For every networking plan we make to successfully reach out and engage with our connections, we dread the entire process. How can we promote ourselves and get the job referrals we need without being pushy or feeling awkward or inauthentic?
We know that up to 85% of open positions are filled through job referrals, not through applications. So it’s really unlikely that you will get the job you want, sign a client, or start a business without a networking plan.
This is especially important when it comes to the so-called “hidden job market”. These are the jobs that never even make it to the job boards. These are the positions that are discussed internally and for which there may not even be a job description. There’s simply a need or an idea. The employer is simply waiting for the right person to come along who will just be that role.
If you’re an older professional, these are actually the jobs you want.
They represent the ones that need unique skill sets, rich experience, and the ability to think critically and strategically. They most likely favor soft skills over hard skills. They’re perfect for someone like you with decades of experience and a broad perspective in your field.
So get off the job boards and develop a networking plan that can lead you to those hidden opportunities.
But this is the point where cognitive dissonance sets in. You know you need to network (or network more), but you’re turned off by the whole experience.
You Don’t Want to Lead With Your Need
If you have a problem making a networking plan, I get it. Maybe you’ve been burned by attending events that yielded no results or superficial connections that went nowhere. You also hate being put into situations where you wind up having to ask people you just met for favors.
“Well, if you know someone at Company Y, is there any way you would feel comfortable setting up an introduction for me?”
Even with people you know, calling them to ask for job referrals can be the most awkward conversation we can ever have.
Part of the reason this is so excruciating is that you also know what it feels like to be on the other side of that call.
That may be the second-most awkward conversation. Of course you feel bad for the other person. But their need and vulnerability are an uncomfortable reminder that you wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.
Feeling needy and vulnerable in the job market is tremendously discouraging and depressing. It makes you want to stay home, binge-watch every series on Netflix, and just pray for a miraculous phone call or email inviting you to interview for a great job.
Always Be Giving (ABG)
Since that scenario is largely a fantasy, I want to recommend an entirely different approach.
This approach doesn’t make you feel awkward or needy. It doesn’t involve you asking anyone for a favor. It will make you feel good about yourself and restore your sense of your own competence and value.
If you want to get those great job referrals, launch your second-act career, and ensure sustainable income for as long as you want to work, you have to start by giving unconditionally to your network.
Think of it as a seeding and cultivation plan for your career garden.
Your networking plan and practice become helping your contacts with their careers. By focusing on them and on their needs – not on yours – your career will be helped in return.
But you have to give first, and give a lot, before you can expect to receive.
Flipping the Pareto Principle
In this classic 80/20 paradigm, 20% of your effort accounts for 80% of your results.
In the case of networking, you want to flip the equation around.
For your networking plan, you should be spending 80% of your time giving, and only expect to receive 20% benefit in return. That means that for every 8 things you do for other people, you’ll maybe get 2 favors back.
This may sound like a lousy deal. Except that the alternative is to spend 20% of your time giving, and you will likely receive 0% in return. That’s because the 80% effort you spend making it all about you is going to turn people off and they will likely shut you out.
Don’t take these numbers literally. Think of the 20/80 idea more metaphorically. It is a way of framing the process and calibrating your expectation level as you engage with it.
You have to E.A.T.
What is the goal of your networking plan? Your goal is to meet the people you want to work with who also want to work with you. These are people with whom you share mutual respect. They value you for what you know, your ability and track record, and for your credibility and dependability.
Interestingly, Google thinks along very much the same lines when designing their algorithm to deliver search results.
Google prioritizes you based on who they perceive you to be. They have come up with the three-letter acronym E.A.T. that stands for Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness. The higher you rank for these three qualities, the more likely it is that Google will put you closer to the first page of search results.
It makes a lot of sense. I know it’s fashionable to bash Google and other tech companies. But this simple formula is very powerful. With it, they have tapped into the very effective psychology of mass marketing, influence, and building trust.
Incorporate this idea into your networking plan, and to the goal of meeting the right people and getting job referrals. If you are building your reputation as someone with these three qualities, you are more likely to get those references to the hidden job market and to other business opportunities.
Just as you don’t get to the first page of Google search results overnight, you have to put in significant effort to build your E.A.T. credentials in your network.
Adopting a Service Mindset
To begin earning these credentials, approach your networking interactions from a mindset that puts your prospective and current contacts first. Surrender your concerns about what you’re going to receive in return.
When you volunteer for a cause that you believe in, you’re never asking “What’s in this for me?” You already know that the reward you get is the feeling of purpose and connection by having given of yourself.
Ask anyone involved in service work why they do it, and they will likely laugh and tell you that they do it for entirely selfish reasons. They get that much satisfaction out of the work. The immediate results may seem intangible. But the accompanying rewards include greater equanimity, confidence, insight, and an enhanced ability to make personal connections.
