how the hell does networking work anyway?

A reader writes:

Can you explain networking? I still don’t really get it. I have many years (decades) of experience and so fortunately, I know a lot of people, and the people I know tend to know a lot of people too. I have gotten jobs in the past through people I know, but it was more a matter of someone I know knows I am looking for a job, and either recommends me to someone they know, or hires me. What I mean is that it has happened rather organically.

Now you might be saying, “Well, that’s it! That’s networking!” If that’s the case, then I am doing it. But what confuses me is the idea of being introduced to someone in my field, the friend of an acquaintance or the acquaintance of a friend or something like that, and… then what?

I have a few people who are kindly offering to “put me in touch with so and so” who is in my field or a closely related field. So say either they virtually introduce us, or I send a note explaining the connection and that my contact suggested I contact them. Then what?

You can find my answer to this question — and answers from three other career experts as well — over at the Fast Track by Intuit QuickBase today.

{ 88 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I haven’t warmed to the networking idea either. But I strongly believe it’s because I can’t imagine what I’d have to offer anyone. I fear I’d appear to be someone who can only take but not give. I guess if I felt more ‘successful’ I wouldn’t mind going to these networking events or reaching out to people via social media.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I kind of feel the same way…but I have to do this to get research done for books. I just wish I could get them published so the people who helped me could have a copy/acknowledgment!

    2. Anonymous*

      I think a lot of people discount what they have to offer and this creates issues. (One of which being that certain groups have “less valuable” networks because so many of them are afraid to reach out so they as a broader group don’t develop the connections to impact everyone.)
      You may not have anything to offer now, but in 3 days or 3 months or 30 years you might. You might only take now, but unless you decide that you’re going to never help or support anyone later in your career you can think of it as you’ll be able to help when you have more connections to offer.

      You may have stuff to offer today. I have a former boss of awesomeness who is awesome and has been a great person to put me in touch with this person or make sure I’m on that mailing list or other things. And I sit down with her every couple months and we talk tech and I help her get more comfortable with whatever she’s working on. It is great and a very valuable relationship for both of us. (And if she had no contacts it would still make me feel great to be helping someone and that is of value to people too.)

      1. Scott M*

        But meanwhile, how do you maintain that network for 30 years when you don’t really have any other reason to stay in touch?

        1. Jennifer*

          Yes, that’s a big problem with “networking.” I also don’t feel like I have anything to offer either, but if you don’t have any natural reason or way to re-meet with the person on a regular basis, and you met them once and want to connect later…it just never, ever works for me! Not once! At best I get an e-mail saying, “I’ll reply to your e-mail later,” which translates into “I’ll never write back,” usually I’m just flat out ignored.

        2. Anonymous*

          LinkedIn is great. Or you have to work at it. Which means that you once a year go thru your contact list and have a short coffee with everyone if you have to.

          Networks might be easy magically self maintaining things for some people but some people do things like send short e-mails, have coffees, or just call someone up 30 years later.

          1. Scott M*

            Why would I have coffee with these people when I don’t have a reason to contact them (other than just trying to keep them in my “network?”)

      2. thenoiseinspace*

        But what about people who are just starting out in their field? There aren’t very many people who will look at us and say “Well, you’ve got potential, so I’ll take the time to help you.” What can the newer person bring to that relationship that’s different from any other new person? It’s not self-deprecating to assess the situation and determine that, were you in their shoes, you wouldn’t have the meeting, etc.

        I mean, I’m a pretty awesome baker, but somehow I don’t think “I’ll give you a cupcake if you give me your business card” is going to fly. ;)

        1. Jamie*

          Are you in IT? Because the cupcake thing would work with me. :)

          All kidding aside, I see what you’re saying but there is something pretty cool about someone asking for advice and it’s gratifying to help someone get started, even if you can’t hook them up with a job.

