Networking is one of your absolute best job-search and career-building tools. But for job seekers who aren’t networking pros, the whole thing can feel pretty scary. For the most part, networking contacts are more than willing to help if you approach them in the right way. Just remember that sincerity, respect and letting them see the real you goes a long way.
Of course, there are also lots of ways to screw up relationships of any kind – including networking. While any given networking relationship can last the life of your career, for this post, I’d like to focus on initial networking contacts and meetings. Feel free to add your own stories and things to watch out for!
8 Things NOT To Do With a Networking Contact
1. Forget to thank them properly after the phone call, e-mail exchange or informational meeting.
Such a small point, but so lasting an impression. Someone I once worked with contacted me and I met with her. She was very excited about what she was trying to do with her career. I listened, offered some suggestions plus a name or two, and wished her luck. She shook my hand, asked if she could use me as a reference…and then she left. I never got a thank you or even heard from her again. It leaves an impression, but not a good one.
And this was someone I once worked with! What’s to make me think she wouldn’t leave a similarly self-absorbed impression with folks I suggested she contact, who of course also would be checking in with me. If you didn’t already guess this, networking contacts talk to other networking contacts and, in turn, they talk to their contacts. So remember…the impression you leave one place can travel far – and so can a heartfelt thank you.
2. Approach your meeting without focus.
You may still be in the exploration stage, but when meeting with a potential networking contact narrow down your areas of interest as best you can, so they can see you’ve at least seriously thought about what you want – even if the exact picture remains unclear. You want to engage them in your vision and goals. And if you are just starting out (or starting over) make sure you take the time beforehand to know yourself – your values, your skills, your strong interests, and the kinds of things you might like to try. And show enthusiasm for things you really care about. That way, if you aren’t 100% sure of the job or career you want, you leave room for someone to say “Gee…I don’t know anyone in those fields, but have you ever thought of…” But just walking into a meeting and saying “I have no idea what I want. What do you think?” may get you feedback, but it doesn’t leave the impression of someone who knows how to tackle uncertainty…a very big part of the workplace and life!
3. No follow up or too much follow up.
Similar to my story about not thanking people, following up after a networking contact helps people know you appreciate their effort, sets up the possibility of an ongoing relationship (assuming they show signs of actually wanting to continue – like saying “please stay in touch”), and helps keeps them invested in your success. But that doesn’t mean you write or call them every week and assume more of a relationship than is indicated by their own responses to you. Just like with any relationship, respect and sincere communication goes a long way. At the very least, if you get a job, let them know the good news and thank them again.
4. Making it the YOU STORY…
And not seeming at all interested in them. Actually being interested in them – and not just pretending to be interested – helps break down barriers. Again the strongest networking contacts are built on two-way relationships…even if you’re never going to be bffs. At the very least, watch for things they mention that you might ask about. (To help pick up on such things, do your research ahead of time so you know something about them or the company they work for.) You can also ask questions about how they got where they are or what made them choose this career, both to help build rapport and help give you some ideas. If you sense any discomfort at all about such questions (some people are extremely private), just smile and get back to your own career needs. It does take staying aware, but as with any interview, you need to be in the moment and listening anyway.
5. Getting too familiar too soon.
Speaking of privacy, while it’s important to do your research if at all possible…you don’t want to use what you find to step out of bounds at this tentative stage. Make sure you wait for the right opening or follow up on something they said before getting at all personal. And when (if) you do, proceed gently and wait to see if they react positively. If not, as I said before, just move on. The wrong approach is: “Hey! I googled you and see you really love tennis. Me too! (Contact is already cringing as you continue…) Where do you like to play?” The same goes for “I see you live on 6th Avenue near that little deli I always go to.” Uh oh. This is too much too soon…could even conjure up the image of potential stalker. But if they bring it up first…it’s now fair territory – as long as you stay away from stalkerville, of course.
The best bet is to keep the meeting conversational, but at a comfortable and respectful distance especially when using information you found on the internet or through mutual contacts. This might be the only time you speak, but you sure don’t want to leave a bad taste behind. And you never know when your paths – or paths of folks you have in common – may cross again.
6. Engage the little white lie to connect.
Contacting people on LinkedIn or some other online social networking site by saying they are “colleague” or “friend” or “we’ve done business together” if you don’t really know them could perhaps find an opening, but it will more likely turn them off. (It does me.) To help connect to people you don’t know on LinkedIn, you might join a group they’re in, which lets you contact the person. (Alumni or other specialized groups are especially helpful. But you still have to give them a reason to want to connect.) Or you can find people in common and ask for an introduction. You can also use “other” on LinkedIn if you have their e-mail address. (If not, use your ingenuity to find it and then try to make a short compelling case for yourself.)
Finding clever legitimate ways to connect is far better than the “white lie” since one way the picture you paint is creative, the other way, while it shows you aren’t afraid to push through barriers (a good thing at times), it also shows you’re willing to lie, a sour aftertaste that can linger. And, of course, the “no fibbing” rule holds true for in-person meetings too, where let’s say you pretend to know them to get yourself in the door. As I said, there are other ways. And just a thought…if the person thinks lying is ok, what would keep them from using lies when dealing with you? (If only I had thought of this when I dated a certain rock musician.)
7. Argue with them or dismiss what they’re telling you. You might think that’s obvious, but I was caught off guard by a recent graduate whom I’m helping with his job search. Although he’s looking for a full-time job, he was telling me about a cool part-time project he found in the meantime. Something he said reminded me of an article I had just read about potential problems in the industry; but when I mentioned it, without asking me more questions or even taking the time to think of possible ways it might be helpful – or at least worth considering – he simply dismissed what I said, saying it had nothing to do with what he’s working on. “Ok. Just a thought,” I said ready to move on. But he kept pushing his point without even looking for a way to at the very least show my effort was appreciated. I guessed I’d caught him at a bad moment when he was feeling stressed – or maybe he just thought I was butting in. But still hard not to remember what seemed like a knee-jerk dismissive reaction. Is this how he is in business?
Even though none of us can be on our best behavior, it’s good to remember that people generalize from a networking moment to how a person might behave in the workplace. Luckily in this case, you’ll be happy to know, he ran into me a week later and told me he looked up what I mentioned and it was useful for his project after all. In fact, he was excited to have found this information and apologized for his attitude, confiding he had indeed been stressed out. For me, his follow-up and sincere explanation – plus the extra effort and intellectual excitement that went into fully researching the issue – helped create a much more positive image of what he’d be like to work with. But still…it pays to take a breath or two before telling someone their ideas have no merit. The networking contact you save may be your own.
The good news: As in this case, even if you do screw up in the moment, you can usually recover later if you do it sincerely. Almost always worth a shot.
8. Assume that because you aren’t speaking about a specific job you aren’t networking.
Following up on the last point, almost anyone can be a networking contact at one point of your career or another. Impressions are built any time you speak to someone or they hear about you. So, basically, we’re networking most of the time we’re in contact with others – or when leaving footprints on the internet. You might as well make the best impression possible as often as possible. People you meet today at any level, yes even receptionists or folks who work in the mail room, as hard as it may be for you to imagine, may one day be the person that opens a career door for you. Or you for them. As I said, it goes both ways.