No matter where you are in your career, networking is one of the best ways to learn about an occupation, company culture and changes in the industry. If you have been with one employer for a number of years, you probably want to learn what is trending in other companies. If you are about to graduate, you want a better understanding of the day-to-day routine and duties of a job to assess its fit.
Networking is about building relationships, learning and sharing information -- it's not about hitting people up for a job.
You don't need to attend group networking events. In fact, one-on-one networking can be even more productive for building a relationship. Start by identifying people you want to meet with. If you don't have a lot of experience, begin with friends, family and people you know well. These contacts are more likely to help by sharing information and offering referral names. Practicing with them will build your confidence and prepare you for higher-stake conversations with people who don't know you.
Asking for a meeting is pretty simple, yet many people dread it. All you're requesting is to have a 20 to 30 minute meeting to get advice or ask for an opinion. Be specific about the type of information you're looking for.
Your request to meet with someone should always be done on an individual basis, and should be made by phone, although email will work too. Sending out an email blast to all of your contacts isn't going to work. Most people won't respond.
Compile a dossier on the person you will be meeting with. It might include Internet search results, his or her LinkedIn profile, publications, news releases, speaking engagements or other news articles in which they have been mentioned. Conduct the same type of research to learn about the company he or she works for. There are two benefits to this: First, it will help you feel more comfortable during the meeting, and second, it allows you to develop questions to ask during the meeting. Your questions will be unique to your situation, but here are some sample questions from a Come Recommended article by Julie Gamache, "25 Questions to Ask In An Informational Interview:"
-- How did you land your current job? How did you get to where you are?
-- What do you do during a typical day/week? (If he or she says every day is different, ask him or her to describe a recent day.)
-- What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
-- What do find most enjoyable?
-- What do you like most about your company?
-- How is your company different from similar ones?
-- What do you wish you knew when you were in my position?
-- What hard skills are important for your job?
-- What soft skills make someone excel in this industry?
-- How do you stay updated on industry trends?
As a final preparatory step, jot down an agenda. You should do this even if you are meeting with a good friend, because it's good practice and will help ensure you cover all the important topics and get your questions answered. Your agenda might flow something like this: the meeting's purpose, your pitch or introduction, your questions and your closing, which should include your request for additional people to speak with.
Even during a casual meeting, you want to stay on track and value the time someone has allotted to speak with you. The agenda and prepared questions will help you accomplish your goal. To build rapport and trust, begin your meeting with small talk and establish a connection with the person. Use your research, current events or even the weather to get the conversation started. Follow your agenda, but also remember to thank the person for their time both at the beginning and the end of your discussion. Your prepared questions should include topics such as the progression of his or her career, the company culture and recommendations for skill development. Most importantly, listen carefully to what the person says and use active listening skills to ask follow-up questions.
It is quite possible you won't be able to cover all the questions or topics you planned. Remember, networking is not a once-and-done activity. Ask the person you are meeting with if he or she would be open to future conversations or be willing to answer additional questions you may have. By doing this, you are getting permission to follow-up.
Thank yous go a long way in cementing a relationship and demonstrating professionalism. Technically, it doesn't matter if you choose to send a thank-you email or send a note through snail mail. What is most important is sending some form of thanks. If you have actions items to follow-up on, be sure you let your initial contact know the outcome. It is the little communication details that will help you develop a reputation of being thoughtful and someone to recommend in the future.
Hannah Morgan is a speaker and author providing no-nonsense career advice; she guides job seekers and helps them navigate today's treacherous job search terrain. Hannah shares information about the latest trends, such as reputation management, social networking strategies, and other effective search techniques on her blog, Career Sherpa.
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