          Hypothetical, say you were an admin and dying to get into IT and you knew that’s how I did it…whether that’s because of a mutual friend or online or whatever. If you asked me to meet to kind of pick my brain about my journey…1. – how flattering. 2. Nothing I’d rather do than talk about work, ever. 3. The gratification comes from doing a nice thing for a nice person who wants to make the same crazy leap I made. You don’t have to bring anything else to the table.

          Except the cupcake, because that would be awesome.

          1. Julie*

            I completely agree! I was going to write something very similar, so I’ll just agree with Jamie instead.

      1. fposte*

        Here’s what I get from helping out people in the earlier stages of their career: first, the satisfaction of doing it (it’s actually really enjoyable to be helpful, and people certainly were to me), and second, the investment in somebody whose career might benefit my work down the line sometime. And it’s pretty common for that to happen–I do a lot of stuff that advances people who helped me when I started out, and some people who I helped earlier in their career work with me on projects, etc.

        Admittedly, I’m in fields that work that way generally, but I think it’s likely across the board that more experienced people don’t expect an immediate quid pro quo in the way you’re thinking–they’re looking at a longer-term effect than that.

    3. nyxalinth*

      This. When I’m working, I’m just another call center phone drone, and when I’m not working, I don’t know what the hell I have to even remotely offer. I know people, but many of them are retired or in government jobs and all the second group can do is tell me to apply online and hope for the best.

      1. fposte*

        I think a lot of people would be happy to talk to you about field change, though. And networking, especially when you’re trying to embark on something, often means making *new* contacts, not just checking in with your regular circle.

        I’d also say the equation is that the less you know somebody, the more specific your request should be. “Help me find a job” is for the intimates; “Can you tell me about transition experiences of people who come late to your field?” is for somebody you don’t know.

  2. Briggs*

    “If you are looking for a job, don’t emphasize that in your first conversation.”

    “The goal is to establish rapport with this person. After you’ve done that initially, follow up periodically so that you stay top of mind in the event that he becomes aware of a good opportunity for you.”

    “So the first step is to get clear on what you want. But here’s the key: you have to decide that it’s not a job or a new client or even just info about a company or your field. Networking goes best when you decide that you’re really in just to get to know new people who might have similar or complementary interests to your own.”

    I actually find these answers mildly annoying.

    There have been a number of articles on this and other blogs about “using your network” when you’re looking for a new job … and they’re all about the direct approach and tactfully asking for what you want. This article, however, states that you should treat networking like just making friends.

    If a colleague introduces me to a colleague of theirs who works in my field in a city I’m moving to … then I should just hang out with them and make friends without mentioning my need for job leads? And hope that some day they think of me when they see an opening?

    While I love making new friends, that’s not the same as networking as I understand it. Or maybe the take away from this is that while you should always be meeting new colleagues, you should really only ask favors of those you know really well or have an already established relationship with. Maybe you should think of your network as two-tiered: those with whom you’re still establishing a relationship, and those with whom you’ve established enough of a relationship that you can actually ask them for something useful.

    I realize I’m sounding rather mercenary here. I’m fully aware that nobody really cares to help out people they don’t have any meaningful relationship with, and I do make it a point to seek out and maintain friendships with people in my field just for the sake of having friends with similar interests.

    However, I think the idea of “networking” is specifically defined as meeting and maintaining relationships with people in a professional sense so that we can help each other out with our careers. I’ve done it for colleagues of mine, and I would hope they would return the favor if they were able.

    Maybe I’m missing something here, or reading something into it that isn’t there … but if we’re being advised that it’s annoying to be asked for career help by someone you only know through professional contacts … then when exactly is it appropriate to straight up ask your network for help finding a job?

    1. Cat*

      I think the key is that it’s important to still be meeting colleagues and people in your field when you’re not looking for a job. And that the favors you trade aren’t always going to be about job hunting: sometimes it’ll just be calling up someone – or being called up – for advice about an issue you know they’ve worked on or vice versa; or agreeing to meet a young person they know who’s interested in your field; or any one of a number of other things. Then when you are looking for a job, you have those relationships in place; but if they never help you in terms of job searching, they’re useful and rewarding in other ways.

