Target job. Lots of them are experienced businesspeople like me who love to help young people. All Jay had to do to get people on his career-support team was be his pleasant self with them. More young retail bunnies should try it!

Seize the Moment

I was dashing into the supermarket on a hectic Sunday afternoon. I had two hours (less travel time) to shop for ingredients, make a dish for a potluck, and scoop up the kids. In front of the store were two moms and three kids selling Girl Scout cookies. I bought a box of Thin Mints, and said to a mom (whom I hadn’t met before), “Can you think of something I can make in one hour for a potluck tonight?” The mom, Megan, said, “Pasta salad! Cook pasta, toss it in balsamic and olive oil, throw some sun-dried tomatoes and chopped artichoke hearts in it. …” She was giving me the recipe on the spot. “I’m forever in your debt!” I gushed. “Not at all,” said Megan, “but I read your column and I’m job-hunting and I’d love your ideas.” “Coffee!” I crowed, and we set it up over e-mail the next day. Megan and I met and made a plan; she got a job as an executive director at a national nonprofit a few months later. Megan said, “When I saw you walking across the parking lot, I thought, ‘I’m not going to ask her for job-search advice cold turkey, but if we get into conversation. …’” Megan’s pasta-salad recipe was the hit of the potluck, too. Moral: Be ready for networking moments when they arise.

Let’s Start with Lunch

My friend Jody is a writer, a Web person, a communications strategist, and a blogger. She’s an event organizer and a mentor to budding businesspeople. She’s been doing about 12 things at once in her business as long as I’ve known her, for about 10 years. Plus, she’s a mom. I read her tweets because they make me laugh. (One of them was “I made a T-shirt for my two-year-old; it says Naps Are for Quitters.”) One day I asked, “Jody, what’s on your business cards? How could you encompass what you do in a few words?” “Oh, take one,” said Jody, handing me a card that said “Jody Smith. Available for Lunch.” That was her card. She’d hand it to someone, and that person would either say, “Well, let’s have lunch,” or ask Jody a question about her business. No push-type elevator speech, no audio business card blast. Jody let every person she encountered decide how much or how little she or he wanted to know about her affairs. A year ago Jody got hired by our local university (she didn’t even have to apply for the job) to run programs for its entrepreneurial center. Moral: Stand in your brand! The right people will find you. Lighthouses, as they say, don’t run up and down the shoreline waving to the boats.

Author’s Note: “Liz, is that you?” In case any readers have been wondering about the new headshot, it is me. I launched a body-image reinvention to coincide with my 50th birthday. Before long, I’ll write about losing a zillion pounds—oh, and changing my hair color, too. Watch this space!

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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