By Chris Dottie, Managing Director, Hays Spain —
People are very proud of their online networking credentials nowadays, and understandably so. Connections added at the literal click of a button can add value to your work life – whether they are contacts on LinkedIn or those you follow on Twitter.
Yet only a few years ago when people discussed networking it meant something very different. Have we unwittingly witnessed the death of face-to-to-face networking?
I would argue not. Personal communication is still tremendously useful and when actively or passively looking for new opportunities face-to-face networking could be just what you need. Meeting people is a great way to generate trust, build your reputation, open doors and generally increase your chances of securing a new role.
By getting out there and talking to people (for example by attending a networking event that you would usually shy away from) a new opportunity that hasn’t been advertised online yet might just come up in conversation. In addition, networking with a potentially useful contact gives you a chance to build a rapport with them, which will increase the likelihood that they will remember you for the right reasons. They will learn more about your experience, strengths and professional conduct. This isn’t something you can get from sending someone a cold message on LinkedIn.
There is a real skill to face-to-face networking, especially whilst looking for a job and it’s all too easy to overlook important factors. So, here are a few networking tricks you can try if you are looking for a new opportunity.
Target your search
Before you even start networking, consider your approach. You need to think long and hard about the kind of role you want, and how you go about locating it. For instance, if you start networking knowing only that you want to leave your current company, you will waste your time talking to just about anyone who will listen on the off chance that they could help you. Not only is it an inefficient use of your time, the person on the receiving end will feel overwhelmed by your vague demands and won’t know where to start helping, even if they wanted to.
Instead, consider your requirements in terms of role, industry, company size, progression opportunities and company culture. Once you have this clear in your mind, you will be better guided on where to look and who to talk to.
Who do you already know?
Now you have a better idea of what you want, cross-reference this with your informal network i.e. – friends, family, friends of family, family of friends etc. Do you know anyone in your desired industry who you can take to lunch to pick their brains? Is there someone who has a really good job and you want to follow in their footsteps? Spend some time with these people and get to know a bit more about them.
The benefit of informal face-to-face networking is that this is a more relaxed environment where you can be subtle, less rushed and all during your own time. Therefore, when speaking to these acquaintances, don’t immediately bombard them with questions about how they might be able to assist your job search. Socialise as you usually would in this situation; ask about their lives, see how the conversation flows and if it doesn’t come up then subtly steer the conversation towards career.
When you do start talking about your job search, don’t be too direct or demanding. For example, instead of saying “You work in finance, do you know of any roles?” position it as “do you have any advice for someone looking to get into the finance sector?”
Some say “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” whilst others believe you can only get a job based on merit alone. I believe it’s a combination of the two; in the sense that having someone who can make introductions or give you inside advice will always act as a catalyst for getting you to the interview stage to show off your merit.
Finding the right events
Whilst informal networking is easier to fit in to your schedule, professional networking may be necessary for finding new opportunities. Put some of your personal time aside, dust off your smartest blazer and get out there.
Don’t just look for networking events, look out for conferences, exhibitions and recruitment fairs related to your desired industry and profession. Learning opportunities are useful in themselves, they will attract the contact type you are looking for and will provide natural areas for discussion.
If you find networking difficult then repeatedly attending events organised by the same company can be useful – it gives you the opportunity to meet the same people frequently and develop a better relationship.
Where possible try and access the list of attendees and use current contacts to introduce you to people you want to meet. Use breaks in the sessions wisely.
During the event
My own natural personality is not especially extrovert and I used to find networking difficult – that first step of introducing yourself to someone you don’t know can be a real challenge. It really helped me to remember that networking is actually the reason the other people are also at the event, and they are actually very grateful to the person who does the “heavy lifting” of initiating the conversation.
When it comes to what to say there are various possibilities such as commenting on the event or shared experience such as the weather. Never underestimate the power of small talk and the places it can take you. As the author Debra Fine once said – “small talk is the biggest thing we do!”
My preferred approach is being honest and open, example-“hello, do you mind if I introduce myself? I don’t think we’ve met before” or “excuse me, I don’t know anyone here, could I join you?”
As long as your words are accompanied by a big smile, outstretched hand and good eye contact then you will always be welcomed. Once you start chatting it’s important to be professional but friendly. The way to strike the right balance is by relaxing, keeping the discussion two-way, seeing how the conversation flows and identifying any opportunities where you can discreetly “self-promote” yourself.
If the conversation reaches a point where you think this person may be able to help you find a new opportunity, then as I mentioned before, be subtle and ask for advice. For example, instead of asking outright if they can find you a job, say “given your experience in X industry, can you offer any guidance for somebody looking to build an X career in that sector”.
Remember that building a network doesn’t just happen at events. Recruitment consultancies will often have a rich network of clients and colleagues so if you take the time to register with an agency such as Hays, you can reach out to multiple people from just one meeting. By having a face-to-face meeting, the recruiter can get a feel for how you present yourself, what type of places would suit your personality, and connect you with an invaluable host of contacts.
Don’t be a hit and run networker
People aren’t interested in giving you a transactional benefit but they may be interested in developing a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s critical to show interest in the people around you rather than simply try to get information or help in the short term.
Whatever context you are networking in – make sure you turn up prepared and with business cards. When receiving someone else’s business card or contact details, make notes afterwards regarding what you spoke about and remember to connect with them on LinkedIn. Keep in contact with them. Send them a follow up message – you never know what will crop up in the future – so make sure you stay connected and fresh in their minds.
Networking in person is a two-way street, it’s important that you try your best to add value to your contacts as well as benefitting from them. You might have contacts or a viewpoint that can be really useful to the people you are speaking to, you might be able to return any favours. Information travels through networks via pollination, picked up by busy bees and passed on in exchange for other nuggets.
To be honest I used to say that networking wasn’t very useful, that counting on a group of contacts to help you in your career isn’t a fair way to get ahead. After some coaching I realised that I was making excuses, I was avoiding networking because it made me uncomfortable. So I started, I got into good habits, I found the right way for me to develop a professional network. I then understood that it isn’t about gaining unfair advantages, it’s about developing trust. It’s about learning. It’s also about having fun – once you begin professional networking in person it can be a real source of enjoyment.
Online networking is a fantastic tool for your professional development and both active and passive job searches. However lasting relationships are still based on face-to-face contact with human beings and it’s really important to decide how you are going to develop real-life network of professional relationships.
[Image: ThinkStock Photos]