Networking is not just a buzzword -- it is the most important tool for people looking for a job or trying to advance their career. Especially now, when a challenging job market has led to pervasive networking fatigue, baby boomers need to know the dos and don'ts of effective networking. Based on my 20 years of experience as a career advisor, here are six major mistakes to avoid when networking for a new job.
1. Not having a plan.
It's crucial to have a clear understanding of why you are networking. When you've scheduled a networking conversation, know what you are looking for -- is it a job, information, a referral, or advice? One out-of-work client learned about the importance of having a plan the hard way after landing a networking conversation with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. When the CEO asked her how he could help, my client replied that she was "open to opportunities." The CEO then told her firmly that he wasn't her career counselor. Luckily, my client was able to see the CEO again after she did some career planning, and the CEO introduced her to someone at the firm who hired her. Remember that you help your contacts help you by knowing what you want and by being specific about it.
2. Focusing on your needs instead of building relationships
Networking is about developing a mutual support system. Don't just ask for help - do your best to provide your networking contacts with something that would be of true value to them, whether it's information, advice, a referral, or picking up the tab for breakfast. In networking, using the "we" word often pays dividends. For instance, one client landed a networking conversation with the new Chief Technology Officer of a media firm, but at that point the CTO was new to the organization and was not comfortable giving my client additional referrals. My client, who had much heavier media experience than the new CTO, sent a series of media-related articles to the CTO over a span of six months. The CTO found the articles extremely helpful, and seven months after the initial meeting he introduced my client to one of his industry contacts, who hired him.
3. Keeping poor records
In my experience, it often takes far more networking conversations to land a job in today's economic climate than it did 15 years ago. To help you keep track of who's who in your network, maintain an electronic database of everyone you speak to - names, addresses, job titles, telephone numbers, and key details regarding what you talked about as well as any promises made by either party. Don't do what a client did, which was to keep names and contact information on pieces of paper that he continuously lost.
4. Sharing contacts' private information
A former client who networked with the Chief Marketing Officer of an oil company did not keep the executive's private telephone number and email address confidential. The client consequently destroyed his relationships with both the Chief Marketing Officer and the colleague who made the original referral. The lesson: never, ever give out a contact's private information without his or her explicit permission.
5. Not using social networking as a tool to help you land face-to-face conversations
A new client came to me and said that he was an excellent networker because he had 500+ connections on LinkedIn. I told him that he wasn't networking -- he was simply a social networking junkie. My client had to learn that a social networking presence is only worth the face-to-face interactions it creates. Use social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook as research tools to help target new potential networking contacts, keep up-to-date on your current contacts, and find connections between people you know and people you'd like to know. When you find someone you'd like to approach, send a brief message asking if he/she could spare 20 to 30 minutes for a networking conversation in person or over the phone. Remember that face-to-face contacts are the warmest and yield the most benefit, so try to arrange them whenever you can.
6. Pestering your contacts
Five years ago, when social networking was new and the economy was booming, my clients might receive three or four networking requests per month. Now, in a difficult economy and when everyone is up to their eyeballs in social networking, many people feel "networked out." So it's important in this period of networking fatigue to be very respectful of your contacts' time. Check in with your contacts occasionally and let them know how you're doing, but don't pester them. If you're waiting to hear back about a possible referral or job opening, it's ok to follow up with a contact every two weeks, but it's not ok to follow up every day. Never make a contact feel like you are asking him or her to be your personal HR officer. And never, ever sound desperate.
Networking can be a powerful tool if you know how to focus your networking efforts strategically and understand that the practice is ultimately about building relationships.