You may be no stranger to the advice that you should “make the most of your network.” But what exactly does that mean, and how can you get started?
The first thing to realise is that networking isn’t some mystical activity reserved for corporate CEOs, and the second is that it’s not just for extroverts who are comfortable socialising in a room full of industry professionals. For the vast majority of us, it’s as simple as picking up the phone and reaching out, or going for a coffee with friends, extended family and former colleagues.
When you’re looking for a job, it can be helpful to spend some time thinking about who you know – whether that be friends, family members, former colleagues or even other job seekers. Maybe you’ve always envied a friend’s career and feel that now could be the perfect time to get tips on how to get started yourself. Or perhaps you’re fresh out of ideas but can think of a well-connected former colleague who could offer you some ideas and inspiration. If so, then now could be a good time to get in touch and ask for some advice.
Many people are put off networking because they’re worried that their contacts won’t have time to meet, or worse still, won’t want to meet. However, networking newbies are often surprised at how receptive others are to meeting up and talking. Even contacts you may not have spoken to for a long time or may not know very well may be surprisingly receptive to speaking, and the wider you cast your net, the greater the range of opportunity you open yourself up to.
There are many benefits to building and maintaining strong connections with those around you – not just when you’re looking for work, but also later when you’re at work or even considering setting up your own business. So, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of nurturing these professional relationships during your job search and beyond…
What are the benefits of networking?
Gain new ideas and perspectives
Making the most of your network can be beneficial – not only when you’re trying to land a specific role, break into a particular industry or advance your career – but when you’re looking for fresh perspectives and ideas. Swapping information about obstacles, experiences and future goals is an important part of networking, as it can help you to stumble across new opportunities and/or find solutions to problems. By sharing your own insights with others, you’ll also get the added bonus of building your reputation as an innovative thinker.
Find a job that you love
You never know who could be hiring for your perfect job, or who might know someone who is. The wider the range of people you speak with, the more likely you’ll be to hear about job opportunities or companies that are hiring, so that you can submit your application quickly and beat the rush. Networking is also a fantastic chance to explore a range of different opportunities and can expose you to roles that you hadn’t thought of or didn’t know existed. If you haven’t come across your dream job yet, then try speaking to a few people you know – you might be surprised at what you come up with between you.
Increase your visibility and get access to job opportunities
Checking in with people regularly will increase your visibility by keeping you fresh in people’s minds – so they’re more likely to call you if they come across a relevant job opening.
Get a first-hand account of what it’s like to work in a job, industry or company that you’re interested in
One of the best ways to increase your knowledge and understanding of a role or industry, so that you can make informed decisions about a career move, is to speak to someone who already works in that field. Even if you don’t know anyone directly, there’s a good chance that someone else in your network does, and could possibly introduce you. Reading about a job role online isn’t the same as hearing about the highs and lows first-hand, which can help you to make sure that your next role is the right one for you. You may also be able to gain industry and/or role specific tips and advice on your job application and even the interview process itself – which could help give you an added advantage when it comes to applying.
Keep up-to-date with current trends and information
Employers will generally be more impressed by candidates who can demonstrate that they are up to date with current trends and information related to a specific role or industry. Whilst it can be useful to conduct research online, it can be difficult to know how up-to-date this information is and it’s unlikely to have the same depth that you could receive from speaking to an insider.
When you’re making a career change or looking to develop your current career, it can be an exciting yet daunting prospect. However, one of the best ways to boost your confidence and overcome any fear barriers can be to speak to people who work in the relevant role or industry, so they can bring you up to speed and help you with your application. This, along with continuously stepping outside of your comfort zone to reconnect with old friends and meet new people, should help to build your self-confidence, which you can then take with you anywhere!
Strengthen your connections
By regularly touching base with people in your network, you can work together to move towards professional goals. Sharing information helps to strengthen relationships, meaning you’ll feel more comfortable calling on each other for professional support and advice in the future. Even if you land your dream job, it’s possible that you may need some advice or guidance later on if you decide to advance your career.
How do I start leveraging my relationships to find my next opportunity?
Given the benefits of networking, you may be wondering how to get started. For some it will come naturally, for others it may take a little more planning and preparation – but everyone can do it.