    2. Jamie*

      I also have a hard time understanding the (to me) blurry line between keeping in touch for the sake of maintaining contacts, and actually networking.

      And I prefer things to be more direct. For example, someone with whom I am close (and trust implicitly) knows someone who was looking for a job in my industry.

      If they had just said – hey Jamie, let me put you in touch with Bob so you can meet since you both enjoy manufacturing…or whatever…I’d have said, no weirdo, stop trying to set me up with friends.

      But what they actually said was they know Bob and he’s looking for position X – know of anything? I ran it up the flag pole here and we didn’t, but someone here has a relative in another company who did need position X so I passed along his resume (because the person’s relative knew me by reputation) and they called him in for an interview and Bob has been working for my co-workers relative for almost a year now and is by all accounts very happy.

      And I’m very happy to help and even happier I didn’t need to strike up a pseudo friendship with Bob to do so. Because that wouldn’t have happened.

      But I go get that I’m weird in this area – but I like direct.

      1. Colette*

        I like the direct approach, too, assuming that you know the person asking.

        If someone I don’t know contacts me and says “I’m looking for a job as X?”, I’ll probably say no and the conversation ends there.

        If some I do know contacts me and says “I’m job hunting, looking for X”, I’ll remember and let them know if I have any contacts. I’d also be happy to talk to them about my company or whatever else I can help with.

        I think it’s about building the network before you need it.

        In your example, it worked because you knew and trusted the person contacting you – but if you hadn’t, it would have been a bit disconcerting to be asked for a favour by a complete stranger, wouldn’t it?

        1. Jamie*

          Oh absolutely – and I wouldn’t have gone to bat for the friend of a stranger, either.

          You’re right – it’s about relationships and reputation. I never worked with this guy (which is exactly what I said when asked – I never personally vouch for anyone unless I can do so sincerely) but I just honestly said he worked with X and I trust X both personally and professionally so I’m passing this on.

          The person who hired him didn’t know me, but he knew from his relative and from others who have worked with both of us that I don’t toss around resumes randomly so it was worth calling Bob in.

          And yes – it’s about building a network before you need it.

      2. rw*

        I agree. I prefer the direct approach if the goal is just to get a job.

        Though, for networking, we do have a “research group” among the local firms and schools where we discuss modern research with each other, help students with their theses and dissertations, and give each other a platform for conducting and presenting our own research. It’s like a book club but more academic.

      3. tcookson*

        See, I would prefer Jamie’s way, too. I don’t want to sit in a coffee shop being fidgety and uncomfortable trying to come up with something to say to Bob, so if I can just ask around the office if anyone knows about any jobs, I’m good.

        And if Bob wants to send me a cupcake, that’s all good, too.

  3. Anonymous*

    How do you avoid mentioning that you’re unemployed within the first few seconds of connecting with someone, whether in person or via the web? Your employment status comes up almost immediately, I’d assume.

    1. Colette*

      I don’t think you have to avoid it – but you could, for example, say “I’m currently unemployed. My previous employer was quite large, and I’m considering moving to a smaller company. I understand you’ve made that move and I’d like to know what that was like for you – any tips or pitfalls to avoid?” – in other words, ask a question you sincerely want the answer to, and go into the meeting expecting nothing more than that discussion.

      You’re asking (and genuinely want) information, which is easier to help with than getting someone a job.


    The networking thing confuses me too. If some stranger is introduced to me I do not know if I would point them in the right direction within a place I work at. I do not know this persons experience or reputation and would not want to damage my own. And the same would go if I was introduced to or LinkedIn’d with some person I do not know.

  5. Scott M*

    I think that a lot of the responses are missing the point of the OP’s question. I think his question is sort of like mine: How do you maintain a ‘networking’ relationship with someone where there really isn’t any reason to maintain that relationship?

