I admit, like many of you I used to view “networking” as a dirty word. In college, I heard time and time again that “networking” was essential to my job search and the key to success in the workplace— yet no one took the time to tell me exactly what it meant and more importantly, how to do it. All I knew was that managers would much rather hire someone they knew a little about over a random applicant (which, of course, is not rocket science).
But then I went to graduate school for my business degree, where I was forced to network whether I liked it or not, and I soon learned a secret that I wish I knew as an undergraduate: Contrary to popular belief, networking does not mean “being fake” to get ahead.
Rather, networking simply means building relationships to increase your social and professional circle. Whether that’s chatting about your favorite sports teams over coffee with a colleague, reminiscing with classmates at an alumni event, or inquiring about what to order during an unexpected run-in with senior management while out to dinner with friends (yes, that actually happened to me!), networking can happen at anytime, anywhere.
What it doesn’t mean is emailing someone with whom you have no prior relationship to ask how you can get a job in their company (yes, I have received these kinds of emails). Even if the person responds, you have already given off the impression that you are simply using them and would have no interest in them otherwise.
My advice is to take advantage of any opportunity you have to practice networking by attending anything that will enable you to meet new people—including industry events, career panels, or even by setting up a “getting to know you/your role” (formally referred to as “informational”) coffee or lunch with colleagues or people you’ve met at previous events*.
Don’t be afraid that your invitation will be declined—if it is, it’s never personal. Then let the conversation flow organically by finding things you have in common to chat about, like that summer you spent backpacking around Europe or your love of Southern food.
Simply put: Be your engaging, charming self, and discussions about your career aspirations will come out inevitably. If you click with the person, great! You’ve just expanded your network and possibly gained a new friend. If you don’t, no worries—you’ve still expanded your network and gained important knowledge about a company or job at the very least.
Finally, remember that networking should be an ongoing activity, not one you simply do when you’re actively seeking a job. Not only will it become second nature as a result, but when you’re ready to start your career (or make a career change), you’ll have already built up a strong network of professionals who will be willing to help you out. At that point, it’s just a matter of leveraging the relationships you’ve already invested time in, allowing you to conduct your job search more efficiently.
An added benefit is that even if you’re not looking, you’ll be top of mind as a qualified candidate if an opportunity comes across the desk of someone in your network—another reason networking is a win-win proposition for all parties involved.
* Be sure to take advantage of social networks such as LinkedIn. Even if you do not have a direct connection with someone you’d like to speak to, one of your friends probably does. Ask that friend to make an introduction and take it from there!