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Maximizing the power of your professional network

Edward Kiledjian1 Comment

Every once in a while, I meet people who still don’t understand the power and importance of building their professional network of contacts. Considering the state of the economy and changing nature of employment, I wanted to share some of my thoughts about professional networking.

In the 50s and 60s, you built a career with your chosen company. There was a silent agreement that if you took care of the company, the company took care of you. Does anyone think that this still applies today?

Even if you have a full time job, you need to realize that you are a consultant. You are selling your services to your company and a guaranteed job no longer exists. Everything you do in your professional life must be helpful when searching for your next job.

What can your professional network do?
“You get out of it what you put in”. To get any benefits, you must be willing to do some legwork. Your network requires some attention and caring for.

We all know that most jobs are filled without being advertised (what HR specialists call the hidden job market). These are positions that are filled internally or through references. Obviously, if your contacts see a job you may be interested in, they will let you know.

Linkedin.com, the best known professional networking site, offers the ability to request and then showcase recommendations. This can be an excellent differentiator when competing for a position.

These sites allow you to stay in touch with long lost colleagues even if they move around. If you ever need them for a reference, these sites make them much easier for find.

Competition is heating up and most organizations are receiving 5-10x more candidates per post than they did just 5 years ago. This means that you need to stand out. As your network grows, so too will your access to information. Before going for an interview, why not have a preparatory chat with one of your contacts that works (or has already worked) there.

Make new connections through your contacts. If I wanted to get in touch with a managing partner in the old days, I would have to harass that person via messages, letters and emails. Most of which that person would likely ignore. In the new world, I can ask one of our mutual contacts to connect us. This type of a request is much more likely to get a warm welcome.

Treating your job search as if it were a sales process

When planning a sales initiative, you work through a well-defined set of processes such as:

- Clearly define your objective.  Be concrete and as specific as possible.
- What is your positioning? Positioning in sales means how you get your idea through, your written elevator pitch. You generally want to create 2 different versions: a one-liner and then a 3-4 line one.
-  What criteria would a prospective customer use?
-  Define your competition and how you rank against them? How are you different? How are you better? This can include recommendations, references, special skills, track record, etc.
- Identify your ideal target customers. Spend some time researching companies to find the ones that are most likely to need someone with your services.

If the above seems like a lot of work, it is. Finding a job these days is very challenging and you need to do everything to put the chances on your side. The more work you do now, the easier the process will be later. Don’t be lazy. The above will need to be done and then reworked dozens of times. Use friends, contacts and family as sounding boards. Allow them to provide constructive feedback.

The mutual scratching of backs
You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. This is a fundamental truth of networking. Everyone of your contacts is willing to help you and in return expects you to help them when they call.

If you feel like asking your contacts for help is a burden on them, you will be left behind. Understand that this is a mutually beneficial arrangement so don’t fret about asking for help. If you ask for a recommendation, give one in return. If you ask for them to help you make a contact, expect that they may do the same in the future. Don’t feel bad about asking.

My cousin is a recent graduate and was willing to work his way up the corporate ladder. He asked me for help and through my network of contacts, I found him an opportunity (which he would likely not have found on his own). My contact found an employee he needed and my cousin found a job he needed. They both benefited from my match-making skills.

The above also implies that you will be honest and go to your network when you need something. If you are looking for a job, tell your network you are looking and ask them for help. If you need to learn a specific skill, ask your network and you will be surprised at how many offers of help you get.

Break through the urge of sterilizing the relationship
Most people prefer to deal with their network via the online communities and the online tools they offer (chat, messaging, etc). Most people find this impersonal contact much easier to manage. Sometimes, you need to pick up the phone and speak to your contacts. If someone in your network holds the key to your next opportunity, invite them to lunch and ask for their help. This is not the time to be shy.  How badly do you want that contact or opportunity? The only thing that matters is the end result and there are no prizes for second place.

Grow that network
The bigger your network the more opportunities it will provide. Find ways to grow your network. These may include trade shows, conferences, business meetings, etc. Build a plan and follow it. Make it a commitment to grow your network every week with relevant fresh new contacts.

The Introduction
Let’s say you have done everything and now you need to get in touch with someone through a mutual contact. What do you do?

- Simple … just ask.

But be prepared and make sure you have done all of the work ahead of time. Before requesting an introduction, get in touch with your contact and tell them what you will be requesting and why. Your contact needs to make sure that your request is appropriate for the other person and that you are not SPAMing him/her.

Back to your positioning statements. Explain why you want to get in touch with that person and why you think they would want you to get in touch with them.

Once your contact agrees then you need to make small changes to your statements and make them relevant for the other (target) contact.

My Linkedin network is now at +1000 and I receive about 5-6 requests a day for introductions. If the request is clearly explained and looks professional, I will forward it off. If it looks sloppy, unprepared or like a form letter, I will refuse it.

We spoke about the fear of building your network but some people have a fear of being introduced to an unknown person. Again this is something you will have to get over.  Read my previous entries about conversational hypnosis and rapport building. Remember that the road of a thousands steps starts with the first one. A good way to start is always hello. Be sincere and professional. Have confidence in yourself since lack of confidence will show and is contagious.

You need to overcome your fear of rejection. Remember that ‘No’ is not the end of the world. It is nothing more than a 2 letter word. Use a rejection as an opportunity to study your approach and make fine-tuning changes.

Network credibility
You are selling your own services. You are a brand. Market yourself accordingly. Think of ways to differentiate yourself. Get recommendations from  peers, contacts, friends, bosses and employees.
If you have any industry awards, list them on your profile. Share the good news with your network. Think of ways you can be seen as a valuable asset and market it to your network.