    I think thats the meaning of “then what?”. Once I’m introduced to someone, then what? They aren’t coworkers, so I don’t have an opportunity to work with them. They aren’t a friend so I’m not going to call them up to go out and see a movie. They aren’t even an aquaintance that I happen to see around just because their life periodically crosses paths with mine.

    They are someone completely outside my circle, so how am I going to make up a pretext to somehow create a relationship with them?

    1. Jennifer*

      Exactly. This never works for me if I don’t have a regular reason to see them in person or otherwise be in contact. Nobody writes back or if they do, it’s a blowoff “I’ll write you later” e-mail and then they never do. It’s really useless!

    2. Ms Enthusiasm*

      Scott, good point. I actually am pretty comfortable asking someone to meet for coffee whether I know them or not. I usually like to meet with people at first to learn about their career path and leadership style – mainly because I want to be a leader someday too. But after that initial meeting is over I then feel awkward about asking them to meet again. I feel like they did me a favor the first time but if I keep asking them then I’ll be pestering them. I guess it would work better if I had a specific issue I needed help with but that is not always the case. I just like to learn about people. And ultimately I’m hoping to get along so well with one of these people that I could eventually ask them to be a mentor to me. But it is hard to ask someone to be your mentor when you’ve only met them once.

    3. Jamie*

      I understand what you’re asking, and I don’t have the answer because I’m not great at that kind of thing. But one way to network outside your immediate circle that really does work is some of the Linkedin groups.

      Besides ours, there are tons of them for every niche career out there and some are crap but some are really great. I know there are good ones for QC and ISO, also membership in associations which have their own Linkedin group.

      1. Scott M*

        I havent had much luck with LinkedIn groups. Either everyones expertise is too specialized to apply to me, or it’s just a never-ending list of posts for open positions (SAP groups.. I’m talkin’ about you!)

        1. Jamie*

          Yeah – some of them are like that, you absolutely need to check them out. But some are like professional communities. Some auditor communities, IT, ISO…there are good and there are others which are – like you said – just want ads.

          But that’s one way to develop an ongoing relationship and reputation. (not linkedin – but Spiceworks is an awesome community for IT.)

          Personally I’m far more comfortable online than in person, even with people I know in real life, so that’s my bias showing.

          1. Annette in Milwaukee*

            Speaking of LinkedIn groups – we are having a Milwaukee meetup on October 16. Great networking opportunity for our MKE AAM fans!

  6. Scott M*

    Did anyone else click through and read the responses at The Fast Track? Alexandra Levit had a link about “Establishing Rapport” that (i kid you not) about how an FBI agent teaches others how to establish a rapport.

    Does this illustrate the inherent ‘fakeness’ of networking or what?

    1. Anonymous*

      Fake seems like a weird thing to say.
      All social relationships are like that to a large extent. So what makes networking faker than when you go to a party and smile and shake hands with someone? To me they seem like all the same coin. But people also like it enough to take recommendations in hiring or other job related positions. If all jobs were really 100% merit based and had nothing to do with networks then we wouldn’t need to smile and shake hands but could go to a big job bank and go yup that’s for me and get the best job without worry about who you know or how nice you are to the interviewer or what your shoes were or how neat your makeup was. And I yearn for that day. Today is not that day.

      1. Scott M*

        If you have to learn to follow certain rules to establish a rapport with someone, then you really arent interested in that person, and your rapport is fake.

        At least that was the point of my, admittedly snarky, comment.

        And I was also kinda assuming that the FBI person probably honed his practice first in investigative area of the job, manipulating people to get information out of them that they didn’t necessarily want to reveal. But then thats just an assumption.

        1. Anonymous*

          Well then all my interaction with people is fake because social rules don’t come “naturally” to everyone.

          I think you are trying to hard to make this some magic thing. And if you never have trouble finding jobs then honestly you might not need to worry about it. And if you do then maybe you need to suck it up and fake it.

          1. Scott M*

            You have a good point. I’m somewhat like you, in that I need to force myself to follow rules for many simple interactions with people (I constantly have to remind me to ask about other peoples day/vacation/weekend/family when asked about mine).

