If you are job hunting, you’ll hear this advice over and over: “Tap your network!”
It sounds simple enough, but in practice, it can be hard to know what’s polite and what’s not. For instance, is it OK to reach out to someone you haven’t spoken to in years to ask for a favor? What if there is no one in your network who works at the companies you’re targeting?
The truth is, there are unspoken rules to networking, and if you only think about your network when you need something from it, you’re breaking rule number one.
“The reality is that most of us only network when we are forced to – when we are trying to find a job or someone to quickly fill a position. We then start from scratch or try to revive an old network that hasn’t been utilized in years,” says Dave Sanford, EVP of client relations at WinterWyman. “But networking isn’t about right now, nor is it about just looking for a new job – it’s really about investing in your future.”
[ Should you text a recruiter? Read also: Job hunt etiquette: New best practices for 2019. ]
If you want to network more effectively, you may need to rethink your approach from the ground up. Use this advice to get started.
DO: Get over the awkwardness
It is immensely freeing to realize that networking can be pretty awkward for everyone involved, says Halelly Azulay, CEO of TalentGrow and creator and host of The TalentGrow Show podcast. If you feel nervous or anxious reaching out to a contact (maybe one you haven’t spoken to for years), just knowing they probably felt the same way at some point in their career can help.
“Instead of focusing on your own self-consciousness and how awkward you feel about networking, be open and curious, be yourself, and shift into a mode of other-focus and generosity,” says Azulay. “Everyone is interesting if you actively, intentionally look for what makes them interesting – what they know that you don’t know, or how you might have something in common. When you are interested, you instantly become more interesting to your conversation partner.”
DON’T: Just be a taker
This is a big deal. If you want your network to work for you, you have to be willing to step up for others.
“Focus on companies and relationship building first, especially before jobs are even posted,” says Brett Ellis, career coach and executive director of Brett Ellis Career Marketing Services. “When you reach out to someone about a job, it comes across very transactional. People want to feel like you are genuinely interested in getting to know them, not that you just need them to help you get a job.”
Think about being a giver, says Azulay. “Give first, and often, with no explicit expectation of any kind of reciprocation. Giving helps you establish yourself as a go-to person – one who creates value for others. Value, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder. Value can be in the form of credit, honor, connections, ideas, praise or recognition, awards and rewards, and opportunities, just to name a few. The value you want to gain could be very different from the value your networking counterpart seeks. Don’t be limited by your own needs and preferences. This kind of personal brand and networking approach will help you in your pursuit of mutually beneficial, win-win relationships.”
Of course, there will be times when you do need something from your network. The key is to lay a groundwork of reciprocation before you get to your ask, says Sanford. “While you may be asking for help now, you should offer to make an introduction to someone else in your network, send links to interesting articles or research that you come across, or bring someone as a guest to one of your professional association events,” he suggests.
DO: Think beyond recruiters
When growing your network, don’t limit your contacts to recruiters and directors of departments. Doing so might hinder you in the long run, says Ellis.
“Recruiters’ inboxes are constantly flooded with messages from job seekers, and directors are very busy. I recommend reaching out to someone who might potentially work in the department you are trying to work in or just someone at the company who is fairly active on LinkedIn. Because referrals account for around a third of all external hires, it can be helpful to have any foot in the door,” says Ellis.
Even people outside of the companies – or even the industries – you want to work in can be beneficial, says Sanford. Consider family, friends, neighbors, past and present colleagues, supervisors, those who reported directly to you, former professors, classmates, vendors, business partners, salespeople, individuals you have interviewed or who have interviewed you. Even your doctor and real estate agent can be in your network, suggests Sanford.
“Once you have compiled your list, decide who from your existing network can assist you in expanding it, and ask them to make an introduction for you,” he says.
DO: Make networking a daily practice
Think about networking like you think about brushing your teeth, suggests Azulay. You may not relish it, but you also don’t hate it and you rarely skip it. You do it because it’s a habit – one that you know produces long-term value for a short-term investment in time, Azulay points out.
“Set up small, doable daily or weekly networking habits that have you checking up on your contacts, making introductions, liking or sharing or commenting on their updates and content shares, and even sending articles or a simple note of appreciation,” she says. “None of these tasks take a long time to complete.”