Networking During a Pandemic
Data indicates that people who start looking for a job or who start a job during an economic downturn earn substantially less than their counterparts who started work when business were flush with cash. To avoid this financial penalty, which economists say can last for years, this year’s incoming class of students and new hires must be proactive. They must consciously create the futures they seek, which means they need to build their professional networks from the day they set foot on campus or log onto their employer’s computer system.
If you’re concerned about how you’ll build a network in the midst of a pandemic, rest assured that technology has made networking easier, faster and less expensive than ever. Just keep in mind the following seven key concepts.
Forget “networking” and think “relationship building”
Too many people have viewed “networking” as attending a series of transactional events. You walk into a room and look for someone who can help you land a job, introduce you to someone you want to meet or give you an opportunity to sell your services. After a brief conversation, you exchange business cards. Then, you go in search of your next conversation.
Scratch these thoughts immediately.
From now on, think about networking as relationship building. Assuming that you have successfully built a relationship with at least one other human being—dogs, cats and goldfish don’t count—you know that the key to success involves demonstrating a genuine interest in the other person and determining whether there is some way that you can help that other person achieve his or her goals. It’s a process that requires time. Relationships often start with a simple question or statement: What’s going on in your world right now? or Tell me about you.
Know your goals
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with establishing relationships with a diverse, eclectic group of people, and in fact, I hope you’ll do exactly this. From a professional perspective, however, think carefully about what it is that you wish to accomplish through your employment and then seek to identify people who can contribute to your ever-expanding knowledge as to how you achieve your next career goal.
Students should start with a series of questions, including: What’s my dream job? What type of employer suits me best? What skills are required for a specific job? Where do I wish to live?
New professionals should use other questions, including: What industries are expanding or contracting? What are the types of clients that intrigue me most? Is this the type of work that will continue to challenge and excite me five years from now, and if not, what would?
Start imagining your future with as much specificity as you can.
Identify who you know
If we were sitting together in a training program, here’s what I’d ask you to do next:
Draw three concentric circles.
- In the center circle, write down the names of the people you currently know with whom you have deep ties … people from whom you would feel comfortable asking for help in a lurch.
- In the middle circle, write down the names of people with whom you are acquainted.
- In the outer circle, list the names of people you’d like to know—your dream contacts—perhaps because you think that they may be able to help you answer some of the questions that you identified in #2.
Now, with each name that you’ve recorded, think about their wants, needs and interests and how you might be able to help them. This may require some research, and it’s well worth your time. The student who emails a lawyer and indicates, “I understand that you’ve specialized in sports law, an area in which I’m particularly interested given my two-year career as a professional football player,” has a good chance of scoring a video-meeting with the attorney.
Start reaching out to all of the people whose names you recorded in the previous exercise as people you already know well or in passing. Don’t worry if it’s been a good long time since you last connected with that person. We all lead incredibly busy, messy lives, and sometimes things and people fall through the cracks. Just don’t let these things and people disappear now because of your negligence.
For the people you know well, pick up the phone and call. For the people who are acquaintances or who you would like to know, send an email, introduce yourself if necessary, and ask if you might schedule 10 minutes of their time for a quick conversation. Clearly articulate what you would like to discuss, for example, “I recently read your on-line article on student loan forgiveness legislative proposals and would like to discuss the legislation’s prospects.”
Prepare 5 questions
Before you connect with one of your dream contacts—the people you listed in the outer circle—prepare at least five questions. In addition to helping you acquire information that hopefully will help you pursue your professional goals, these questions will demonstrate your interest in who the other person is, what they do and who they might know.
Don’t underestimate the importance of these questions. An inquiry will encourage the other person to speak, which is exactly what you want. Remember, your goal is relationship building, something that occurs via exchanges of thoughts, ideas, hopes, dreams and even disappointments. Besides, if you happen to be an introvert and you have connected with an extrovert, once you ask him or her one question, you may be off the hook. The extrovert will go on and on and on, and they’ll think that you’re an absolutely brilliant conversationalist because you posited the one question that they really wished to address.
By the way, your last two questions should include the following:
- Can you recommend someone else with whom I should speak?
- How can I help you?
Serve as a host
Before covid-19, hosting even a small reception could be prohibitively expensive for students and new hires. With live events now replaced by virtual ones, anyone can host an event at little to no cost. All you need is a good internet connection, a few nibbles and a beverage.
I recommend that you try the following:
- Plan on small, intimate events—10 invitees max.
- Among the people you know or would like to know—the people listed in your middle or outer circle—identify a dream contact that you can all agree upon. This person is now your #1 Guest. Students, for example, might identify an alum who now works in a specific industry or practice area. New hires might want to have a conversation with a key person on the organization’s management team or a representative from a professional organization in which your group of eight has a shared interest.
- With your group of eight, develop some date and time options that work for everyone … because you really want everyone to attend. Nothing would be worse than telling your #1 Guest that you and eight of your acquaintances will participate and then only one other person dials in.
- Contact your #1 Guest via email and indicate that you and eight of your colleagues have a shared interest in the guest’s area of expertise. Ask if it would be possible for the group to meet with the #1 Guest over coffee or cocktails. Agree to a date and time. Indicate that you will take responsibility for sending a Zoom invite.
- On the day of the event, hop onto Zoom early and take your hosting responsibilities seriously. When everyone has joined, welcome them. Give your colleagues the opportunity to introduce themselves to the guest speaker, then facilitate the ensuing conversation. If your guest speaker has agreed to meet with your group for a specific amount of time, make sure that you adhere to his or her schedule and thank the guest on behalf of the group.
- Within 24 hours, send a thank-you email to the #1 Guest indicating how much you and your colleagues enjoyed the conversation and how much you appreciate the guest having freely given of his or her time.
- Add the #1 Guest to your list of contacts and plan on regular follow-up.
Pull this off well and you’ll be seen as someone who takes initiative and is super poised … just the type of person most employers want to hire and promote.
Remember, relationships must be nurtured
Every successful networker will tell you that this is the real secret to their success: they constantly look for reasons to reach out to their contacts and touch base. They send articles that might be of interest. They pick up the phone and leave congratulatory messages about anything and everything …. “great quote in the New York Times” or “fabulous your home team won the big game.” They send birthday and holiday wishes galore.
This should be an ongoing activity throughout the rest of your life. Spend a few minutes each morning and ask two questions: 1) Which one of my current contacts have I been out of touch with for a bit and what will I do today to reconnect with him or her; and 2) What’s one thing that I can do today that will get me one step closer to meeting a person who is on my goal list?
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