ask the readers: 2 questions about networking

Welcome to today’s “ask the readers” question. (For anyone who missed it, I’m posting one of these each day this week, in addition to my regular posts.)  This is actually two letters, each on a slightly different aspect of networking (which I’m throwing out to you because I hate, hate, hate networking).

First, a letter from a college student wondering about networking in general:

I’m a college student racking up internship experience in my desired field. I’ve been well-liked by people that I’ve worked with, and even offered a free lifetime supply of career advice. I’ve kept in touch periodically, but I’m not sure how to exactly utilize my network. How might I approach someone if I know that they have connections to a company that I’d like to work at? What are things that I can ask them, and things that I definitely shouldn’t?

And second, a more specific networking question, about meeting people at events:

I finished graduate school a few months ago and am in the job hunting process. One strategy I use is attending industry specific lectures, conferences, and panel discussions. Oftentimes at these events, the speaker is someone that works at an organization in a capacity that I would love to work at or has great connections in the industry. At the end of the speech, normally a flood of people stand in line to speak with them for a few minutes.

I usually muster up the courage, and go stand in line in hopes of getting their business card and the offer to follow up. My question to you is: what should I say? Is it best to ask their insight into the industry? Is it okay to be more direct about job opportunities? Or ask them a more light question about career paths? Or boast about my own background? What do you think is a good strategy that would allow me to ultimately follow up with them about jobs without being annoying? I know these people are very busy, but at the same time I don’t want to be too shy and miss a potential opportunity.

Well, what say you?

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I’m interested in the first question, and how often is appropriate to keep in touch with people you’ve worked with in the past when a recent grad/new to a field without being irritating, overbearing or getting a reputation as ‘the one who never went away, dammit!’

  2. Dwane Lay*

    I’m never offended by someone telling me they are interested in working with me or my organization. And, at least as an HR Director, I’m always looking for talent. The same goes for someone looking for tips on getting into my organization.

    The truth is every good company is always looking for talent. You can never have enough. Period. The best way to get on the list of desired talent is letting them know you want to be there, then seeing if you fit and, if not, what you can do to get there.

    1. Joey*

      You’re making it sound like if you’re good enough companies will hire you even if they don’t need you. Sure this may happen once in a blue moon, but the reality is most companies will just keep you in mind for future positions.

  3. Anonymous*

    I view networking as an opportunity to show what I can “bring to the table.” What skill set do you offer? What is your area of specialty? What is your elevator speech? As the winds have shifted in this new economic environment, employers want to know how you can help them solve their problems.

  4. AK*

    I always think it is best to be upfront about what you are looking to get out of the conversation. Speakers at these events expect job opportunity inquiries; so there is no need to dance around the topic. As an introvert who dreads networking events as well, I’ve learned that just being honest about your goals and expectations for the conversation is the most efficient way to get the answers you are searching for. People appreciate honesty and initiative, it saves time and (forced) small talk!

  5. Malissa*

    #1, If you know the person well enough in the company, ask if they would be a reference. An in-company reference can tip the scales your way when being considered for an interview.
    #2. I’d use the time to ask the speaker how they got into the industry. Ask them for tips on getting a foot in the door. These are normal questions they should be happy to answer.

  6. fposte*

    I actually quite like networking, despite being an introvert. My field is pretty friendly about it, so that probably makes it easier.

    I’d say for me the key is being specific and direct. Hanging around and engaging in general conversation doesn’t get you anything. Telling me that you’re interested in [thing I do that I didn’t mention in the talk] or even moving from your current position to something more like what I do, and I’ll be happy to talk to you. I also think that that’s a pretty known part of speaking at and attending events, so when I go expect to talk to some people individually afterwards–it’s not an imposition, it’s part of the package.

    An important networking piece that I’m not seeing in those questions: make connections with people in your situation–hoping to grow, wanting to talk to the speaker–as well. These can be some of your best allies through your career; they’ve been of incomparable value in mine.

    1. A.*

      This! I am new in my career so it is not so long ago that I was in the shoes of the people asking. You know who I think of first when I hear about opportunities? People I met while getting introduced to the industry. Either through school or networking events or what have you, I have passed on plenty of resumes from my peers.

      People really seem to underestimate this pool of resources, tending to view your peers as “competition”. That is such a limited (and limiting) outlook. You can’t get all the positions, be a cheerleader, not just a quarterback.

      1. Plus One*

        Yes! Exactly what I found. I went into a super competitive field, and people questioned why I was keen to help others do the same. Be generous!

    2. Anonymouse*

      Absolutely. What goes around comes around. You can definitely share leads. No two people have the exact skillset and personality.

