By Zina Kumok
Managing your career these days can feel like a video game. From answering emails to managing documents to ticking off social media obligations, it’s easy to spend an entire day networking – without ever actually having a conversation with a real person.
But while the rise of digital media has changed the networking landscape, real professional connections are just as important as ever. No one is going to recommend an avatar for a job, or sit down for coffee with a screen name to discuss opportunities. Somewhere along the line, you need to start developing a professional network – in person.
But while just about everyone is open to the idea of a professional network, few actually put in the effort to develop one. Here’s what you can do now to start the process, build a network that exists beyond an email thread or social network, and cultivate it into something meaningful.
Find a Mentor
The first step in seeking out a mentor is to find someone you actually like and respect. That may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how often people let this aspect fall to the wayside. Prospective mentees can let a person’s charisma, status or skill charm them into what could be a disastrous relationship for both parties – don’t do that.
Find someone you like – and who likes you
The rule for a mentor-mentee relationship should be the same as any other. Both parties should like each other, respect each other and generally enjoy each other’s company. Anything else is unlikely to foster a long-term, meaningful partnership.
Once you’ve found someone you respect and want to engage, proceed carefully. Too many people receive an offer to “pick their brain” over coffee. While some people might say yes to this request, you might also receive negative responses (or none at all) from people who are simply too busy.
Offer something mutually beneficial
“Instead of asking them if you can just ‘pick their brain,’ offer something in return, such as helping them with research on a project or possibly working with them through an apprenticeship,” says freelance writer Jackie Lam of Chapter.
Lam says you can utilize an apprenticeship to make new connections that offer a job, or have your mentor recommend you for a position.
Use social media
John Schneider of Debt Free Guys says social media has made networking with your dream mentors a reality. He suggests using LinkedIn and other platforms to develop a relationship with them.
That doesn’t mean instantly adding them as a connection and sending a list of your deepest burning questions, though. Building a professional relationship much like a romantic one, takes time.
“Over time, like, share and comment on their posts/tweets, answer questions they pose and build a rapport,” Schneider says. “After this is established, engage them with industry and career questions.”
Lee Huffman of Bald Thoughts recommends finding an established group designed for people in your field. You’ll meet like-minded individuals who can share their own advice. One way to do this is on the local get-together site Meetup, which has a ton of professional networking groups for every industry.
Connect in the real world
Become a part of one of these communities, and you’ll hear about openings or possible opportunities first. You may even find people to recommend you personally – a huge advantage in an era where you can find any job posting online.
“Whether you just graduated or have already started in your career, the best thing you can do for long-term career success is build a network of advocates,” Huffman says.
Maximize Your Personal Network
Carla LaFleur, who works as a media and public relationships coordinator for wealth-management firm Halpern Financial, says you should find people you already know who might have a connection to the industry you want to break into.
“For example, I asked my uncle who is a CPA for advice on how to break into the world of fee-only financial planning. He pointed me to the trade organizations to investigate, as well as some red flags to avoid,” she says.
Friends and family
Make a list of people you know who might have knowledge about the job or field you want to pursue. You can also ask your family or close friends who may have a connection and be happy to set you up. It can help to sit down with a notebook and list every person you know – and then reach out to them personally.
Don’t forget your alma mater
If you recently graduated, you should also reach out to the career services department at your alma mater. They should be able to provide insights on any alumni who are also in the field you’re interested in. They may also know of internships or jobs in that industry. Even your high school counselor may be aware of what their former graduates’ are up to and how they can help.
Reach out to former coworkers
Old bosses and coworkers are also great people to contact, even if you’re trying to switch careers. You’ve presumably already done much of the work to form a connection with them, and will have a better idea of what they could offer you.
Join community organizations
Huffman suggests joining a group that’s also not connected to your industry. For example, you could volunteer for an organization you care about or join the alumni association of your college, which may have regular networking events.
“Volunteering your skills at a charity gives you more experience for the resume and will serve as a showcase to others who may be looking for that skill at their work,” he said. “Remember, a lot of influential people from big corporations sit on the boards of most charities.”
Meet New People
When you want to initiate a dialogue with someone new, usually an old-fashioned phone call will be preferable to any kind of digital communication. A phone call is more personal, more direct, and more likely to get you a response. If you’re feeling nervous about cold-calling someone, you can also send an initial email and call only if you don’t get a response.
Come prepared with questions. If you’ve already done basic research, you should have a list of questions ready for your potential mentor or contact. Not having done the groundwork shows that you don’t respect this person’s time or energy, and is a quick way to burn a bridge. You could even hurt your relationship with the third party who set up the meeting.
Listen more than you talk
Don’t act like a used-car salesman. While it may be tempting to use this meeting to sell your experience and qualifications, LaFleur’s advice is to listen more than you talk.
“In my opinion, it makes a better impression to be a good listener and ask smart questions rather than trying to pitch your skills from the get-go,” she said. “The aim of this first conversation is simply to learn and meet new people, but do it enough times and you will most likely get some opportunities.”
Some starter questions she asks are, “What brought you to this industry?” and “What do you think makes someone successful in this field?”
Treat it like an interview
Treat the meeting like a job interview. Even though this interaction may not result in a job, you should still treat it as such. That means dressing professionally and acting like this person could recommend you for a position. You don’t have to wear a suit, but leave the jeans at home.
Learn something about them. Whether you find out they’re an amateur water skier or constantly post photos of their new puppy on Instagram, showing interest in something outside their career capacity is important. It will give off the impression you actually want to get to know them – rather than just using their professional status for personal gain.
Freelance writer and web developer Eric Rosenberg of Personal Profitability says, “The best networking doesn’t feel like networking, it feels like having a conversation with a respected friend or colleague.”
In other words, sincerity is important. That doesn’t mean you have to make this person your new best friend, but it’s vital to connect in an honest and personal way. If the contact you’re networking with is a little hesitant, consider opening up on your end. Don’t gush about yourself, but show them a relationship with you isn’t just a one-way street.
Don’t forget to say thank you
Send a thank-you note. Whether you meet at your local Starbucks or have a virtual meeting via Skype, don’t forget to send something physical. Yes, an old-fashioned hand-written thank you note.
Sending a thank-you note can help you stand apart from other applicants or people vying for their time. If you really want to impress someone, you can even include a small gift card to a coffee shop as an extra thank-you. After I had an in-person interview for a job I really wanted, I sent a thank-you note that same day. My boss later said it helped him decide I was the right candidate.
Stay in touch
It’s also important to keep in touch. People are busy, so if you only have one meeting and don’t stay connected (beyond an initial thank-you note), they’re likely to forget about you when an opportunity arises.
Don’t be afraid to touch base periodically about what you’ve been up to. On the other end of the spectrum, congratulate them on personal successes and show an awareness of their career highlights. LinkedIn is great for finding out what’s new in their professional life, and it’s easy to send a quick note of congratulations.
When to Use Your Professional Network
Zina Kumok – A trained journalist, Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. She writes a blog at DebtFreeAfterThree.com about how she paid off her student loans in three years, and teaches other millennials how to become debt free. Zina has been featured in Time Magazine, DailyWorth and Business Insider.