Awkward. That’s the best word to describe how it feels to build a professional network by using your social contacts.
But “effective” is the best word to describe the outcome if you do it properly.
Katherine Assad, 23, graduated from Goldsmiths University in London with a Masters in International Relations. She couldn’t find a job in her field when she moved back to Toronto. After six months of unemployment, she decided to take charge of her situation and build a network in the hopes of leading to a job.
But how does one go about building a network if one is just entering the workforce? What if you’ve spent the last 4 years chugging Red Bull trying to finish a paper on Hegelian dialectic?
Building a network from the ground-up is challenging since it’s unlikely you know many professionals in your field. Rather, you probably have acquaintances who know somebody who know somebody who has a job that you someday want. But how do you get comfortable approaching these social contacts with an intention to use them for professional reasons?
At first, Assad found it “incredibly awkward” but then realized it was “something you need to accept you have to do.” Indeed, it is. At first, it may feel crass. Assad recommends, bluntly, that you just have to “get over the fear that you’re using people”.
It may help to realize that building a network is about meeting people who will provide you with relevant information about the field and about different opportunities that exist within it. Getting a job out of it is the ultimate goal, but it’s not what you should be focused on. So you’re not “using” your friends for their successful relatives, but rather using those pre-existing relationships to form new ones.
That’s where information interviews, when you meet with someone to discuss their field, come in. Unlike asking directly if there is a job opening somewhere, an informational interview takes the pressure off both of you. Simply asking someone for their expert knowledge, Assad says, makes him feel like he’s trying to help you, which puts you both on the same side.
But how do you get to the point where you‘re sipping lattes with an editor discussing the current state of Canadian journalism?
Get their contact info non-awkwardly
So your best friend’s father is in public relations and you just graduated with a degree in public relations. Hmm…what a coincidence! Remember: don’t ask your friend if their dad can land you a job. The goal is to build a relationship with him.
Ask your best friend something along the lines of : “Hey, I have an interview coming up with xx firm and I know your dad is in the biz. Do you mind if I call him to get some interview tips?”
Boom, contact info granted.
Or what if this guy you kind of see around at parties has an older brother who’s the manager of an NGO and you’re an over-eager unpaid intern at a charity who’s looking for a way to eat something more than ramen noodles?
The next time you see this casual acquaintance, start talking about how much you love your current position. Then casually say: “Oh, hey, isn’t your brother doing something for some NGO? (as if you haven’t stalked him on Linked-in already). When he says yes, say “wow that’s great, I’m kind of nervous about my future in this field, especially after the recession. Do you mind if I give him a call? He’d probably know a lot about it.”
Boom. Contact info granted.
Note: It’s vital that you get their contact information. Don’t depend on your best friend just telling their dad about you, they might forget and you don’t want to be annoying by repeatedly bringing it up.
Contact them non-awkwardly
Once you have their contact info, do the obvious and contact them, by phone or email.
“Hey xxx”. I’m a roommate/niece/dog-walker of xxx and he/she gave me your information. I was wondering if I’d be able to take you out for a quick coffee next week. I’m interested in getting into your field, and just graduated with an xx in xxxx. and I hear you are [position of person]. You obviously know a lot of about the industry and I’d love to learn more about it.”
How easy was that?
People are busy. No one owes you anything. Email and phone them again if you haven’t heard back in a few weeks.
After the information interview, you’ve planted the first seed in your attempt to grow a network. Now make sure to cultivate it. Send them an email or a note telling them it was great to meet with them and to keep in touch. Now, perhaps when they hear of a job opening, your name will spring to mind.
It’s scary, but capitalizing on your social network is key to starting a professional one.