Networking is a dirty word to most people, but it's so important to your job search. Experts estimate the majority of jobs are not advertised and are found through networking. That tells us that networking is essential in today's job market. Nowadays, many people think exclusively about online networking, but traditional, face-to-face networking is still the most effective way to land a new job.
Perhaps "connecting" is a better term for it. Not all networking is formal and done at a conference or event. It can be done anywhere and at any time. The most important rule is to be open and ready. Always carry your business cards with you (get some if you don't have them; Vistaprint is easy to use and inexpensive) and be prepared, whether you're on a plane, on the subway to work or at the post office. Maybe your handyman will learn that you sell insurance and ask for your number. These things can and do happen all the time, but you have to be open and seize opportunities.
Step 1: Think outside the box (and the Internet). Social events are prime places to network, since people are more relaxed. You could run an errand and land a new client while waiting in line. Don't think it would never happen to you, because there are many stories out there of how people landed jobs, clients or a new idea for a business by an unexpected encounter. If you think a book club is not for you, think again. People don't only discuss books there; you could also end up with an in for a new job. Putting yourself out there is the first step to getting where you want to be professionally. You shouldn't wait for jobs to come to you or shoot off résumé after résumé and expect to hear back; go out and engage people and you will end up discovering opportunities.
Step 2: Listen actively. Try to actively listen to everyone you meet. Even if it doesn't turn out to be a job-related opportunity, it's good practice. Ask a question, listen to the answer and ask a follow-up related to what she just said. Then listen again. It sounds simple, right? You have to tune in solely to that person, so pretend she is the only person in the room, store or wherever you are. Silence your phone and any other device so you can be fully present in the conversation. At a social, professional or networking event, there's likely to be a lot going on around you, so try and block that out and focus on your new contact. It may mean asking the person to step to a quieter corner, saying you have trouble hearing over the loud music or crowd noise. If you listen well, he or she will remember you as an engaging person, a desirable quality in almost every job.
Step 3: Reach out. It is always in your best interest to send a quick email to tell the person you were happy to meet them. Recall a memorable snippet of the conversation, preferably something personal or professional where you felt you connected. Maybe you like the same author or both of you love to cook -- can you recommend a relevant book or recipe? If something doesn't readily come to mind, you can write, "I enjoyed learning about the challenges you face in your job at [company name]," or "It was a pleasure to meet you. I look forward to staying in touch." If you can be more specific, it's better. Writing a substantive reply will increase the likelihood that your new contact will remember you. You never know when someone who you've met can help you, so you want to create a lasting impression.
Step 4: Engage. Reply to all emails. Acknowledging receipt of an email lets the sender know definitively that you've opened and read it. Yes, you can use the read receipt feature in Outlook, but it's not the same. A reply lets the sender know that the message was received, likely read and considered. When someone doesn't respond to an email you sent, you probably start wondering a week or so later if they got it. No one likes to have to guess or send a follow-up email, and you don't want to be the one who caused it. It is quick and easy to answer an email and it's a way to retain a positive impression in your contacts' minds.
Step 5: Continue the contact. Don't let the contact linger. It's not easy to recover if you wait a year to contact the person you met a the baseball game, because you just discovered his company has a job opening. Follow up with your contacts every six months to a year. You can create an email folder for correspondence and check it every six months to see to whom you should write and check in. While you may be a social media expert and may not see how staying in touch with a software engineer will help you, consider this: Maybe he or she will end up working for your dream company or at a place where you've applied to a job? If someone does help you out, send a thoughtful email to say thank you and offer to return the favor by asking how you can be of help.
When you meet someone for the first time, whether it's on the street, the metro, at a restaurant or at a networking event, it is just the beginning of a relationship. Networking and professional relationships, just like personal relationships, need nurture and care. It will only take a few minutes of your time to email, respond and follow-up. Those few minutes may significantly influence your future career in a way you never even considered or didn't think possible.
Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet (@careervalet), which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had in order to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Marcelle holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.
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