One of the single most important things I always tell job seekers to do is to try to find people working in their chosen field and talk to them. I’ve been advising this for so long, I sometimes forget to explain why this is important. Here’s why networking is the #1 homework assignment I give in every career advising appointment:
1. Gathering information. Most things you really need to know about a career or an employer, the culture of an organization, the gossip and behind-the-scenes news that tells you about employment trends, and the reality of a job, are never written down anywhere. You’ll never find them on an organization’s website or in a job description. The only way you can find out whether you might really want to work somewhere, whether you’ll be a fit, and what a career is really like is by asking human beings questions.
2. Becoming a known quantity. Hiring decisions are scary, so by getting others to know who you are and what your skills are, you can alleviate their worries that maybe hiring you (or recommending you to a friend) will end in disaster. Or, alternately, if you impress someone enough when you talk to him/her, you might gain a raving fan, who is willing to serve as a reference for you or pass your name along to others when opportunities arise. If you get enough raving fans, you will have a team of ad-hoc job search agents keeping their eyes out for you whenever new opportunities arise.
3. Sometimes, networking is the only way in to an organization. Many jobs are never advertised; and even when a job is listed publicly, you can imagine that a candidate who applies due to a referral has a much better chance than a random applicant. Also, by talking to someone who works in an organization, you can write a better cover letter and resume that addresses the real needs of the organization. In addition, more often than many people think, someone will entrepreneurially develop their own job. By getting to know people and organizations, you can find unmet needs in their organizations and consider how you might be able to solve them. You can gain many more opportunities to propose consulting projects, contract work, or even convince an organization to custom-build a job just for you, by getting to know more people and organizations.
4. Networking is reciprocal. Once you have a group of people you know and who know you, opportunities to help each other will soon develop. Even if you are a student and assume you are receiving the good end of the deal from networking, you have something to offer all your networking contacts. Have you read an interesting article that you think your contacts would find helpful? Share it. Maybe you’re doing a research project they might want to find out about–send them an update. You might even meet other people in your networking journey who can benefit from meeting your other contacts. Introduce them. At the very least, you are making other people feel good by asking them to talk about themselves and giving them the chance to help someone who is starting their career.
5. The company you keep is part of your career identity. Nonprofit managers hang out with other nonprofit managers. Grant writers love to talk shop with other grant writers. People who do international development love to talk to each other about their Peace Corps years… and federal employees love to compare notes about each others’ agencies. By getting yourself into the community of people in your chosen profession, you are going to learn to walk like one, talk like one, dress like one… pretty soon you’ll be indistinguishable from those already in the field. This will take you a long way towards becoming the professional you wish to become.
If I haven’t convinced you yet that you need to start networking, read this article: http://www.quintcareers.com/networking_guide.html
and to learn more about informational interviewing (which led to my current job), visit http://www.quintcareers.com/informational_interviewing.html
For the top mistakes of networking, visit: http://brucebyfield.wordpress.com/2008/07/01/11-common-mistakes-in-networking/
To find professionals in your chosen field, try starting with www.linkedin.com for the granddaddy of professional networking sites; for nonprofit networking, try www.idealist.org and the Seattle-based Nonprofit Networking Yahoo group; for international development, join www.devex.com ; for socially conscious business, try www.netimpact.org; and for government, get involved with www.govloop.com or www.govercentral.com, or consider joining a local government organization like the Municipal League of King County.
More on the Care and Feeding of Your Network soon.