Best Practices: Networking

Dec 11, 2020

It’s challenging to get the approach to networking right during normal times, and even more so this year.

Research demonstrates that those who network effectively, both internally within their organizations and externally, have higher career satisfaction and salaries. Up to 80% of positions are filled through personal and professional connections. Even if you’re not looking for a job yourself, networking is a way to softly prospect for customers or partners, identify talent, and refine your thinking about career and business opportunities. 

In order to identify best practices for networking, we pored over the research and talked to experts in HR, recruiting, and career coaching. Here’s what we found:

“The biggest misnomer is that networking is intended for us to receive something,” Becky Cotton, a former executive coach at Google and former lead of its internal coaching team, told us. “Networking is also about helping others and staying connected to what is going on for them and how you might help. A good network is a give-and-take relationship that is ‘cared for and fed’ intentionally over time.”

LinkedIn is your professional landing page. Rob Humphrey, a former recruiter and career transition expert, advises his clients to consider networking like a marketing funnel, with yourself as the product—how would you market yourself? Humphrey says that LinkedIn has largely replaced the resume, so consider it your landing page. Start with an audit of your professional profiles—update your work history, highlight relevant skills and hobbies, and ensure that you have a well-lit headshot for your profile picture.

If you’re new to active networking, start with your immediate circle—friends, former colleagues and family. Set a goal to reach out to a certain number of people each week and shoot them a quick note. The pandemic offers a natural ice-breaker to authentically check-in to see how that person is doing. There doesn’t need to be a specific ask in your message, but be sure to share a quick update about yourself to help keep the connection warm.

Building out your network is the next step. “Take your time to do the research: thoughtfully consider how a person might add value to your network and, in return, how you might add value to theirs,” advises Annabel Norman, a global executive search consultant. Some ideas to get you started:

  • What companies interest you the most? 
  • Are there certain teams that you’d like to join? 
  • Are there certain titles or positions that you aim to reach? 
  • Are there certain business partners who you’d like to work with from your current role? 
  • Agendas for past conferences or virtual events in your focus area could provide ideas for people you might want to connect with.

Search on LinkedIn for people you’re interested in connecting with and see who your mutual connections are. Surprisingly, LinkedIn research has found that second- and third-degree connections are more likely to refer candidates for jobs than first-degree connections, and that at least 50% of LinkedIn users have used mutual connections to get jobs. 

Ask a mutual connection if they would be comfortable sending a short note introducing you to contacts you identify. Offer to write that note for them. A personalized introductory message raises your credibility. 

You don’t always have to have a mutual connection to make a successful introduction. Tap into your existing network structures like a shared alma mater or former workplace. Alumni directories are great jumping off points for meeting new people who you might wind up doing business with, advises JC de Swaan, author of Seeking Virtue in Finance. When traveling in non-pandemic times, he searches for fellow alums in cities he’s heading to who might have expertise in areas he’s working on to see if they’ll meet for coffee—and says it’s an underappreciated tactic. Employee resource groups and professional societies can similarly be valuable. 

“Having a warm connection is important,” Norman says, “but if you don’t have it, you can create it; try engaging in their content, whether that’s on LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram.” For any cold connections, make sure you include enough context about yourself, identify shared interests and be clear about your reason to connect.

Your goal with any new contact should be a live conversation. An e-mail exchange is not sufficient to form authentic emotional connections. Here are some best practices to consider when setting up the conversation:

  • Keep the message short, three to five- sentences maximum. Good examples are here and here
  • Be conservative with your meeting ask. Fifteen to 20 minutes is appropriate.
  • Be flexible and patient with scheduling. Always include time zones, especially in the era of remote work. Avoid sending email requests at particularly busy times (like 9am on a Monday after a holiday weekend).
  • Let them dictate their preferred communications method: video chat, audio or phone. 
  • Be upfront about your intentions. If your goal with the conversation is to get a referral for a job opening, don’t lead with that request, wait until you’ve had a conversation.
  • Assume best intentions: do not be afraid to follow up several times, they are most likely just busy with the day-to-day business functions. You are not their first priority.
  • And finally, remember that the very worst that can happen is they ignore you—and that’s their loss.

Once you’ve set up a conversation, keep these tips in mind: 

  • The first few minutes of your conversation should be in pursuit of uncovering a shared experience to help build an authentic rapport. For example, maybe you both grew up in similar regions, or both have grade-school children. Social media sleuthing can help determine what these shared interests are likely to be.
  • Have your one-minute elevator pitch ready, but spend the majority of the time asking questions—people want to be helpful and be acknowledged as thought-leaders in their industry. 
  • If there is a specific role you’re interested in, ask if they’d be willing to take a look at the job description and your CV. They will likely be able to determine if the role would be good fit and may have additional intel about the hiring process or hiring manager to share. They might also make an unprompted offer to complete an internal referral when you ask this..
  • Make it clear that this is not a one-way transactional conversation by asking if there is anything that you could do to help them.
  • Always ask if there is anyone else they would recommend you speaking with. This is a powerful way to further embed yourself into a target company and get closer to the right decision makers.
  • After the conversation, follow up with a short message of thanks and send any materials they’ve requested or you’ve promised.

Approach building your network like maintaining a sales pipeline. Create a spreadsheet with your contacts and record important details from your conversations. Have they recently relocated to a new city? What are their hobbies? What are their children’s names and ages? These can be valuable prompts for follow up conversations. President Bill Clinton followed this methodical approach, recording names and details on index cards, which numbered over 10,000 by the time he became governor of Arkansas. 

Building a beneficial network is a life-long endeavor, so play the long game. Revisit your spreadsheet often and check in on your network. Find opportunities for natural exchanges: send congratulations on new jobs or promotions, pass along articles and industry news, acknowledge major company milestones (like an IPO, acquisition, or new leadership). If you’ve been job searching, send a note letting your new contacts know where you’ve landed and thank them for their help along the way. 

And after the pandemic passes, try to find time for a face-to-face conversation. “You get a view of about 30% of a person through a phone conversation. Video might be a little higher, but it is still artificial,” Charlie Roer, an executive recruiter, told us. “A digital interaction is very different from an in-person meeting.” 

Networking is a powerful way to unlock opportunity for yourself—and an easy way to help open up opportunities for people who might not have access to great networks themselves. As you have increased career experience and job responsibilities, be open to outreach from others, and proactively seek to network with people in a non-transactional way. 

Journalist and entrepreneur Mitra Kalita advised recently: “Consider holding at least three calls a week with random journalistic talent, mostly women or people of color. DO NOT interview them for jobs but simply try to soak up how they consume media, what they’re reading/thinking, what challenges they face, what brings them joy etc.” Her advice was directed at newsroom leaders, but applies more broadly. 

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