Networking 101.5
June 12, 2008 9:07 PM   Subscribe

Career networking issues: I need super-explicit advice about how to utilize connections, set up informational interviews, and, well, network.

When people give networking advice like, “Reach out to your connections,” and “Use sites like LinkedIn,” I don’t quite understand how exactly I’m supposed to be doing those things.

Networking makes me squirm. I hate asking people for favors when I’m not in a position to reciprocate immediately. But I’ve accepted that I’m not going to get any further in my career without networking-- and I’ve also accepted that I’m completely clueless about how to do it.

For instance, say you’re applying for a job at a place where you know a friend or former colleague has a contact. In that situation, I usually write the person I know, saying something like, “I’m applying for this position at this place and I think you mentioned knowing someone there, so any advice you could offer about applying would be greatly appreciated.” I’m hoping that my friend will then offer to put in a call for me; I hate to ask directly because I don’t want to put a friend in an awkward position if they don’t feel comfortable recommending me or some reason. Should I be asking in some other way?

Are there any ground rules I should be aware of when contacting people about informational interviews? If I can’t find a personal connection at a organization where I’d like to do an informational interview, is it ever okay to just cold-call (well, cold email) someone? Or is that completely unheard of?

I’m also wondering whether people really use LinkedIn. If so, what are the “rules” for using it- ie, is it uncouth for me to contact my connections’ connections directly? What kinds of things do people contact each other about?

I’ve gathered that the networking culture in Washington, D.C. (where I’m looking for work) and in politics (my field) is a little different than it is in, say, L.A. and the movie industry, so any localized or field-specific information you could offer would be extra- appreciated.
posted by chickletworks to Work & Money (9 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in this stuff and I haven't tried to get a job in years, but it worked for me.

If you want to talk to certain people, ask your friends/family/coworkers "who do you know that.... [is involved with XYZ]?".

If they have names (and they don't follow with "You should talk to him, I'll get you in touch!" -- which they probably will) then say "It might be helpful for me if I talked to him/her. What do you think?".

Once you have contact info, you call and say "Hi, I'm powpow. I'm interested in getting into the world of XYZ. I hope I didn't catch you at, like, the worst possible time.... Great. Would you be willing to chat for 20 minutes sometime? I'd like to pick your brain about XYZ."

Then do a phone meeting, visit their office, or buy them a cup of coffee.

At every informational interview, ask the question "who do you think I should I talk to about XYZ?". Rinse and repeat.

My suspicion about politics and folks in DC is that most people aren't shy. They're used to getting requests for a variety of things, and they're comfortable saying yes/no as appropriate.

When it comes to hitting up your friends, you'll know what's best. You can say "You know somebody over at ABC? I'd love to just talk to somebody there to get the lay of the land. Do you think your friend would be willing to share 10 minutes on the phone with me?" You can soften it with "Look, if you have any hesitations at all about me contacting them then I'm not going to do it. I mean, you know him and I don't so if you say that it's not worth it then that's fine, I'll work out another approach".
posted by powpow at 9:42 PM on June 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Forgot to mention: on the initial call you might say "Bob Jones gave me your name...."

For example: "Bob Jones gave me your name and said that you might be willing to share a few minutes of your time. I'm interested in getting into the world of XYZ. I hope I didn't catch you at, like, the worst possible time.... Great. Would you be willing to chat for 20 minutes sometime? I'd like to pick your brain about XYZ"

This helps you get the interview because they know you're not calling from out of the blue, and they don't want to offend your friend Bob Jones by being rude to you.

Best of luck
posted by powpow at 9:48 PM on June 12, 2008

Try setting up some breakfast swap meetings. Essentially, you need to find 3 or 4 people with allied, but not exactly the same interests as you have, who agree to pass along information and contacts they uncover in their travels, in exchange for information you can supply. So, you want to find a political job in Washington, D.C. In your early networking endeavors, you might meet a copier salesman who wants to get his products into lobbyist offices, a translator looking for clients wanting translations of documents from English to Portugese and Spanish, and an event planner looking to do small, regular events like company luncheons and training. You are all working your way through the 11,500+ lobbying organizations in Washington, and this is your common allied interest pool. You will each be "touching" these organizations at various contact points, but your direct interests are not directly competitive. It costs you almost nothing to make a mental note of the kind and number of copiers an office has when you visit it, any more than it does for the copier sales person to get the name of the HR person or Head of House Actions, at each firm he visits. The translator can probably figure out if a firm is rapidly expanding its voter outreach efforts in targeted political sub-groups just from the kinds of projects he is asked to bid, and this might have value to you. The event planner, in prospecting for opportunities to run training events, might discover that S&S Lobbying, Inc. is gearing up to some project for the Libertarian party that will require people of your background, which they'll need to hire and train, which the event planner can pass along to you as a referral, in exchange for finding out from you that DC Impression Benders, Inc. is quite dissatisfied with the catering they had at their last company picnic, and will be looking for a new event handler for their next one in September.

