How To Network Like Your Career Depends on It

Personal Development

I met up for a coffee with a family friend the other day. She graduated from University this summer and is applying for jobs. I asked her how it was going, and she said, “Bleak.” Prospects are “bleak,” her chances are “bleak,” the environment is “bleak.” Everything is “bleak.”

Unfortunately, she’s not entirely wrong. She is graduating into what could be one of the toughest job markets in decades. Unemployment is rising globally, and companies are freezing their recruitment processes as they prepare to experience the deepest recession since World War Two, according to the World Bank.

The landscape is worrying. But what I found just as worrying was my friend’s response when I asked her what she was doing to secure a job. She responded, “I’m filling in online application forms.” That was it.

I hate to break it to you, but that’s not enough.

Of course, you should fill out the form if that’s the requirement. But an online application form is the minimum threshold that an applicant needs to surpass to be considered for a role.

Securing a graduate role was difficult before the pandemic; it’s an inherently competitive process. This isn’t anything new.

In 2014, for example, consulting giant PwC received 24,000 applications for just 1,450 places on its UK graduate scheme alone. Graduates had a 6% chance of securing an offer. And the process is even more competitive today.

Things aren’t going to be easy. But there are ways to increase your chances of success, even if the opportunities have dwindled. There’s one skill in particular, that is both incredibly simple and incredibly effective: Networking.

Networking is about exchanging information and ideas with other people. It can be done in a formal or an informal setting, and it’s about learning from each other’s profession, each other’s interests, or simply each other’s experiences.

Here are six reasons why networking is vital for short-term and long-term career success, with six top tips on how you can up your networking game.

1. Networking can help you find a job

80% of jobs are never advertised. Who you know matters. A lot of hiring is done through word of mouth; someone knows someone, who has a cousin who knows someone who might be interested. You could be that someone! But you can’t just exist and hope an opportunity will land on your lap. You need to put yourself out there; talk to people about what you do.

You can be sure that whether you’re filling out an application form or going in for an interview, you’re going to be asked some version of “Why us?” and “Why you?” When you’re competing with thousands of other applicants, you can’t just reel off a list of inspirational phrases they use on their website. And there’s not much point in merely stating what they’ve already read from your CV.

The key is to match what you can do with what they’re looking for.

They’re not blind to the fact that you’ve never actually worked for them, so the knowledge you have of what they actually do is very limited. Networking with people who work in their industry or even at their company can help you harness the knowledge you need to impress them and stand out.

2. Networking can help you get promoted

Being promoted at work doesn’t just come down to how well you perform. Promotion decisions are heavily influenced by the supervisor’s subjective perceptions of an individual’s ‘promotability.’ You could be the best worker that the company has ever had, but your efforts are unlikely to be rewarded if people don’t know what you’ve achieved.

This doesn’t mean you should request a round of applause from the team every time you do something well. You’re employed to do things well. But it is important that people know when you’ve gone above and beyond what is expected of you. Building up a relationship with your peers and your supervisors will allow you to weave your successes into the conversation more casually.

It’s also an opportunity to show your interest in being promoted. Ask your supervisor what it is that they do, how they got to that role, and what their thoughts about their role are. Next time they’re considering who to promote, they’ll be more likely to consider you—you understand what the jump would entail, and you appear to be keen to put the work in.

3. Networking is a good way to keep your future options open

Networking isn’t restricted to people working in your industry or the industry you’re applying to work for. Networking with people from completely different backgrounds opens your mind to a world of possibilities.

There are so many roles I would never have imagined existed. This summer, for example, my parents invited some friends for dinner. They were a couple who retired in their young 50s. Unsurprisingly, I wanted to find out how they did this. It turns out that he had a particularly high paying job; he named pharmaceutical products. I mean, I knew someone had to do it, but I had no idea there was a particular job role for it.

Networking isn’t just about going to formal networking events; networking can happen in informal settings too. It’s about being attuned to the fact that there might be something you can learn from the people in your surroundings, wherever you may be.

You never know; you might get to 30 and feel that you want a career change. By that point, you’ll have a long list of careers to consider that you wouldn’t have imagined existed. And you’ll have a list of people to turn to for advice.

4. Networking is a great way to become commercially savvy

Learning about other people’s careers and experiences is a great way to become commercially savvy and enhance your credibility in any role. It can help you better understand your clients, customers, or even colleagues working in a different department to you.

When I first graduated, I worked in commercial sales briefly. I sold high-end coffee machines to a very broad range of clients in London—law firms, banks, hairdressers, tech start-ups, vets. Each client had a different need; they all had different priorities, and the better I understood them, the better I could align our products to what they needed and pitch them in a way that would make them see the benefits.

How did I understand their needs and wants? I networked. If I went to the hairdressers, I would ask about their struggles and how they thought things could be improved. I asked my friends who worked in law firms how the refreshment situation was like where they worked; this way, I knew how to explain why our USP was better than our competition.

Plus, when you’re working in a big or small company, you’re likely to have to work with people in different departments—people who have a different role to you. These people have their own priorities, their own wants and needs. Understanding these will help you be a much more cooperative team member and work towards results that benefit everyone.

