Project Management Institute

It's always time to network



Nothing increases networking like an economic downturn. Over the last few months, several people have contacted me because they were looking for work. They were networking because they heard that, “Networking is the best way to find a new job.” While that's true, it's not quite right.

“Networking is much more effective when applied as a strategy to manage your career on an ongoing basis vs. just when you need a job,” says personal coach Kevin Bourne of Ceridian LifeWorks, N. Royalton, Ohio, USA. “If you are applying networking as a career-management strategy, you are always networking.”

“Career-management” networking is a continuous effort to build relationships, and its primary benefit is the exchange of information or favors, not just the discovery of job openings. The exchange can be as simple as providing a Web address or making an introduction. But the career-management approach requires you to contribute to the network, not just take away from it. You need to do this before you end up jobless. “For this strategy to work well, you've got to be continually building a network before you have a specific need,” says Bourne. “It's important to remember that networking is all about relationship-building.”

When outplacement counselors say, “Get out there and network,” they often send people out empty-handed to become “takers” from existing networks they did not help create. While there is some give and take in any network, it's not necessarily a quid pro quo situation, literally “something for something” where all exchanges are equal. The exchanges may be unequal, with one person gaining more than another. The key is having an exchange—it can't be all take and no give.

“Career-management” networking is a continuous effort to build relationships, and its primary benefit is the exchange of information or favors, not just the discovery of job openings.

One of the people who contacted me confessed to not having had a network in place before the layoff. I can understand that. We often focus on day-to-day demands and don't get around to making any contacts. Some people also find it difficult to reach out to others. “Introverts have a very hard time with networking,” says Bourne, “because it requires some effort to get out of the ‘comfort zone.'”

Getting Started

To begin creating a career-management network, Bourne advises breaking networking into small pieces by identifying three people you would like to meet. If you have a mutual acquaintance, ask for an introduction. If not, first write a letter, then phone or send an e-mail. After the initial contacts, Bourne suggests requesting a short personal meeting or lunch.

“Never ask a networking contact for a job,” says Bourne. “It's embarrassing if they don't know of one and if they like what they see when they meet you, they'll bring up the fact that they're looking for someone.” It's better to ask for additional contacts or advice. “A successful networking meeting,” says Bourne, “may just be limited to discussion about the industry trends, people you know in common, or swapping ‘war stories.' But as a rapport develops, either party may gain some useful information that can help to solve important real-world problems.”

He follows his own advice, finding new contacts and staying in touch with old ones. But even though he's a coach, networking is not easy for him to do because he's also an introvert. He's learned to network. “We don't have a networking gene,” says Bourne. “We have to learn how to do it. People who are more extroverted really enjoy meeting new people, but introverts like me find it to be a real challenge. Still, it's a very important thing to do.”

The irony of the career-management approach is that after you build a network and keep it active, job offers may come your way as a secondary benefit. Numerous surveys have shown that most job openings are never advertised and are filled by personal referral, meaning the employer seeks candidates from colleagues and friends, and not via the classified ads. If you ever need to seek a new position—by choice or by necessity—the career-management network then can become a job-hunting network because you've already paid your dues. “After all,” says Bourne, “if you have an existing relationship, people are much more likely to be willing to help than if you're meeting them for the very first time.” PM


John Sullivan, PMP, is employed with an automotive retailing information services provider.

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