Effective networking: Are you wasting your time?
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”
- Albert Einstein
Networking is most effective when you have a simple and memorable message based on hard work you did in advance.
Do you ever get tired of being told by career types like me to network, network and network? Everyone knows it’s important, yet few people do it. Networking can be quite intimidating when you don’t know what to do. It is even worse when you make an effort and end up feeling you have wasted your time.
Recruiters are very popular to people in networking mode. My colleagues and I all discuss the value of these meetings, yet I often hear people saying they are a waste of time. As usual I am not short on opinions.
The key to effective networking is the exchange of information in as simple and memorable a way as possible. As much as I have enjoyed meeting many impressive job seekers over my career, there have been times where I was not putting myself in a strong enough position to help. I regret not taking a more methodical approach from the beginning. While I want to help everyone (mostly), as time passes it is difficult to differentiate people with similar qualifications. One person merges into the next.
In my defense, people have a natural tendency to leave things as open as possible when talking about future career opportunities. They use phrases like “I can do anything” or “I would be interested in anything”. Broad statements and messages don’t make you stand out. They make you harder to remember. Employers look for perfect fits, not one size fits all solutions.
I eventually came upon a system to help me become a better networker. I began deducing three key pieces of information from every conversation:
What do you do?
- If you remove the ego from this question, it should be easy to state, in one sentence, what happens as a result of your work. Do you: Build bridges? Sell ERP software? Recruit for professional services firms? No matter how simple, this is the first thing people need to know.
Why are you different?
- While you can never really remove the ego from this question, the idea here is not to say why you are better than everyone (you are almost certainly not), but to help me understand the situations where you are the best solution. If you do this in one sentence, I am more likely to remember. Most people are not good at telling me this.
What would you like to do more of?
- There it is. I can’t help if you don’t effectively tell me what you want. This is where your efforts either pay off or don’t.
Recently I have become more dogmatic about this philosophy. With age and wisdom (and various associated crippling fears) I no longer feel qualified to deduce such key points, but I am more comfortable asking people direct questions. For the people I can potentially help, this has been surprisingly effective. People who know themselves well enough to answer concisely and memorably help me to both categorize and differentiate them in a way that I can pass on to others. It is easier for me to identify who to send information to and how to frame it. The resulting introductions are more pointed and more meaningful.
Of course networking is a two way street. Great networkers always ask me the same questions I ask of them. Naturally, upon coming up with such a direct three question system, I thought I better get my own answers ready.
What a remarkable experience that was. I not only learned more about myself and what I wanted from my career, I gained a healthy respect for how difficult these questions are to answer.
Having been humbled by the process myself, I better understand why networking is difficult for so many. How can people be focused and clear in networking meetings when they haven’t taken the time to ask and answer difficult questions about their own career goals and career identities? Until that information is nailed down, how much can you hope to gain?
I urge you to try this three question/three sentence experiment:
In one sentence, what do you do?
In one sentence, how are you different?
Finally, in one sentence, what do you want to do more of?
It is equally important to get the same information from the person you are networking with.
I recently spoke to a professional about an opportunity I was working on. She was not interested, but as luck would have it she was a proficient networker. She remembered a conversation months back with a qualified person who happened to be perfect. (To be clear, many others who were qualified were not perfect.) This is an example of the real potential of networking at work. It moves past one conversation and travels on its own. If it is simple and memorable enough, it will do the work for you.