            Of course, when I really like someone, all those rules go out the window and I don’t have to think about them for a bit, because I’m talking to someone who is actually interesting, or shares the same interests as me.

            I guess my point was that raport is usually (perhaps not in your case) natural when you are really interested in someone. But for networking, often you are not making contacts with people you are truly interested in. You are making contacts with people who will be helpful to your career. So at that point you have to fake the rapport.

            I do it. I don’t like it and it exhausts me, but yeah i do it too.

            1. Anonymous*

              Well if you are interested in your career couldn’t they also be people who are interested in things that are career related?

              If you aren’t interested or engaged in your career I would imagine networking would be much more difficult.

              1. Scott M*

                I’m interested in specific problems at my job. Like how I can make the watchamacallit software interface with the thingamajig device without crashing every 3 days. If you know how to make that work… then we have a relationship. And if I can help you with anything.. sure, why not?

                But just beacuse we share the same industry or general career path doesn’t mean that we have much in common. Or enough to fake a relationship.

        2. Yup*

          Social rules exist in all relationships. If you were invited to someone’s home for dinner, you wouldn’t show up, walk in, sit down at the table, and say “What are you serving?”. You’d ring the bell and wait to be let, make small talk, maybe have some snacks and drinks, and then sit down to eat. Plus a whole bunch of other nuances that equal polite behavior as a guest. And then you’d call/email/write them afterwards to say thanks.

          I get your point about the inauthenticity of “following a script.” Truly I do: no one wants to be a fake about it or be manipulating other people to do your bidding. But *all* interactions — social, professional, whatever — require us to follow certain rules. That doesn’t mean the resulting relationship is fake.

          1. Jamie*

            Totally agree. I think, and Scott can correct me if I’m wrong, is he’s talking about faking a rapport as a means to an end.

            It would be as if someone wanted a job in my company and then saw that I liked Van Halen and went and studied up on the band and pretended to be a fan so we’d have something in common and maybe I’d recommend him for a job. That’s fake. But social niceties aren’t fake – they are crucial.

            1. Scott M*

              Yes, something like that. Small talk is something that is easily forgettable. Rapport is more in depth. It’s when you can easily carry on a conversation about more weighty subjects with someone. It implies a genuine interest. If you have to fake rapport, then you are faking an genuine interest.

              Now, I’ll admit something that just ocurred to me. I suppose that you might WANT to build rapport and need to know some tips to help you ‘break the ice’. In that case, I guess rules are a good thing. But in the context of networking it just so often seems to be applied to manipulate people you aren’t really interested in.

  7. Dorothy*

    “Networking goes best when you decide that you’re really in just to get to know new people who might have similar or complementary interests to your own. When you decide to be genuinely interested in someone as a person – not for what they can do for you, but simply in who they are, and perhaps in how you might be able to be helpful to them – the nature of the experience changes.” – Alison’s answer
    I joined an on-purpose “networking group” to increase the business I bring to my employer, and it was a disaster. In discussion with my boss about what other things I prefer to do to network (two nonprofits in areas that interest me and in which I already know some people), he said something like “Networking works best when other people don’t know you’re networking.” He gets most of his business from his church and religiously-affiliated organizations — he meets people and gets to know them in that context of shared interests. Then when friends have a need for the business he’s in, he is the first person who comes to mind — that has worked very well for him. I’m learning…

    1. Scott M*

      That’s not networking. That’s making friends.

      Networking isn’t about making friends. Or, at least, that’s not what it’s presented as.

      If it were, it wouldn’t be called ‘networking’. It would be called ‘making friends’ and we wouldn’t have all these articles about how to network.

      1. Colette*

        Not necessarily. I can regularly talk to my dry cleaner (or someone I know from church/an organization I belong to) and then, when my dry cleaner needs someone who does X, I can say “Oh, I do X”. It’s still a business relationship, but it’s based on knowing (and being friendly with) the person you’re doing business with. That doesn’t mean that I’d invite my dry cleaner over for Thanksgiving as I might a friend.