In networking, seeing yourself in the same way will open up a tremendous opportunity for you to shine. By adopting an attitude of service, you immediately draw people to you. Your willingness to help others is a tremendous magnet. It is a mark of leadership – and authority.
By leading with your giving, you are building up a reservoir of good will. But because of how you engage with people, and what you do for them, you are also building up your E.A.T. credentials.
These are the experiences that people will use to vouch for you, promote you, introduce you to others, and make job referrals for you.
A New Way to Ask Questions
In classic networking advice, you are encouraged to ask questions. This is the best way to break the ice, loosen yourself and the other person up, and try to find common ground. Asking questions from a service mindset adds an important dimension and an effective framework around this process.
Don’t randomly think up questions on any topic in order to jump-start the conversation. Instead, ask yourself “What is it that I can do, or will be able to do, to help this person?”
While this doesn’t give you the specific question to ask, it gives you the context you’re going to use to direct the conversation. Yes, your purpose is going to be to figure out how you can help them.
Imagine how you would feel if someone came up to you at a networking event and was like this… angel… whose sole purpose was to help you out. What would you tell them? What would you confide to them?
You’re beginning to understand the power of leading with a service mindset.
Let’s look at how you can put this concept into motion.
What’s Your Portfolio?
Start with the fact that you are unique. As someone who has been around your business for awhile – decades more than likely – you have a lot to offer. It is tempting to feel intimidated by people who seem to be so much better at reaching out, whether in person or virtually. But bluster and flash just go so far.
You recoil at the superficial come-ons that wind up in your email inbox, or on LinkedIn, or at a physical event. Your goal is to actually be the opposite of those people.
Reflect on what you’re proudest of in the work that you’ve done. How have you made a difference for others you work with and have worked with in the past? What were the solutions, procedures, best practices, and lessons that you were able to use to help them? What are the skills or insights that you can pass on to someone else?
Draw from your extensive background, and distill your successes, your talents, your tips and tricks, and your takeaways. You might even want to write an outline of those reflections. Use it as a sort of cheat sheet when you’re about to engage in any form of networking activity.
This is your portfolio. It is the repertoire of what you are going to offer to others you meet and the relationships you are going to cultivate.
By focusing on these particular assets that you represent, you know that you are going to be able to provide successful advice and support for the people you meet. They will in turn respond positively to what you are offering, and that is the first way to create a new bond with a new contact.
It may seem obvious, but you have to be on the playing field to score points. In the physical, in-person world, that means attending industry-related events, meetups, lectures, workshops, and conferences. You already know the drill. Virtually, because of the pandemic, more and more events have moved online. New software solutions have been developed to closely approximate the live experience. These include networking breakout rooms where you can video chat 1:1 with someone that you meet in a larger virtual space. Virtual events are also looking to develop and promote other ways of encouraging 1:1 engagement.
In both physical and virtual spaces, your networking plan is to find opportunities where your particular expertise, skills, experiences, and affinities can be put to work for others.
- Anchor your career-related networking on LinkedIn. Engage on specific business themes and topics that relate to the work you do. Engage with other thought leaders by commenting on their posts. Work at developing your own thought leadership practice around the single most resonant theme at the core of your business value.
- Curate and share articles and consider writing and posting your own.
- Join LinkedIn Groups that focus on your business sector, and also on related sectors where you could find peers, mentors, advisors, and others whose world triangulates with yours. Seek out opportunities for mutual learning and support.
- In all of your engagements, be brief, be on-topic, be positive and don’t ask for anything (yet).
- Consider “managing up” by connecting to aspirational thought leaders you identify with. Even though a Richard Branson or Arianna Huffington may have millions of followers, they and their teams are always looking to make direct contact with fans and fellow travelers. Your profile may just fit the bill. Being in their community can give you added opportunity to connect to other like-minded contacts.
Keep a Log
Again, this may be obvious, but I’m always surprised by how many people don’t have a system when it comes to networking. Knowing who you’ve contacted, when, and what you discussed is vital to maintaining that connection.
Start a spreadsheet with name, first contact date, email address, who referred you (if applicable), LinkedIn URL, Notes on your conversations, and any other fields that you want to keep track of.
Use the log as a heuristic device to see where your networking exploration is taking you. As you grow your list, look for patterns to emerge around the type of people you’re connecting to. If you’re meeting people who are all in one definable cluster (e.g. occupation, location, age), then consider branching out and reaching out to a wider and more diverse circle.
In one of my other articles on networking, I talk about the Career Relationship Funnel idea, and how you can use it to better classify your connections.
Parsing your network into action-based categories helps you think more critically about your networking plan and your progress towards your goals.
This is probably the most valuable favor you can do for someone. One of the most important questions to consider when first connecting with someone new is: “Who can I introduce them to?”
