Job hunters often hear an old saying that pertains to finding employment: “It’s not what you know, it’s whom you know.” The adage refers to the timeless activity of networking. Much of today’s networking occurs online through such platforms as LinkedIn and Alignable, but the old tried-and-true methods still work and still yield results. However, none of it happens without an investment in effort, time, and good “people skills.”

Why bother?

HelpGuide.org states that no other method for finding a job beats networking, because:

  • People do business primarily with people they know and like. Resumes and cover letters alone are often too impersonal to convince employers to hire you.
  • Job listings tend to draw piles of applicants, which puts you in intense competition with many others. Networking makes you a recommended member of a much smaller pool.
  • The job you want may not be advertised at all. Networking leads to information and job leads, often before a formal job description is created or a job announced.

In addition, the reasons supporting the networking effort extend beyond merely landing your next job. When your friend needs a referral, how likely are you to suggest one? If you demonstrate a willingness to listen to and learn from the wisdom of others, you encourage people to mentor you. Recommending a friend’s business to someone may result in that friend recommending a customer to you for other goods or services. Network connections can share experiences, learn how to handle difficult circumstances from those who have undergone and overcome the same problems, inform you of burgeoning market trends, introduce new concepts and inspire you toward personal innovation, and bring you into contact with unrelated businesses that may become blessings in disguise.

Networking basics

The essence of networking lies in establishing rapport with people who can help you. Business professionals know this. However, blatant effort to establish a friendly connection with someone just to profit from that connection makes a person feel used and, frankly, disinclined to help the job seeker.

Networking runs the long game. This is not a short-term pursuit that harvests fast results. You must invest your time and energy into forming a relationship built upon amiable trust and cooperation and, yes, reciprocity. That may entail offering your service on a pro bono basis to build goodwill. It may involve giving good advice or extending a referral to another expert. Even though the motivation for the relationship may be based in financial consideration, it’s the absence of sales pitches and the genuine interest of one person in another that initiates the conversation and builds that mandatory rapport and trust.

That doesn’t mean you don’t employ a carefully developed networking strategy. According to Tyron Guiliani, a member of the Forbes Coaches Council: 

But social selling is a more targeted strategy. It’s all about leaning on your social networks to find, qualify and close prospects. It’s “social” because you build those necessary relationships online with answers to customer questions and content that engages the consumer until they’re ready to buy.

Don’t be offended by the reference to selling. That’s what professional networking is: selling. Only instead of trying to sell a product or service, you’re selling yourself in a nonprurient sense. The lesson here is “Become the type of person other people want to meet.” In other words, put time and effort into making yourself interesting so that people will come to you. Interesting does not translate to weird attire or mannerisms—that just makes you odd and conspicuous. To be interesting to others, you must have something of value or interest to offer.

For instance, when the inevitable question arises as to your profession, make it intriguing. For instance, my brother works for a company that leases jet engines. When they hired him, he summarized his job in four words: “I repossess jet engines.” Wow! That gets the mind cranking with intrigue, because the next question is: “How do you do that?”

The Balance Careers suggests other sources for potentially helpful people include mentors, colleagues, and college professors. Even if you have a job now, chances are you won’t work there for the rest of your life and neither will your coworkers. Colleagues move from job to job and make connections to whom they may be glad to refer a friend. Mentors see ambition and a willingness to learn, good traits in someone to recommend to one of their colleagues or for promotion. College professors often have acquaintances among the business community and may be willing to recommend their former students for employment.

Networking events

With face-to-face networking, the social connection influences whom you help and those who help you. Networking events flourished in the pre-internet days and remain a viable venue for establishing helpful connections. The key to making the best of such events is to focus on quality, not quantity. Handing out your business card like raffle tickets doesn’t endear you to fellow professionals; however, engaging with and spending time with someone—even if it’s just one person—makes an indelible impression that can work in your favor. If you’re not sure how to go about that, read Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Networking events don’t often occur labeled as such, although business networking forms a significant purpose in many professional events such as chamber of commerce meetings, professional and trade associations, interest-based events, and even civic-minded and religious group activities. Don’t discredit volunteer activities as a great source for meeting helpful contacts and keeping your skills sharp. You never know: the CEO of the company where you’d like to work may volunteer with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter, and your volunteer participation may demonstrate just the qualities he or she is looking for in a new employee. Perhaps your involvement as a volunteer or member of the local arts council will bring you into regular contact with someone who can help your career move forward.

Trade meetings and industry conferences also offer prime opportunities to make professional connections and meet new people. Business Network International (BNI) is a cross-industry professional organization specifically established for the purpose of referral networking. Be aware that many such organizations and groups require payment of membership dues and their conferences may be expensive.

Maintain the connections

People want to feel valued and appreciated for who they are, not for what they can do for you. After meeting someone and establishing a friendly rapport, keep up the goodwill through social media and even subsequent personal interaction. Take your new friend out to lunch at that just-opened restaurant you both have been wanting to try or invite him or her to the weekend barbeque. Share articles that you think would be of interest to your new friend. If the new connection is a vintage auto enthusiast, suggest attending a nearby exhibition or car swap. Recognize birthdays and other milestones. Take a personal interest and find commonalities that strengthen the connection. Do all this before you ask for a favor or a referral, because everyone is willing to do a little extra for a friend.

Who knows? You might actually find yourself with a wonderful new friend who really is a friend, not just a professional connection.

Final words about quality networking

When you attend an industry event, conference, or business group meeting, you and every other person there have similar goals. You know that and they know that. Therefore, be prepared to reciprocate.

Reciprocity may require tracking your network. Build a spreadsheet of people you meet, your impressions, and subsequent contact with them. By recording such data, you can establish trends and patterns and evaluate the quality of your network. It could be that you’re the one who does all the giving. As advice columnist Ann Landers states, others cannot take advantage of you unless you allow it. Give the network time to grow and evolve before allowing connections to fade or severing them entirely.

Don’t hesitate to initiate or ask for an introduction. Online platforms and business networking events exist to bring people into contact with each other an expedite helpful acquaintanceships. If the quality of your network is such that you’re not connecting with people in a position to help you, then use these platforms to their fullest extent to reach out the people who do have that capacity.

Especially for women building their professional networks, be cautious when expanding your professional network. Always meet with a stranger in a public setting, such as a coffee shop. Look out for predators who prowl through online platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn: they exist and should not be encouraged. Neither apologies nor explanations are necessary when severing a connection due to an unwanted proposition from an online acquaintance.