        1. Scott M*

          I was referring to relationships outside of business relationships, where you are getting to know people for reasons other than your work or straighforward business transactions.

          And yes, those people are part of your network. It thisnk the original question is how do you create a relationship with those where you don’t share common personal interests and don’t already have a business relationship?

          1. Colette*

            Maybe you don’t. I can’t imagine less motivating than trying to maintain a relationship with someone with whom I have nothing in common.

            I don’t think networking is about artificially keeping in touch with people for the sole purpose of using them for career-related purposes – I think it’s about using the contacts you do have (and helping them in return).

            1. Scott M*

              I agree. But like the OP said, he was introduced to someone that he didn’t know and didn’t work with. How can you be genuinely interested in that person or have anything in common with them? How do you build a relationship out of that?

              THats what frustrates me about ‘netowrking’. It is often presented as forcing relationships specifically for business purposes, rather than simply acknowledging that its the normal relationships you form in your life that makes up your network.

              Which is why the OP is asking his question about what the heck to do with this strange way of meeting people to ‘network’

              1. Colette*

                There are millions of people that I don’t know that I have something in common with.

                I think the question is why is someone you know willing to put you in touch with someone else? What do they see that you have in common? And is that something you’re interested in exploring?

                Maybe the person you know is wrong – their friend is in IT and you design chocolate teapots – but in that case, you can say thank you and move on.

                If, however, you design chocolate teapots and their friend is working on a big problem with spout design, there’s the chance for a meaningful connection.

                1. Scott M*

                  Good point. And if the person who introduced me mentions that, we would have a starting point. Because then the reson for contacting that person would be “Hey, I heard you are having an issue with spout design. Have you tried the X method?”

                  But seriously, how often does that happen? Usually its just “Hey you both work in I.T.!”. And then after that its a game of 20 questions and small talk to find something ANYTHING, to make a connection with that person.. ugh.

      2. Briggs*

        Actually, I think that IS networking. It might even be networking at its best. These are genuine relationships he’s developed with people over time, so they can give genuine recommendations. If he had a reputation among his church friends for being a flaky guy who did bad work, he wouldn’t be getting these recommendations.

        1. Scott M*

          I agree that this is networking. But that’s not what is often presented as networking.

          Just like the original poster said, if you are introduced to someone out of the blue, what next? You aren’t part of the same church or social club so you can’t use that as an excuse to talk to them or meet them at club meetings. You aren’t doing business with them, so there is no reason to talk about the job or project or discuss a business transaction.

          I just wish everyone would say “Screw whatever you hear about networking. Just go on with your life and meet people you are already meeting. Thats your network.”

          1. Briggs*

            Yeah, I see what you’re saying. After the initial “Hey, Bob, this is Jake. He’s moving to your city and works in IT just like you!” … where do you go from there? Bob is probably pretty aware that you’ll be looking for an IT job when you move to your new city, but the advice here is to get in touch with Bob and talk about ANYTHING BUT your job search.

            I’m getting ready to job search in a new city where I have a few friends and acquaintances. I’ve been very straightforward with them about my job search, and they’ve been varying degrees of friendly and helpful, but not a one of them has given me the impression that they were put off by my asking a direct question about my job prospects there.

            I haven’t contacted any friends of friends yet, but have a few leads. I might or might not contact them. I would feel far more comfortable going to a few social events in this new city and mentioning my job search in conversation than cold calling these friends of friends and having an awkward lunch where we talk about anything but my job search.

            1. Colette*

              I think it’s fine to mention that you’re searching for a job. It’s not fine, however, to expect the person you’re talking with to recommend you, hire you, or otherwise solve the problem for you. They may decide that they want to, but if you go in with that expectation, it will be an awkward conversation and you will not make a good impression.