  7. Kimberlee*

    #1: Ima shill a bit here… I highly recommend friending people you’ve previously worked with on Facebook and using that as a way to keep in continuous touch.. that way, you’re always building relationships which are (theoretically) with people you like anyway, and if those relationships become useful in the future, even better! Ideally, you should never be in a position where you have a potential reference at a company and you don’t know how to approach them because you haven’t interacted in a year and a half.

    I wrote a whole blog post on how to network using facebook:

    Facebook is a networking dream.

    #2: I would approach and give them your card, ask for theirs, and mention that you’re very interested in their company. If there’s an opening, reference it specifically (and tell them that you’ve already applied, hopefully!), and tell them you’d love to talk about it more if he would like. Keep it short, and don’t ask for a reference (s/he doesn’t know you). But I wouldn’t try to start a convo… instead, engage in the discussion/speech, and have questions during the designated Q&A time during the speech. Stand out before you even approach him, then make sure he gets your card.

    1. The Right Side*

      The “network on FB” thing only works if you don’t mind allowing them deep access to your personal life – and it won’t hurt your chances at gainful employment.

      And I’m not even necessarily talking about posting drunken pictures (which hopefully nobody posts these days, God forbid naked pictures) but if you post about your political or religious beliefs or you vent about a bad workday, this might turn off a potential future employer.

      I prefer to keep FB personal and you LinkedIn as my professional FB :-)

      1. Julie*

        Alternately, if you’re computer savvy and willing to dig a bit into Facebook’s settings, you can create a list of your business contacts and make sure that they don’t see any of the personal stuff you post. (My default setting for all my posts is “Friends, except Colleagues.”)

        Of course, this requires that you’re diligent in making sure that your filters are set correctly, because Facebook has a habit of changing things up and not telling you, which can be embarrassing if you’re not expecting it and slip up.

      2. Nichole*

        I also assume that my Facebook friends are getting access to my personal life as well-but the continuous contact without bugging my friends from 8th grade with random contact thing is exactly why I use FB, so I see Kimberlee’s point. With privacy setting being so fickle, I follow the basic FB rules of only friending people I don’t mind seeing everything and not posting jerky things (appropriate language and pictures, avoiding excessive negativity, etc.). For people from work that I like but we aren’t on that personal level, definitely LinkedIn only. A 2nd professional only FB page is also an option, but I’ll admit I think it’s kind of weird when people have both unless the 2nd page is for their business rather than themselves.

      3. Greg*

        Another thing to keep in mind with Facebook: If you post multiple status updates during work hours, the person may assume you aren’t a very productive worker (obviously, this doesn’t apply to students or those who aren’t in a full-time job).

        I am Facebook friends with some of my business contacts, but only a select few, and only those with whom I feel a more personal connection.

        Totally agree with Julie re: adjusting your privacy settings.

  8. SA*

    The best way to network, especially early in your career, with people you do not know yet is do things for other people for free. Make yourself valuable and memorable to her before you need or ask for something for yourself. For example, if you follow the blog of X industry leader or hear that person speak at an event, and you think you could help her out with something (social media, video editing, copy editing, photography, whatever), offer your service for free. Leave thoughtful comments on her blog. Send articles you think she might find useful or interesting. If the person is up for it, take her out to lunch. Cultivate the relationship first. Then, after that, you can MAYBE ask that person to review your resume, become a mentor or let you know of any opportunities they see that would suit your skill set. Of course, if you’ve properly done your job, you may not even have to actually ask.

  9. ChristineH*

    Just wanted to say thank you Alison for posting this. I am extremely shy when it comes to networking, so it’s good to see responses from real people in the workforce, as opposed to career experts.

      1. Ry*

        In fact, you may even be TWO real people: AAM, and The Foot!

        (Nothing substantive to add, sorry; I like Malissa’s and fposte’s comments.)

    1. fposte*

      One thing to think about, if you’re shy–you can do some kinds of networking in groups. In the letter 2 conference scenario, for instance, you can grab some other new hopefuls in line and plan together, then ask the speaker if she’d be willing to have coffee with the four of you to talk about the industry (or whatever). You don’t have the one on one pressure but still get some of that individualized connection, and you develop some nice lateral contacts as well.

        1. Joy*

          Thanks, this is really helpful. I’d never ask to speak to someone one-on-one. I *hate* networking, but this is a great idea I’ll make myself try.

  10. Anonymous*

    Just want to mention that many organizations give their employees referral bonuses if they bring in a good employee. So, if someone helps you get your foot in the door, you should ask them if such a thing exists and how you can let HR know that they are the one deserving of the bonus.