The key is to learn as much as you can about your contacts so that you know who would be interested in whom.
- Research people’s backgrounds. Read their profiles thoroughly. Google them for more information. If they’ve published articles or books, read them.
- Track the schools they went to, companies they worked at, sports they follow, hobbies they engage in. Take note of their favorite books, magazines, blogs, movies, authors, speakers, and more.
- Who are they following on LinkedIn? Their list of aspirational thought leaders can be another window into understanding who they are.
Use all of this information to determine the key points that you and your contacts share in common – and that your contacts share with one another. Make this the critical thinking exercise that you do whenever you are browsing through contacts or reading through discussion threads.
Make Yourself Available
Offer to be of service. This doesn’t mean that you post an Update on LinkedIn saying: “Want help with your career? I’m available to talk to you for free!” You are not advertising yourself as a career coach.
It means that over the course of you engaging with people, both online and offline, a situation will likely come up where your background, experience, and expertise may be valuable. Your offer to help will make perfect sense in context of the conversation.
Think ahead. Before anyone needs to drum up the courage to ask you for a favor (make an introduction, review a resume, share business pointers), beat them to the punch and offer it.
Share Your Lessons
While it’s helpful to curate articles and to comment on other people’s posts and discussion threads, it’s important to be personal and transparent.
This may seem like a risky step to take, especially in an online virtual environment where it can appear easy to invite unwarranted judgment and criticism. But remember that in a business-oriented context like LinkedIn, everyone is using their real name and is there for one purpose: to improve their professional success.
Being appropriately open about your background is a great way to encourage people to connect with you on an emotional level. This paves the way for more interactions and opportunities, including, eventually, job referrals.
You may wonder exactly what you have that is so compelling and helpful that people will actually value you for what you share.
- You have decades of experience. Younger professionals in your field will look up to you for your achievements. They will have questions about companies you worked for and what it was like to work on a particular deal, or report to a well-known executive.
- You have perspective. I’m sure you regularly shake your head when you read about people or companies making avoidable mistakes as they do business. People will seek you out to provide a deeper level of insight based on your understanding of what works and what doesn’t.
- You understand the obstacles and the struggles. Having survived tough, turbulent experiences is your career is a badge of honor. This includes losing a job, working for a difficult boss, overseeing a bankruptcy, or weathering a volatile market. People will want to know how you did it, and how they can apply your resilience and tenacity to their own situations.
- You know how people work and interact. As you well know, so many problems at work stem from bad behavior and poor relationship skills. HR rarely seems to intervene in a constructive way. You probably have a wealth of advice about how to navigate office politics and help someone through a toxic workplace challenge.
These are just some examples of ways in which you can provide valuable support to people in your network. This will help burnish your expertise, authority, and trustworthiness.
It Has to Be a Win-Win
While your goal is to be available and to focus on the needs of your current and prospective connections, you also don’t want to be taken advantage of. As in any relationship, it is always important to set appropriate boundaries.
- What’s reasonable: a few emails, a phone call or a zoom. You don’t have to get drawn into long drawn-out exchanges with people. Send them a helpful article, a checklist or cheat-sheet, a link to a video or to a podcast. Answer a few questions they may have, but that should do it. If you hit it off with the person, great. Then you’ve opened up the door to a deeper exchange and a longer-term dialogue. But if your energy is flagging, and you dread the idea of continuing to communicate with this person, it’s OK to politely but firmly pull away. It’s not a fit.
- You don’t have to fix it. You can be positive and compassionate without having to be the solution to their problem or issue. What you’re offering is based on what you know and what you’ve done. You’re not a therapist or a coach (unless you are…).
Look for Upliftment and Synergy.
The more you engage from a service mindset, the more likely you will be to discover compatible colleagues you can work with on a deeper level. This is when you are likely to begin receiving the return on your Always Be Giving investment.
You’ll know when you have found someone who can become more of a partner in this process, and you can deepen bond over helping one another.
This could include:
- Proofreading one another’s resumes,
- Brainstorming your respective networking plans and, e.g., the best way to target the companies you’re interested in,
- Conducting mock interviews to feel more confident and prepared.
And, of course, making more mutual introductions and likely coming up with appropriate job referrals.
Imagine if over the next few months you were able to find two or three such people to add to your active network. These could even be candidates for your personal Board of Directors.
Start Your Portfolio List
To launch your networking plan, start with the list of qualities, experiences, and milestones that stand out in your career. Choose what could be helpful to someone coming up the career ladder, or struggling through their own career transition.
Take your time putting it together. Keep it handy so that you can add to it as you remember an appropriate experience or incident from your past that could be helpful or relevant.
By engaging in this reflective process, you’ll be ready to Always Be Giving to your network. You’ll be ready to receive the very real rewards (including job referrals) that will follow.