When I was working with a career coach to find my current job, I was in a networking rut.
I had already been through the basics of networking: learning about the major employers, the major professional groups and the general needs of the industry in my location. I did this by going to a lot of random events and making small talk with people I just met, most of them I never heard from again.
This is also where I practiced the art of making small talk with strangers, shaking hands, collecting business cards while holding a drink, and all the other little things you do when you are networking. But my coach wanted me to take it to the next level, to be more serious and focused. I am not a natural networker, so I needed both guidance and permission to break out of my nerd self and do what needed to be done. She gave me these instructions, which I opted to play like a game.
The goal of the game is to make a contact that helps you get a job. Until you have a job, you have to keep taking turns.
• 2-3 times per month, attend a relevant networking event (society meeting, meetup event etc) that will put you in contact with people who can help with your job hunt.
• At each event, meet 4-6 people who you can follow-up with.
• Before your next event, follow-up with those new contacts.
• Repeat, until you have a job.
There are a few specifics in there that helped me to focus my behavior. Finding relevant events can be a challenge, especially if you have a fairly niche skill set. I realized that I was attending a women’s event that was probably too generic to really provide me good contacts, and that a group that I had met great people at in the past needed help organizing event. (It was the Seattle Ed Tech Meetup, which provides a great mix of folks.)
Once I found good events to attend, I had to meet new people. For organizations I have known for a while, it is tempting to just check in with people I have already met. While that can be good networking too, I usually can just get in touch with those people directly. The point of the game is to grow your contacts, and expand your insight into new companies, new departments, or new roles. It is totally fair to ask an existing contact to introduce you to someone new, since leveraging your existing network is part of the game.
I also had to meet many new people. I have been to networking events with friends in the past, and I am also surprised when after 40 minutes of mingling, I come back to find them still chatting with the first person they introduced themselves too. If I am going to meet 6 people I can follow-up with (i.e., who know about a new place, or role, or route that I have not already explored), I am probably going to have to introduce myself to a couple dozen people.
I know you can feel like a jerk if you are just flitting through conversations, feeling like you are impatient to move on. But to be honest, most people at networking events are doing this, too. One thing I do is when I meet someone who I think can be of no help to me, I try to end the conversation by helping them-usually introducing them to someone else I already bumped into. ”Oh, you are a musician looking to start an after school program? The teacher I just met works for the school district, she might know who you should talk to.” This exit strategy helps us both feel like we don’t have to spend obligatory time in a conversation that isn’t going anywhere.
And then there is the matter of getting the conversation to the level when you feel like a follow-up is ok.
For me, there are two parts to this:
1) figuring out what the follow-up would be,
2) exiting before you have that whole conversation.
Part two is where I often see people be inefficient in the networking game. “Oh, you work for [Big employer in my area]? Would you mind if I follow-up with you later? I would love to pick your brain about hiring practices/new projects coming up/their latest publication/the work environment etc…” Again, you are just setting the stage for a follow-up call, you don’t want to do a 30 min deep dive at the event (because you should be meeting other people, and so should your new friend).
When you finish at the event, you should probably have a pocket full of contact info that you will need to get busy scheduling coffee, phone calls and lunches for, because your next event is just another week away. These may be informational interviews, or specific requests for a resource or a referral, whatever you need to move your job hunt along.
Now, I don’t network this aggressively all the time, but this is a helpful approach if you are looking for a job and need to explore quickly. When I was looking for a job, I found networking hard, but knowing I had a specific goal in mind helped to me to efficient and strategic about the time I was spending at networking events.
Sandlin Seguin,PhD is an eLearning Specialist with Tableau Software, where she helps customers learn to see and understand their data. Previously, she earned her PhD in molecular virology at the University of Pittsburgh, and worked as a Curriculum and Faculty Development Specialist at Bellevue College.