Become a Networking Pro
One of my coaching clients, a 56-year-old woman from California who was navigating her way back to the workforce, realized she needed to network far out of her comfort zone. She emailed me this question:
I have connections at organizations where I’d love to work in a flexible way, but they are either people I’m not close to or people I don’t feel comfortable approaching. Call it anxiety or an old-fashioned sense that I’d be “using” them to get a job, but it’s an obstacle for me. How do I get over this? Just be pleasant and directly state what I want? That’s it, done?
Yes, that’s pretty much it. Here’s how to do it well:
“The best things in life are often waiting for you at the exit ramp of your comfort zone.” -Karen Salmansohn
Establish even a very loose connection.
Networking involves a shared connection, not just out-of-the-blue cold calls to strangers. Networking connections do not need to be people you know well: you can establish connections through relatives, school or employer alumni groups, club members, or a friend of a friend of a friend. Figure out how to give your connection the comfort level of knowing that in some way you are connected. It could be as simple as having children in the same soccer league or being connected to the same person on LinkedIn.
Be specific about the help you need.
No one wants to hear, “I’d just like to pick your brain about flexible fundraising jobs.” That’s a conversation that could wander aimlessly with no easy end. Busy people want to slot you in for a quick brain dump of specific information they have at hand. A better approach would be, “I’m trying to get an idea of how most large fundraising departments are allocating part-time responsibilities among functions, and I’d like to see how yours is structured in relation to peer organizations.” If you lay this out in an email or LinkedIn message, your connection can think about and summarize a worthwhile, bite-sized response. This very focused networking request would help you gather information about where and how your skills and experience would most likely fit at your connection’s organization and many others. When you ask a dozen networking connections the same question, you start gathering valuable anecdotal research.
Limit the amount of time your connection needs to invest.
Networking meetings over coffee and lunch should be reserved for people who know you well—and people who offer that valuable block of in-person time. When you don’t know people well, it’s best to say, “I’d like to schedule 15 minutes to talk with you by phone about these two things…” This approach is more likely to get you on busy calendars because there’s a specific timeframe and agenda and no need for a harried person to leave the office.
Practice networking quid pro quo.
Networking is a two-way street, and you’re likely to build fruitful relationships when you offer, as well as request, help. It can be as simple as a polite sentence such as “Please let me know how I can help you as well,” but it’s better to offer something tangible. One great option is the “you should know” approach. Ideally, this should involve offering an introduction to someone you know whom your new connection might like to know as well. If it’s difficult to offer a new business connection, then you could still offer something more personal that comes up in your net- working conversation, such as a book you’d recommend, an interesting course that might further an interest, an introduction to a mother who has already navigated the college application process, an article on blending work and family, a tidbit of information you can glean from LinkedIn or a Google search. . . anything that conveys the message of “I want to be of help to you, too.”
Convince yourself that networking among strangers and acquaintances is both socially acceptable and expected. When you do it right, you’re not being pushy, you’re not bothering anyone, and you’re not wasting anyone’s time. Everyone joins LinkedIn with the expectation that they’ll connect with people whom they’ve never met. Beyond LinkedIn, you can tap into large networks of alumni who have shared your educational and employment experiences, fellow members of professional/social clubs and religious affiliations, residents of your town, or people who have the same attorney. You’re even welcome in networking groups affiliated with schools your children attended. It’s all fair game in an interconnected world where networking is the way to get informed, get noticed, and get ahead—for wallflowers and social butterflies alike.
As you continue the networking research process, you’ll not only get the insider’s perspective on many companies, you’ll also find out which companies have the most ideal and widespread flexwork cultures and which should truly be on your serious target list.
Pursue general “word-of-mouth” intelligence.
Ask friends, acquaintances, and loose connections if they know professionals who left the large corporate world to launch a small business of their own, or if they know about smaller, rising companies that have top-ranked clients. Many entrepreneurs need flexible help as they grow their businesses.
Often suburban towns are the homes of executives who semi- retire and need help running smaller ventures. One great example is a tiny firm in a small town run by a household-name, three-time CEO. As a recruiter, I placed a woman at his office, and she basically supports this ex-CEO’s personal investments, real estate holdings, and corporate board activity. It’s a flexible and exceedingly interesting opportunity for her to gain insights from a legend in the business world—and through networking you can find these influential small business owners, too.
Target small business owners who trained with leading companies.
If you’re interested in fashion design, for example, you could zero in on small business owners who once worked for Ralph Lauren or Tory Burch. LinkedIn can lead you to former employees of all big-name companies, and some may have small businesses in your area.
Check Chamber of Commerce websites in your target locations.
Many entrepreneurs rely on their local business communities to spread the word about their smaller-scale ventures. You can research companies listed on Chamber of Commerce websites.
Smaller companies join industry organizations to get greater exposure. When you join, you have access to the membership directory, which can help you separate the wheat from the chaff. The more professional companies looking to build industry stature are more apt to be involved.
See who belongs to organizations that help entrepreneurs launch and grow businesses.
Many fledgling company members cannot afford full-time employees, so they often need people who can work part time or on an intermittent project basis. In addition to checking out organization job boards, it’s a good strategy to network with officers who are often listed on their sites.
For more information, see Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman and What to do Instead.