  11. Anonymous*

    I despise networking. But it has gotten me every job I’ve ever had. (Except one in high school, that was being able to cook a dozen eggs perfectly in under 3 minutes.)

    Generally what I’ve done is sort of say, hey I’m here should I know anything? And I find a lot of time the person on the other end is more than happy to help. I’m generally that way too. When someone comes to me asking for help about a job I’m very happy to help, go out of my way and make the “networking” piece easier for them. When a former intern asked if I would be a refrence I offered to take her to coffee and discuss her strategy and she was extremely relieved because she wanted far more help than she knew how to ask for, which was fine.

    The main thing is when someone does offer something like that take them up on it, and always say thank you.

  12. Eric*

    Short Story Time: I recently found a new job. However, when I was interviewing for that job, it was a 5 person panel. Wouldn’t you know that one of the people that was on the panel was somebody I went to college with. This was more luck than anything because I hadn’t kept up with him since graduation. The lesson is to not burn ANY bridges because every once in awhile you might need to cross one.


  13. Natasha D. Wade*

    These are great questions along with awesome responses! I’m glad we’re discussing this because we seemed to have created a climate where job seekers are generally intimidated or very reluctant to talk candidly with decision makers and I think that’s a lost opportunity for both parties.

    As you can gauge from most of the responses and I’ve discovered this in my own professional experience, the key is to demonstrate enthusiasm versus need and be proactive in your relationship building (on a daily basis).

    Enthusiasm vs. Need: The advice of “Don’t ask for a job; ask for ideas, tips, information or feedback” has always been consistently effective as reflected in the responses of Dwane Lay, Malissa, fposte, etc.

    Be Proactive: Kimberlee is right! Facebook and LinkedIn has been monumental in me building mutually beneficial relationships. Before I connect with someone I don’t know, however, I research as much as I can to discover what interests them so I can be of service. I make it a point to try to connect with old coworkers and friends I’ve lost touch with to just see how they are doing and see how I can help. I also post articles or send information to other professionals and let them know I thought about them when I read it. I try to connect people with others in my network if I feel it will be mutually beneficial to them.

    Most importantly, be genuine about your enthusiasm and willingness to help others because once you do that, everything else falls into place.

    1. SJ*

      Natasha, great post and tips, but as someone who is either fresh out of school or has been out of work for an extended time, how do you “offer to help?” For instance, all of my former (corporate) co-workers couldn’t pitch work to me; I’ve even offered to do simple things like Excel spreadsheets to help them through a project (as a favor, of course), and to new contacts I’ve made, to no avail. Not sure where to turn at this point. If you’re a career counselor, I’d love to pick your brain some more. I completely agree with you as to how our climate has become intimidating to job seekers. Thanks ~

        1. Natasha D. Wade*

          I agree with AAM. Just being genuinely interested in another person or having a willingness to learn and listen to what they have to say is a great compliment.

          To new contacts, I usually ask them how I can be of help to them or what types of referrals are of interest to them. I always keep their information handy for when that perfect referral, article, event or business opportunity comes my way. Especially for business owners, I will post on FB that I had a great lunch with so and so and say a little something about what they do, giving them support and exposure.

          For new grads and people out of work for extended periods of time, nonprofits and small business owners are always usually receptive to someone volunteering or helping them on a small project. For instance, a Web Designer may want to create a website or update a website for a nonprofit (notice I didn’t say plant trees because it’s best to choose projects related to your industry or skill). This gives him or her valuable experience and everyone at that nonprofit remembers them when an opportunity arises.

          I am trying to do a career change into staffing and recruiting and landed 2 interviews this week, possibly three, by engaging in the above activities.

          As AAM said below, “be genuine in being interested in people.” Ask your contacts the simple question “Hey how have you been?” and then listen more than you talk. When you find the perfect opportunity to help them or connect them with someone else, do so. Choose a cause that you are passionate about and volunteer your time doing what you love and are good at. Select a company that has a vision that you are excited about and tell them you want to learn about opportunities to contribute to that vision–via job opportunities, externships and/or internships.

          And remember, you have A LOT to offer…

  14. Ask a Manager* Post author

    These are great comments. I’m also going to add: Be genuine in being interested in people, not just for networking’s sake. It’s very clear when someone is reaching out solely because they want something from you (especially when the person makes multiple contacts and all of them are solely to get something). It’s totally fine to ask for help, but most people are more inclined to go out of their way to help someone (especially more than once) if the person asking seems to (a) be genuine, not just fake-nice as a entree to asking for a favor, and (b) appreciative, not entitled.