              1. Briggs*

                Yes, I agree with what you’re saying about expectations. My main stumbling block, however, is that my own job search is literally the ONLY reason I have to contact this person. I’ve never met them, they’re not in any acquaintance circle, and they don’t work at a company I’m hoping to work for one day. We just happen to both make chocolate teapots and know Jane.

                I guess the reason this is getting to me so much is that I’ve been more than happy in the past to help out younger colleagues who have just come out and (politely) asked for my help. If we develop a friendship outside work, great! If not, that’s also fine. I remember what it was to be young and just starting, and I had people help me then, so now I’m paying it forward. I’ve looked over resumes, connected people to people, given specific career advice when I could.

                In no case did I feel taken advantage of, or that I wish these people had made more of an effort to build a friendship first. It was a business transaction, and we both treated it like one.

                1. Colette*

                  I think it’s fine to mention that you’re job searching and ask about what the environment is like in the new city – are there local industry groups she’d recommend? Are there employers who are known to be good (or bad)? Are there areas of the city where public transit doesn’t go, or traffic bottlenecks she’d go out of her way to avoid? Job hunting tips specific to the city? (In my city, for example, there’s a service that sends you an e-mail once a day with all the new job postings – I’d recommend it to someone moving to the city to get an idea what’s out there.)

                  Those are relevant to your job search, but they aren’t making asking for a job the focus.

            2. thenoiseinspace*

              I don’t have much experience at all with this, so take this with a grain of salt, but in my last position, I asked new contacts where they saw the posting for their job (for the employees) and where they were posting jobs/which job boards they thought brought in the best candidates (for managers and employers.) It’s a more subtle way of bringing it up without directly asking. The plus side is that this gives you a more direct target for places to check for the kind of jobs you want, and it lets them know that you’re looking for a similar job in the area. The downside is that sometimes managers will answer your question with the name of the job board, figure that they’ve answered your question, and move on without trying to establish a better relationship.

              Theoretically, you could also ask managers what kinds of skills they would look for in a position or ask them to look over your work to see if it matches the regional standards. That would let them know that you’re interested in keeping your skills sharp and would let them see some of your work, after which they might be more inclined to keep you in mind for future openings. I’ve never really tried that, though, so I don’t know if it would work. Has anyone else tried something similar?

          2. Jamie*

            I just wish everyone would say “Screw whatever you hear about networking. Just go on with your life and meet people you are already meeting. Thats your network.”

            I was thinking about this and I think I can break it down how to get outside your normal circle but it’s not disingenuous.

            Every time my ERP vendor comes to town to do a conference I go. I don’t have any particular issues and I can learn about the new version from the material I can download on-line. I go because they are located in another state and it’s a chance to say hey in person to people I deal with on the phone and via email all the time. It makes me more “real.” I go because the owner of that company and I have a pretty good business relationship and we’ve been on a first name basis for years and he’s a nice guy. And when I need something and his tech support doesn’t get back to me fast enough I like having his cell phone number and I like that he answers when it’s me. Even when he’s on vacay in the Bahamas. Yeah – I’m a PITA at times.

            But I don’t pretend to like football to bond with them – but I like having a relationship in which I felt comfortable emailing the owner directly when I knew someone who was looking for work in his area and he checked with his people to see if they had openings that would fit. They didn’t, but I wouldn’t have emailed a stranger to ask.

            And, here’s where the networking is really important, the other people at that conference? Use a very specialized software package, the knowledge of which I’ll stack mine against anyone’s. So if I were ever to be on the market again I know I’m a lot more valuable to a company using that ERP than another one – at least it would make my resume rise to the top. And the people in IT at those companies knowing my name and meeting me …could help. We put each other in their contacts – I’ve answered some questions on custom elements and shared my tips…so now I’m not only a face with a name, but I’m a helpful person.

            And they are looking at me exactly the same way. So if we expand IT and I see one of their resumes come across my desk if I remember them positively my little eyes will light up and they’ll get a call.

            It’s not about faking relationships…I don’t pretend to care about whatever baseball tourney their kid is in…but it’s about putting yourself out there in a place where you can meet people where that meeting might be mutually beneficial.