You agree to meet with your swap group weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly (whatever is reasonable for you), for a 30 minute breakfast meeting, at which, you each contribute a "lead" to the others, from your personal research and new contacts you made in the previous week/bi-week/month. And that's it. You're getting your own efforts multiplied in canvassing, and if you pick your swap group partners well, you'll find these meetings pleasant and productive starts to your days. Of course, you can have more than 4 people in a swap meet, but I've found that 6 or 8 is about the practical maximum.

You can, and probably should, have more than one swap group, too. I keep 3 or 4 going, constantly, as these things tend to have lives of their own, as people come and go. The longest one I'm currently in has been running for a little over 4 years, and has, in recent months, become a phone-in thing, because one of the members of that group has become a big fan of conference calling from his car early in the morning, as he moved to a new suburban house. He's paying for the conferencing, but it originally functioned as a real breakfast group.

Breakfast is the right time of day to do these kinds of groups, too. Lunch groups fizzle out on attendance problems, and evening business activities in a city like Washington are murder, conflicting with a ton of other opportunities you'll be trying to get invited to attend.
posted by paulsc at 12:39 AM on June 13, 2008

This is mostly about informational interviewing:

- Find people you have a common joint with, even if it's through a database: My best way was to go through the Alumni Association of my university because I could easily search by geography, field, etc.
- Email, or call, explain that you're interested in what they're doing, how they got there, etc. These are normal people! They like when people are interested in them, and they like talking about themselves! Ask if they could chat by phone, or meet up sometime for an hour, whatever.
-I hate asking people for favors when I’m not in a position to reciprocate immediately.: Me too. Often, though, it feels good to do these little favors because you feel good knowing someone else is going to benefit from your help over the long-term. Also, remember the "wow, man, thanks. That's a a great contact. If you ever need anything..."

What to expect on an informational interview:
-Do your research! Know as much about the person and organization you're interviewing about as you can.
-Subsequently, prepare some questions that both get at what you want to know (big picture) and want them to know about you (if you think they may have a position within their sphere of influence).
-It will probably last about an hour. You will probably be asked to explain why you contacted this person specifically. This is more than just "You're a friend of Bob's, I'm a friend of Bob's," it's "Well I'm looking to move into blah, and I saw you also studied blech at State U. and are now in blah, and..."
-Send thank you emails.
-When something fruitful happens pertaining to what you called them about, reconnect to tell them that stuff's awesome. They get to feel good and will do more informational interviews, you get to renew the connection in case they would be useful to you in your new capacity.

LinkedIn is a big mystery to me, too. I'm waiting for the answer on that one here.
posted by whatzit at 5:35 AM on June 13, 2008

LinkedIn = Facebook for people with jobs.

That said, it's a site intended for networking; people are there for that purpose, so it's not intrusive to do so. If you're shy about it, ask your friends for introductions - I got a great email last week from one of my connections who said "I would like to expand my network, particularly in the blahblahblah industry. If you have people in your network who work in blahblahblah, I'd love to be introduced."

Join any LinkedIn groups for which you're eligible (since the groups directory is currently down, browse other people's profiles and click interesting group icons). Maybe post a question in the Q&A section: not a general help question, but something targeted at your specific work interests that will generate more than yes/no answers.

I am nowhere near as good with LinkedIn as I should be, but developing my network is one of my 2008 personal goals (especially since I'm thinking about starting my own shop).
posted by catlet at 7:15 AM on June 13, 2008

Also in DC here, and employed tangentially to politics.

In my limited experience, the way LinkedIn is used is that people search their networks (2 or 3 degrees) for people within a field or employer that interests them. So for example, a few months ago Friend A linkmailed me to ask about Friend B, whose profile he saw...I just told A to contact B directly and mention that he knew me, since B is the kind of person who's happy to help others. In that case, they're two degrees apart and wouldn't have known each other.

Really though, here's my best advice: DC is a drinking town and there are a ton of networking-themed happy hours out there. Find one related to your area of interest and drag along a friend or two. If you've been around for a bit, chances are good that DC voodoo will ensure that someone you brought knows someone else there, and you'll be able to talk to new people in your field of interest. (If your friend is gay or a smoker, the odds are improved, but for very different reasons.)
posted by kittyprecious at 7:53 AM on June 13, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice, everybody! I really appreciate it.
posted by chickletworks at 2:03 PM on June 13, 2008

You might try to book Never Eat Alone. I read some of it and it seemed interesting. The guy who wrote it is famous for being one of the most "connected" individuals. I found this article about him to be pretty interesting, interesting enough I guess that I still remembered the name of the book after 3 or 4 years.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:13 PM on June 13, 2008

Oh! And one thing that's particularly relevant to your situation is that the author, Keith Ferrazzi, argues that people like being able to help others, particularly when it's something both you and the other person are passionate about, so if you can make it about being involved with that other person on a more personal level, it will be a positive experience for both individuals -- the one looking for connections and the person offering them. I know when I am able to help people (a rare occasion) it makes me feel good. I get an especially great high from teaching other people, so much so that it practically feels like stealing. :)

In The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell talks about "Connectors" -- individuals who manage to be linked up to loads of people. These individuals really love making additional connections and linking people with one another.

So your concern about reciprocation might not be one you need to be concerned about, because often people enjoy doing this for you. Your reciprocation is offering them a chance to feel involved in other people's lives.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:19 PM on June 13, 2008

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