    1. Kelly O*

      See, THIS is where I feel weird about it sometimes, especially being new in a large city and basically starting from scratch.

      I don’t want people to feel like I’m just trying to use them. There is this internal monologue sometimes of “well what could you possibly have to offer Ms. Hot-Shot Big-Time Person?” (and I know that is my own issue entirely. I’m working on it, but it’s still there.)

      So I guess my thing is – how do you even start the conversation? It may be my Very Southern Upbringing shining through, but I have a hard time saying “let’s meet for coffee and just talk about things” without wondering what on earth that person is going to think. I don’t want to seem too forward (because I’ve been told I come across aggressive sometimes, and I guess I’m just internally terrified of scaring someone away.)

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Ah, it’s not necessarily that you need to have something to offer them in return, but just that you can’t seem to be all me-me-me. So seeming genuinely interested in them as a person is good. Telling them what you admire about their work (be specific) is good. That kind of thing.

  15. SFP*

    When networking with an alum of your institution or industry contact, I recommend ask questions including asking for advice regarding articles or periodicals you should read, or whom else you should speak with – which will allow you to easily follow-up. As you make your way through these articles or speak with other folks, I advise sending a QUICK note to your original contact thanking them for their advice or letting them know how it went/what you thought. Additionally, as a student you are also likely doing a great deal of industry specific readings. Feel free to share anything specific to your contact with them!

  16. Anonymous*

    Just walk up and talk to them. Be interested in them, and less interested in what you want to say. Everyone wants to connect. Give them a chance.

    I always remember one girl I knew in college. She applied to Med School. She said she was only going to apply one year, since if they missed out her that time, well, it was their loss. My lesson from that (as an introvert) was, don’t worry about it so much. Just say something to someone and always ask a follow-up question. You don’t have to say something profound! Everyone always wants to be interesting to someone!

    Networking is about Getting Out There.

  17. Freida*

    I got a new job a few months ago at a company that has a great reputation, and my time spent “networking” has sky rocketed–mostly due to former colleagues contacting me asking if I want to have lunch or whatever. I’m naturally shy, but I realized that while I may not be best friends with these people, they were pleasant to work with and did their jobs well, and I may need their contact one day as much as they may need mine. So I just think of it as another duty of my job rather than a social event. So if you are in the same city/area as these contacts, it’s probably pretty normal to email the person and ask if you can take them out to a casual lunch or get drinks/coffee after work one day to catch up.

    It is worthwhile because, at least for me, these are the first people I think of when I hear of a job opening at my company–and I regularly scan our list of open positions and try to think if I know of anyone who might fit. Partly because my company pays a bonus to employees who refer a new hire, but also because I believe in job-search karma: if you are the kind of person who helps out other good people in your network, other people in your network will help you out in return. As a concrete example, in my previous company about 8-10 of the people I referred got interviews, and 3 of them were ultimately hired (this is over the course of 5 years at a company with less than 50 employees). Then, when I started my job search, I got in contact with everyone I knew in my general industry and let them know that I was looking for a job, and from those contacts I had three interviews in the next two weeks.

    And I definitely agree with the person above that social networking (Facebook, LinkedIn) can be a huge help in keeping up with networks–it makes it really easy to keep in just enough contact so that they remember you, and it’s not completely out of the blue if you ask about a job opening. It really isn’t that difficult to put people in groups and limit the privileges of specific groups, and once you are out of college you really shouldn’t be posting anything on FB that you wouldn’t want to be public anyway (in my opinion). I don’t know how much anyone here is interested in sociology, but the idea that “weak” interpersonal ties being the source of new info (like job openings!) has been around since the 70s, but has really picked up steam in the last few years since FB is basically built around weak ties.

  18. Eva*

    Regarding #2, realize that a speaker is like a beautiful woman in a bar: You have to bring something that will make you really stand out from the crowd that is eagerly vying for their attention; if not they’ll be polite but definitely disinterested.

    A great way to stand out is to ask a good question during the Q&A session, ideally one that is general enough to be interesting (i.e. don’t inquire about some detail that few people care about) but still somehow specific to the talk. Doing so impresses everyone there including the speaker. I realize public speaking is one of the things people fear most, but that is precisely why it is such a powerful move; if it were easy, it wouldn’t be as impressive! When you approach the speaker afterwards, he or she will likely be much more favorably inclined than they otherwise would be. Plus you shouldn’t overlook the opportunity for networking with other members of the audience or the event organizers which will also be easier if you stand out during the Q&A session.

