what are you supposed to ask new networking contacts anyway?

A reader writes:

I’m moving to a new city in a couple of months to follow my partner to his new academic job, so I’m beginning a job search. I don’t know anyone well in this city, though I have a few distant contacts, professional and personal, with ties to the area, i.e. a man I collaborated with briefly in a different city when I and I were both working for different organizations; a woman my grad school adviser went to grad school with and who still works in the dept. they both got their phDs from; a former colleague who grew up nearby, etc.

In other words, there are some people I can start networking with, and people I might be referred to by people I know pretty well, but no one I know very well directly or have a lot of personal experience with. My question is: What do I say to these people? I’ve read questions you’ve answered before about networking, and I know a lot of things NOT to do — don’t ask a lot of general questions, don’t take up too much time, don’t make vague inquiries, don’t ask for a job, and I get those. But where I’m struggling is in coming up with pithy, meaningful questions can I ask for help with in an introductory email or coffee meeting. If I was just out of college, I would ask for help understanding the field. But I’m mid-career, I understand my field(s) pretty well, and I want to come across as knowledgeable, not naive. All I can think of to ask is for other people to network with, but that just would seem to send me in a circle of content-less conversations.

Part of the problem may be that I hate networking just as much as you say that you do…and I want to make myself a general roadmap to guide me through these situations, rather than winging it.

Well, if you think about this as just a back-door way to make contacts, it’ll be hard to come up much to say, because you’ll be focused on the wrong thing: just adding a person to your list of people you know. You’ll be thinking about just wanting to check off a box instead of genuinely getting to know them, and that screams “networking for networking’s sake,” which makes people like you and me blanch.

So instead, think about what you’d genuinely like to know about your industry in your new city. When you imagine trying to find a new job in this city, what do you wish you knew? Do you have questions about firms there, people, trends, salary ranges? Are there good networking groups or do they suck? What’s the scoop on the top firms in your field there? Is Company X really family-friendly, or is that hype? What’s up with Company’s Y weird campaign from last year? And so forth.

If you had a magic genie who would tell you anything at all about your industry there, what would you ask? I bet you do have questions when you think of it like that. That’s the stuff to ask these people.

What other tips do people have?

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Nilesh

    Totally agree – “networking for networking’s sake” sounds scary to me, and I am sure it’s not even very useful in most cases. I was faced with a similar problem when I left my job to start a business — attended a few local events but was clueless about what to ask how to even start the conversations. What helped me was to try and find people “I would like to” interact with, instead of worrying about finding people “I should” interact with.

  2. Andy Lester

    And then, after you’ve asked for information, you ask “Is there I anything I can help you with?”

    Every time I ask this, people are amazed, taken aback, and flattered.

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      Wow. Caring about other people and considering a relationship instead of just a check box? — that’s crazy! :)

      (I didn’t realize that keeping in touch on a regular basis with former coworkers was networking — I thought we were just friends.)

      1. Andy Lester

        Doesn’t have to be former coworkers. If I meet *anyone* and talk about stuff with them, I always ask “What can I do for you?” I guarantee you’ll be well-remembered.

  3. jmkenrick

    I think also it’s best to be direct…let people know that you’re moving to a new city, don’t know anyone, and are trying to get your bearings on how the industry works in this area.

    Moving to a totally new place is scary, and I think a lot of people can empathize with that.

    1. Rana

      This – plus maybe she’ll get lucky and some of these business contacts may turn into friends as well.

  4. ladylemon

    I’m going through a similar situation, and I agree with this advice. Meet with these people you “sorta” know, talk to them about where they work. Do some research into their backgrounds, maybe they’ve worked at places you’re interested in? If not, I would politely see if they can refer you to people who work exactly where you’d like to work. I find that tracking down people who are doing exactly what you’d like to be doing, then trying to find similar interests to talk about with them, seems like the best way to make good connections. This is probably easier for me as I work in a more artistic field, and I can actually see examples of other people’s work that I’m interested in – on the internet.