If you’re someone who doesn’t like the idea of starting up a conversation with someone you don’t know very well, then these next steps should provide you with a helpful starting point.
1. Think about who you already know both personally and professionally
The easiest way to start networking is to sit down with a pen and paper and think about all the people you already know who might:
- have some useful skills or experience that you could learn from
- work in a job role or industry that you are interested in
- are well connected themselves with a broad range of interests
- work in HR or recruitment who could provide tips on your CV & applications
These could be friends or family members, former colleagues, friends of friends, or people who you’ve connected with one way or another on LinkedIn. Jot down the names of these people, as well as how you’ve come to know them because this will give you a better idea of how you can reach out to them e.g. if they’re a former work colleague then you may only have contact via email or LinkedIn, or if they’re a family member then you may be able to speak to them when you visit them this weekend, and so on.
If you don’t have a LinkedIn profile, then now would be the ideal time to set one up, as it’s the ultimate social media tool for professional people of all ages who’re looking to stay connected to the latest employment opportunities and information. It can also be an efficient way to keep track of all your professional contacts as they move from company to company. Our article Changing careers – how to use LinkedIn to get a new job should help you get the most out of your LinkedIn experience.
2. Aim to contact at least two people a week
Once you’ve made your list, you may feel unsure how you’re going to tackle it alongside the other elements of your job search. But the most efficient way to do this is to set smaller, more manageable goals.
To steadily boost your confidence, it can make sense to start by contacting people that you have the strongest relationships with, even if they don’t appear to be in the most helpful role or industry themselves. This can feel like a more manageable place to start – simply picking up the phone or going for a coffee with friends or family! It will also give you an opportunity to practice your skills and hone the questions you may want to ask in a safe environment.
When you’re feeling more confident, then the next step is to try ranking the people on your list in order of who you think you would benefit from exchanging information with most. Then try working your way down the list by contacting at least two people a week (more if you have time).
Whilst its helpful to have a plan like this, it can be truly surprising where your next opportunity can come from, so we would still encourage you to connect with those who don’t immediately seem to work in a relevant area. You never know what their passions outside of work are, whether they’ve moved careers themselves or if they might have gone through a similar situation to yourself. Quite simply, the more people you speak with, the more opportunities you create to find out useful information.
3. Decide how you’re going to contact the people on your list
The strength and type of relationship that you have with each person in your network will usually determine how you’re going to contact them.
For professional contacts…
If you only know someone in a professional capacity, then it’s best practice to connect with them via email or LinkedIn to arrange a catch up call or meeting e.g. coffee/lunch at a time that suits you both. A brief explanation of what you’d like to talk about and an expression of interest in how they are and what they’ve been up to is all that’s needed. Keep the initial message brief, as your aim is simply to arrange a time to speak – try not to overwhelm them with lots of questions at this point as this can be off putting if they are particularly busy.
Finally, it’s important to remember that effective networking is about sharing information, not simply taking it. You will almost certainly have useful information or insights to offer the other person, even if you don’t know it yet! The most solid connections are built on give and take, so be prepared to offer up any helpful information and advice of your own if the opportunity arises.
For personal contacts…
If any of the people that you have in mind are personal connections e.g. friends or family members (even ones that you haven’t spoken to in a while), then there’s no reason why you can’t reach out to them over the phone to either have a chat there and then, or arrange a convenient time to meet for lunch, dinner or a longer call. This gives you a chance to have a proper catch up, both personally and professionally and opens the door for you to start calling more regularly to “check in” and exchange new information.
4. Clarify in your mind what it is that you want to gain from your relationships with people in your network
To make the most of any time spent with people in your network, it can be beneficial to do some forward planning, by deciding what specifically you’d like to gain from each of your meetings. For example, if you have a very well-connected friend with a very diverse work history, then perhaps you’re hoping that they will be able to introduce you to a few of their relevant contacts. Or if you’re meeting up with a distant family member who works in a role that you’d like to apply for, then maybe you’d find it useful if they could advise you which of your skills and experience to highlight in your CV and cover letter.