    Thinking of a good question usually takes time, so in order to be able to raise your hand early enough to be called on, make sure to enter ‘idea mode’ not when the talk ends but when it begins. To stimulate your imagination it helps to pretend that you are in a one-on-one conversation with the speaker: If they were to pause and wait for you to say something, how would you return the ball?

    I’ve practiced what I preach here on several occasions and each time I’ve gotten something out of it and felt it was worth the trouble. And it builds character to boot!

  19. Greg*

    One other point I would add to No. 2 is to keep in mind that it’s a numbers game. If a bunch of people are lining up to meet the speaker after her talk, you can assume a good number of them will be asking for her card and following up afterward. So you may do everything right and still get lost in the shuffle. That doesn’t mean you should give up on that type of networking or resort to gimmicks next time to help yourself stand out. You might tweak your approach as needed (it definitely helps if your request is more specific), but keep plugging away, and remember that the helpful people are also the ones more likely to get back to you.

  20. Catherine*

    For OP#1 There are lots of different tips for refreshing and reconnecting with your network. If you’ve maintained a loose sort of contact (e.g. LinkedIn) check out their profiles and see what updates they’ve posted, articles they shared, or discussion activity. This will give you an icebreaker to reconnect without immediately asking them for a favour. At the same time, if you happen to remember that one of them really liked something or was passionate about a subject, send them a useful article or link, with a note saying that you thought about them when you saw that piece and wanted to share it with them because you remember how much they were interested in X. Going forward, I suggest creating Google Alerts for special subjects of interest for your network contacts, which will make it easier to share valuable tips, blog posts & news articles that will show you really pay attention to what is important to them (giving back to your contacts).

    When you make that initial reconnection, go ahead and give them a brief update on what you’ve been up to (e.g. interning at X and finishing my 3rd/4th year studies…). After they reply, it won’t be as awkward for you to then suggest maybe being able to speak for a few minutes to get their advice or thoughts on your area of concern.

  21. Liz*

    Few things in life are more painful than listening to someone with a small amount of knowledge try to talk about a field in which you have a great deal of knowledge. Don’t punish an expert by forcing him or her to listen to you try to prove an interest or background in a field that is new to you. Instead, just admit you re new to the area. Also, don’t force the expert to answer a question just because you think it will make you seem engaged.

    When you reach the VIP give a sincere compliment about an aspect of the presentation that engaged you. State your interest directly, “I am interested in this area and so I am glad you covered it.” Ask for a card and then just get out of the way of the next person in line, so that the VIP won’t have to feel stressed for time or wonder howtobget rid of you. Then follow up in an email.

    1. fposte*

      Excellent point on the knowledge thing. Also don’t try to demonstrate your knowledge by mentioning names of high-profile people you know/met at conferences.

      1. Liz*

        Obviously not in that setting – there wouldn’t be any time and you don’t know which of the other VIPS your VIP feels competitive with or secretly can’t stand – but I’m curious, why not mention a casual relationship with VIPs in other settings? Wouldn’t it show an interest and knowledge in the area, as long as you’re not trying to misrepresent the relationship? (“I met him at a conference” as opposed to “Oh Jim and I are like THIS.”)

        1. fposte*

          It’s definitely going to depend on the setting, but what frequently happens is people mill around after a talk mentioning what [firstnameonly] thinks about something only peripherally germane to the talk, but the subtext of the statement is simply “Did you know that I know [firstnameonly]?” Which elicits the private thought that you can just call [firstnameonly] for your career advice, then.

          Basically, make sure you’re not dropping names because you believe the person you’d like to network with cares about who you know.

  22. W*

    How do you feel about people you don’t know contacting you because what you do is interesting. I am in the midst of a career change and have identified people I would like to contact. I want to learn more about their career journey and to find out how to get from where I am to where they are. An information interview. I am terrified of this initial contact. Do I just email them and tell them what I am looking for and offer to buy them coffee. Do I do this through LinkedIn? Or just cold email? Thanks

    1. Natasha D. Wade*


      My approach is always to relay to them how interested in I am or how much I admire their work in “such and such” area. I continue with how I would like to discuss it more over coffee and see how I may be of service to them and/or I have a few questions about A, B and/or C and would appreciate their insight.

      If you spotted them on LinkedIn, I would use LinkedIn but if you have the option of email, that’s sometimes better because a lot of people don’t check their LinkedIn accounts regularly. I would offer the option to have a phone conversation if they find it more convenient than face-to-face. Initially, I tried having coffee with everyone (because I just prefer face-to-face) and honestly, a lot of people want to conserve gas or they just have busy schedules.

      I would also think thoroughly about what you want to ask and have specific questions prepared before you meet or talk. Of course, always follow through with a hand-written thank you card or a thoughtful email.

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