August 7, 2012
Unfocused networking: the hidden job-search killer
It's one of the most ironic twists of the networking scene these days: While so many people (employed and unemployed alike) seem perfectly willing to lend advice, assistance and support to their fellow human beings, few job seekers go about asking for help in a specific, actionable way.
While there a few bad apples out there, I'm blown away each day by the generosity and compassion most Seattleites have in their hearts -- and how eager they seem to be to provide a leg up to those around them. (I'm serious about this.)
The problem? In the very same breath, these people tell me that most of the job hunters they encounter don't seem to really know what they want or need help with. Instead, the common complaint is that most ask for assistance in such a generalized way ("Do you know about any leads or openings in my field?") that it's impossible to provide anything but a generalized, next-to-useless response ("Gee, not off the top of my head, but I'll keep my eyes and ears open for you!")
One highly connected good Samaritan I know says that over the past few years, he's received dozens of requests each week from people seeking access to his Rolodex or to pick his brain over coffee or lunch. While he tries to help as much as he can, he has only so much time in the day and has to earn his OWN living. So he hasn't been able to keep up with the sheer number of networking requests he receives, despite the fact that he sincerely wants to be a resource to those around him.
He finally figured out an effective way to tackle this problem. When people now call him for assistance and invite him out to a meal or coffee, he responds by saying, "Gosh, I'd love to, but I'm really tied up for the next month or two and might not be able to break away. I happen to have five minutes right now, however. What can I help you with?"
The punch line? He says that 95 percent of the people who contact him can't answer this question in a meaningful way. They hem. They haw. They respond with ambiguous statements ("Well, shucks, I don't know. Can you maybe think of anybody I should talk with about potential opportunities?"). And while he always tries his best to share something useful, he says that in hindsight, he's usually glad he didn't spend a full hour or two with the person, working through a painfully half-baked agenda.
If this sounds in any way like the strategy you're following, I'd suggest that you retool your approach. Before reaching out to anybody to network, think hard about the concrete and specific things the people you're contacting might be in a unique position to assist you with. What insights can they share that someone else likely can't? What subjective information can they provide you with that you can't harvest off the Internet? What specific answers, wisdom or guidance does their background put them in an ideal position to share?
For example, if you're speaking with somebody who has done a lot of hiring, you might ask him or her to give you constructive feedback on your resume, cover letters, career direction or interviewing skills. If the person works in an industry you're trying to break into, you could ask for some insights into this new sector, the current trends/challenges it might be facing, and the groups around town that it might be most beneficial for you to join. These are all much more targeted and appropriate requests than what the majority of job hunters seem to be running with these days.
Alternatively, if your No. 1 networking goal involves trying to generate referrals, don't put the burden of proof on your networking partners or ask them to just pull some company names at random out of a hat. Instead, provide them with a list of specific companies you've researched and determined are of interest to you -- then ask if they have heard any scuttlebutt about these organizations or have any contacts who might be able to help you get a foot in the door.
You get the idea. The clearer you are about what you want from people, and about the information you need to move forward in your career, the better the odds that you'll walk away from each networking encounter with useful referrals and next steps.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
Paul Anderson helps professionals in transition find their desired employment.
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