Spend some time making it clear in your mind exactly what you want to achieve so that you can direct the flow of conversation and make sure that you cover all the essentials and get the most out of the meeting. If you have a meeting lasting an hour, try to consider that you may only have half-an-hour to actually ask questions and get your points across, because of the back and forth between you. Always take a notebook, so that you can take away any helpful information and use it to move toward your goal.
For some people you meet, it’s essential to have a very clear view of what you are hoping to talk about. For others however, you may not, and it’s important that you are not put off from reaching out to someone for fear of not having a firm set of discussion points. Whilst its still useful to have a loose agenda in your mind before you meet, don’t be put off if its relatively light and informal e.g. to understand what they’re up to these days. It is almost always more beneficial to reach out to someone than not, and some of the most helpful ideas and conversations can come from the people and places you least expect.
5. Once you’ve met up with someone in your network, decide when you’ll next get in touch
Before the end of a call or meeting with each person in your network (assuming it went well), try to arrange another date in the future to make contact – perhaps in a couple of months time or perhaps in another six months or a year. To leave a lasting positive impression it can also be a nice idea to send a follow up email afterwards to say how much you enjoyed meeting, provide any follow up information you talked about and remind them how much you are looking forward to meeting again
Keeping in regular contact will help to strengthen the bond between you and will make you feel more supported during your job search and career in general. By keeping the lines of communication open, you will develop a reciprocal relationship where you can call on one another for professional help and advice as and when necessary.
My network is small - how do I meet new connections?
Consider connecting with other jobseekers
Sometimes one of the best ways to feel less alone during your job search is to reach out to like-minded people. It can be easy to forget while you’re riding the job search rollercoaster that there are other people going through similar experiences. You might not even be applying to work in the same role or industry, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t share tips, advice and information with one another that you’ve picked up along the way.
We currently run a Facebook group called Over 50s Job Seekers and Career Changers, which offers job seekers a safe space to discuss the highs and lows of looking for work, and seek and offer advice. Why not give it a try?
Attend a job fair
If you’d like to expand your professional network, then it’s also worth attending a job fair near you. They take place all over the UK and can have up to 50 (or even more) employers in attendance – all looking for talent. Job fairs are the ideal place for employers and jobseekers to come together to discuss their potential with one another and decide whether they could be a good match.
Many people find job fairs to be a helpful addition to their job search because they offer you a chance to meet employers in person and put your best foot forward. Even if you’re unsure whether a role is for you or you have no idea what role you’re even looking for, a job fair can help you to take away some useful company contacts who you can reach out to when you’re clearer on your decision and looking to apply. They may also be able to offer further clarification on a role if your having trouble deciding whether it’s right for you.
Another, more overlooked benefit of attending a job fair is the opportunity it presents to meet other local job seekers, who’re in a similar position to you – providing yet another way to expand your network of local contacts.
Consider shadowing someone who works in the role or industry that you’re interested in working in
If you’re fairly sure what role you’d like to apply for but you’d like to give yourself an advantage, then it can be helpful to contact a relevant individual or company to ask whether you can shadow someone currently working in that role. If you have a contact name then it’s best to email them directly – alternatively, you can address your email to the company’s main inbox e.g. [email protected], with the address ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or ‘To the xxx department.’
Shadowing is a great chance to gain some relevant experience and meet people who work in the industry. These are people who may be able to offer you some support and guidance when you come to create your application, or who may remember your tenacity if you apply for a future vacancy at that same company. Shadowing will also show future employers how keen you are, because they’ll be able to see that you’ve gone to the extra effort to gain the relevant experience on your CV.
Ask your current network to introduce you to new people
There’s a good chance that some of the people in your network will have useful contacts of their own that they could introduce you to. The further you can cast your net the better, as you’ll increase your visibility and your chance of hearing about relevant opportunities as they arise. So it’s a good idea to try and meet as many people with relevant skills and experience as possible.
Whilst networking is a helpful addition to your job search which can help you find a job much sooner, it’s important to make sure that you’ve also taken the time to work on other aspects of your search, for example, your CV and cover letter and honing your interview technique.
A job search is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle. When you decide to broaden your search by introducing a new technique i.e. the practice of connecting with others, you add another piece to the puzzle – until eventually everything comes together and you land a suitable role. If you haven’t tried reaching out to others yet, then why not give it a go? You never know what new opportunities could be just a phone call or an email away…