Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Basic Guide to Networking

Besides official networking events, at the core of networking is the informational interview. You can't realistically contact someone you barely know and ask for a job outright. Instead what you should do is simply ask for information. It sounds much more palatable to people and it’s much easier to get someone to just talk to you than to hand over a job.

You might have heard about those fabled MBA alumni networks that hook you up with a great job. Well, it’s part truth, part myth. Those who don’t get jobs through on-campus recruiting do their job search by contacting alums for informational interviews. If you make a good impression, the person just might pass you onto someone else or, best case scenario, if the company happens to be hiring, they’ll put your resume in the hands of a hiring decision maker.

Where to start?
Research your industry and develop a list of target companies. Then look for your contacts who work in those industries or companies.

Who do you know?
  • The obvious: friends, family, acquaintances and everyone they know. Ask around.
  • Old co-workers. It’s a small world in some industries.
  • Alumni from your schools – most colleges, grad schools, and even some high schools keep records of alumni including current industry and company info. Many people expect to have fellow alums contact them. Some schools keep lists of alums by industry who’ve agreed to make themselves available.
  • Contacts from social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Many alumni networks have groups on these sites.
  • Members of any industry/trade organizations you belong to. If you’re not a member, look into joining one. Many of these groups are also on LinkedIn.
Here are 3 good tips on how to approach people you don't know on LinkedIn.

Will someone you’ve never met or have only a vague connection to, really talk to you and help you out? If you approach them the right way and leave a positive impression, they might. Once you’ve identified your prospects, send an email saying who you are, what your connection is to them or how you found them, and ask if they’d mind speaking with you for 15 min. for an informational interview. In general, of course, it’s preferable to approach someone you have some connection to, but that’s not always an option.
Prepare a list of thoughtful questions. You want advice and information. If you’re switching industries, your goal is to become familiar with that industry, learn the lingo, and later come across in interviews like you know what you’re talking about. If you’re already in that industry, your goal is to learn about their company and its culture, what makes that company different from its competitors, and what types of people are most successful in that organization.

  • Start by asking if this is still a good time to talk. Offer to reschedule if it isn’t. People are busy.
  • Ask good, thoughtful questions that show you’ve done your homework.
  • Be respectful of the person and their time. They are doing you a favor so use the time wisely.
  • Listen. When you ask a question, don’t cut the person off. Let them answer.
  • Speak clearly and come across as confident and enthusiastic on the phone.
  • Smile when you’re talking to them. Even though they can’t see you, your smile will come across over the phone. This is a trick telemarketers use—they sometimes have a mirror in front of them to make sure they’re smiling while talking to you.
  • Email a thank you note within 24 hours. If it went well and you later get a job offer as a result, follow up again to let them know.
  • Read their cues. If they give curt responses to everything and seem in a hurry, thank them for their time and end the call. Not every prospect is going to pan out. Move onto the next.
  • Ask questions you can find the answers to on a company website.
  • Interrupt.
  • Ask salary or benefits questions. This usually leaves a bad impression.
  • Have an upswing in your voice at the end of a sentence so it sounds like you’re asking a question when you’re really making a statement.
If the conversation goes well, the best case scenario is the person will offer to forward your resume to someone else in their company. If they don’t offer, don’t ask to send them your resume. Instead, ask if there’s someone else at the company or in that industry they recommend you contact for another informational interview, so you can get their advice and perspectives.

If you're determined to get your resume in front of the person, here's a less in-their-face way to do it. If they agree to talk to you, you can send them your resume “to give them a better sense of your background.” Only do this if you have a very strong resume, and if you’re feeling bold. Don’t do this if you’re looking for your first job or if you have no obviously relevant experience.

After you talk to person #1, follow up with an email thanking them for their time and help. If you had good rapport with that person, want to keep in touch and stay on their radar and you feel comfortable, write them a quick email periodically and update them on your job search later on. If you come across an article about something you talked about or something they mentioned they’re interested in, email it to them.
Like everything else, informational interviews get easier with practice. You might want to have your first 1 or 2 with people who aren’t at your top choice companies, just to get the practice. This way, even if things don’t go as well as you hoped, it’s not so bad.

Also stay in touch periodically with the people who helped you and let them know what happened. A woman named M. was once set up on an interview (an actual job interview, not informational) by someone who was just a passing acquaintance. She got the job but never even followed up to let him know what happened or thank him. Very bad form.

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