  5. HAnon

    Try “netweaving” — which is kind of like networking, but with the intent of establishing connections and helping the *other* person. You’d be surprised how effective it can be…even if you don’t see direct results from that relationship, you’ll be building a positive rapport with people, and you never know when someone might know someone else who can open doors for you, and they’ll remember you because they like you. Don’t be disingenuous or anxious about it; just enjoy getting to know people, look for opportunities where your knowledge/enthusiasm can help benefit them and build a relationship (example: Hi Sue! It was great meeting you the other night at that cooking class. I came across this great article about ____ in (magazine) this morning, and I know that’s your field of interest so I wanted to pass it on! Keep in touch!”) and in turn, opportunities will start opening up for you, both socially and professionally. Good luck!

  6. AB

    I went through this process 2 years ago when relocating after my husband finished his PhD.

    I didn’t even have the benefit of local contacts (except for one, described above), but what I did was to do a search in LinkedIn for people in the area who were part of my extended network. Then I started to reach out to these people — with some just asking about areas to look for a rental place, with others, more closed related to my industry, providing a brief explanation of the type of work I do and asking if they knew any companies or recruiters I could talk to after I moved.

    It worked pretty well: everybody seemed pleased to be able to help. A contact from a group I used to moderate was particularly helpful, scheduling a phone call before I moved to learn more about my profile, and sending introductions to various people who might need someone like me. I went to various meetings with these people once I finally moved, and quickly found a consulting gig that way.

    Curiously, my boss from the company I left to relocate sent a very flattering email to a friend she had in my new town recommending my work. The friend was nice but too busy, so the connection never moved forward. In the end, a complete stranger was the reason I found work right away (and continued to find good consulting clients afterwards). So I wouldn’t underestimate the power of LinkedIn and of asking for what you want (in a polite and not entitled manner of course).

    An important thing to keep in mind: I no longer need this person’s help to find clients, but I often send an email to ask how he is doing, and tell him about my accomplishments (which reassures him that he did the right thing introducing me to his contacts). I have introduced him to some valuable contacts too, to balance the relationship.

  7. AnotherAlison

    You might be two steps ahead of me on this one, but if networking with the people you already sort of know doesn’t get you anywhere with your job search, you might reach out to your husband’s department and see what resources they may have. (Maybe this is something you academic partners do already, but it’s new to me!) My alma mater’s advisory board set up a committee to help with recruiting spouses of candidates, and one of the roles is to help the spouse with finding work by meeting with them, introducing them to their own contacts where it makes sense, filling them in on local industry, etc.

    1. Rana

      That’s a really good point. I know a lot of academic institutions have set-ups for helping non-academic spouses find employment, as it’s part of their retention effort for academic hires.

  8. A teacher

    +1 to the networking and net weaving ideas. I’ve lived in my current city a few years and have just realized how much networking is helping me. I found a young professionals group through the local chamber of commerce and I actually joined a few groups on meet-up which as been great for the net weaving. Many people are in multiple groups and because of that I’ve made a lot of new professional and personal connections.

  9. LJL

    Also check with your spouse’s employer. Many colleges and universities have both formal and informal spousal-placement programs with local businesses and industries. It’s a good way for them to retain the faculty they want.

  10. ADE

    Also- use these people to ask general “moving to a new city” questions, such as what they think of their primary care doctor, city neighborhoods, schools, best-kept secrets the religious/social communities and events.

    If you think of networking as information-sharing first and job-contact collection later, I think you’ll find it less intimidating and you’ll find more people who want to help!

  11. Manda

    I’d be lost if I ever had to move to another city. Just the thought of networking at all is awful. I’ve never made friends easily and don’t like to socialize much. Makes networking seem pretty self-serving and phoney. I’ll be surprised if I ever find a satisfying career cause it’s tough to do alone.

    1. CKL116

      “Makes networking seem pretty self-serving and phoney.”

      It’s 100% self-serving. That is the point. And it’s not in the least phony if you’re being upfront about the fact that you are networking. If you make social friends with someone hoping he’ll give you a professional boost, that is phony.

      Besides, it’s fine to be self-serving when you’re looking for a job to pay the bills. Jeez.

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