5. Networking is a great way to boost your self-confidence

It might be daunting to make new connections at first, but once you get to know people at work, you’ll see that you start to feel more at ease. You begin to see people as people, not as ‘the scary boss’ or ‘the intimidating woman that sits by the printer.’ You’ll start to feel more relaxed and supported because you’ve built a support system for yourself, a network of people that you can turn to for advice when you need it.

6. Networking can improve your ideation potential

The more you network with other people, the more ideas you’re exposed to. Perspectives, possibilities and solutions that you may not otherwise have been aware of you. It helps you become a more creative problem-solver.

Plus, as other people begin to see that you’re an avid networker, someone approachable who’s happy to speak with other people, they’re likely to come to you next time they want to share an idea.

Plus, by networking, you can gradually build up a holistic vision of how things work in different departments and industries. There might come a time where you’re faced with a problem, and you need the knowledge of a range of people with different expertise. Having built relationships with a breadth of individuals, you’ll be able to bring the people you need together to draw the expertise you need to solve the problem.

1. Use LinkedIn Proactively

Many people use LinkedIn as an online platform where you can post your CV and increase your chances of being found by recruiters. And they’re not wrong; in the US, 87% of recruiters prefer Linkedin over any other form of social media to find job candidates. But recruiters will only approach you about jobs they’re interested in filling.

If you want to take ownership of your own career path and steer it in the way you want to go, use LinkedIn proactively. Reach out to people who you think you could learn something from. You can start by typing in the name of the company you’re interested in and selecting the ‘view X employees’ option to find a list of people who could be helpful.

Put some thought into your first message. Don’t just copy and paste a generic note to everyone. Introduce yourself, ask whether they have any availability to speak with you, and explain why you’re interested in speaking with them. Read through their LinkedIn profile and pick out the things that they’ve done that interest you. Explain what it is you’re looking to gain from the call and how they could help you.

Example:

Hi [name],

I’m [a student/a recent graduate/…], and I was wondering if you have any availability this week for me to give you a call. I came across your profile, and I was really interested by the fact that you [explain]. I’m interested in applying for jobs in the [X sector], and it would be really helpful to learn more about your experience.

Thank you very much in advance.

Best regards,

[name].

Importantly: Know that not everyone will reply! Don’t be discouraged. It’s nothing personal. People are busy, and not everyone has the time to take your call. The only way you can increase your chances of getting a ‘yes’ is by increasing your efforts. Just remember, the more you hear the word ‘no,’ the closer you are to a ‘yes.’

2. Have a list of questions prepared before the call

This is important for several reasons:

Calling up unprepared will show, and the person who agreed to take your call could become annoyed. Their intention is to help you by answering your questions, so have these ready; don’t make them feel like they’ve wasted their time.

You want to get everything you need from the conversation, so make the most of the opportunity.

You might find this person particularly helpful, and it could be interesting to maintain a long-term connection with them. You want this desire to stay in touch to be as mutual as possible; you want them to reach out to you too. So the more prepared and credible you appear, the better.

Do keep these questions out in front of you, but don’t use them as a script. You want the conversation to flow, so work them in casually.

3. Make a list of the people you spoke to

Make a list of who you spoke to, what they do, and what sector they’re in. It could also be helpful to make a quick summary after the call of the things you spoke about. That way, if you have questions in the future, you know how you can draw from your network in the most efficient way possible.

4. Follow-up with a thank you

Nobody owes us anything. I’ve been very lucky to have received advice from some amazing people who have kindly taken the time to help me, and I likewise do the same for anyone who reaches out to me. That being said, this generosity is not something to be taken for granted. People are busy. So when someone gives you their time, take a few minutes to write a simple thank-you email in response.

5. Follow-up periodically with your long-term contacts

You will see from your interactions with people that a lot of your contacts will be worth staying in touch with. Maybe you’ve hit it off on a personal level, or you’re interested in their work and want to keep up-to-date on their future projects, or they work in an industry that you might want to consider in the future.

Whatever the reason, remember to follow up with these people every once in a while. I like to connect with people on LinkedIn after a call. That way I can stay in touch by commenting on their posts or congratulating them on their milestones. You can do whatever works for you; it can be as simple as making a note on your calendar or setting a reminder on your phone. You don’t need to say much; just ask how they’re doing.

6. Think of a way you could help them

As I mentioned above, you want this relationship to be as mutual as possible. You want them to know that they can reach out to you, too, if ever they need anything. One way to let them know is by simply telling them that they can reach out to you whenever they need to. But sometimes actions speak louder than words. Show them that you’re eager to give something back. Recommend a book, a podcast, an article; it’s just about showing intention.

The term ‘networking’ can appear to be more daunting than it is. Whether you know it or not, you’ve been doing it your whole life. Every time you asked someone a question or listened to someone else’s experience, you were networking.

If the prospect of reaching out to strangers is too much to handle right now, start slow. Reach out to friends and family friends; ask them questions about their careers and interests. Then gradually begin to ask whether they have any connections that could help; start with friends of friends and build from there.

But if you do feel ready to go for it and reach out to a stranger, just know that most people want to help. So go for it!

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