            1. AB*

              “I was thinking about this and I think I can break it down how to get outside your normal circle but it’s not disingenuous.”

              Jamie has nailed it! That’s precisely what I’ve done in the past with great results when I had to move to a different state (the network built over the years was there to help me connect with local hiring managers).

              I really don’t think the “make friends” approach works as well. None of my friends would be able to connect me with the right companies if I needed a job. They are very successful and well-connected, but don’t travel on the circles that would know about positions in my field.

              The problem many people have with networking is that they wait until they need help to try to meet people that could be of use. Like Jamie, I’ve always built my network when I didn’t need it (it’s much easier to build rapport when you aren’t under pressure to find a job, and much easier to ask for help after you have established professional relationship with someone, exchanged ideas about work in a conference, congratulated them when LinkedIn announces they have a new position, sent a link to a new TED talk you thought they’d enjoy, etc.).

              1. Scott M*

                I’m startin gto realize that my issues with networking is just that I’m weird about relationships.

                Essentially all my relationships, outside the personal ones (family, friends), are ‘transactional’ . In other words, I do something for you and you do something for me. (And now that I think about it, probably my personal relationships are like that more often than not too).

                Coworkers, vendors, salespeople. I interact with them because I need something from them or they need something from me. For example, I rarely ever keep up with coworkers who leave the company, because I don’t work with them anymore. Once the transaction ends, so does the relationship. It’s not impersonal; I’m nice and make small talk and do all the social niceties while they’re here. But once the transaction stops, that’s it for me.

                So I’m having trouble figuring out this fuzzy relationship I’m supposed to create with people in a network where there is no transaction, but yet there is no freindship either. Granted, there is the *possibility* of a transaction at some point (I could help them with something or they could help me). But until that point, how do I relate to this person?

                I’m realizing, as I write, that this makes me seem incredibly dysfunctional. I wonder, is there anyone else out there like me?

      3. Anonymous*

        Trying to make friends makes more sense and seems more natural to me than trying to create a network of professional contacts. I think people are drawn to and stick to those who share common non-professional interest. The fact that you’re in the same industry, etc is merely a starting point and cannot form the basis of long lasting interaction. Just my view.

      4. Sydney*

        Networking IS the work equivalent of friends. The norms are different because it’s a work contact. But yes, networking is basically making work friends. But the best part is to keep them a work friend, you only have to reach out occasionally, and by occasionally, I mean like once a year and sometimes even less.

        I gave some specific steps for the “and then what?” question in a comment down below, a response to thenoiseinspace.

  8. Anonymous*

    “So, what’s the end game?” was the immediate response I once got from reaching out to someone. I had no answer.

  9. thenoiseinspace*

    I have to admit, I’m still confused. :/ I blame this on being a part of the Google generation – I’m used to googling something and having Wikihow give me simple, numbered steps that any idiot could follow. “Step one: shake hands. Step two: compliment on hair/clothes/recent work you may have heard of, etc. Step three: ??? Step four: exchange business cards and say you’d love to get coffee sometime. Step five: notice that other person never actually gets around to having coffee with you.” I think I need the “For Dummies” explanation – how exactly do I do step 3 and every step after 4? Actually, I haven’t had much success on actually getting to step 1 yet, either… is there a remedial class on basic business social interaction I can take? I think I need it. :(

    1. Kerr*

      I’m laughing at your comment, because I’m right there with you! I sometimes feel like I need explicit instructions for everything after Step 2.

      I’m gathering that in the OP’s context, it’s going to be an amalgam of a business meeting and a friend date, and that the specifics are going to vary a great deal based on the nature of the individual situation. It’s the specifics that are so tricky! But they’re situation-specific, so they can’t exactly be explained in a column. It’s a Catch-22, and I suspect the problem can only be resolved by much practice and (possibly) constructive failure.

    2. Jen in RO*

      I’m far from a pro at this, but do you need step 3? I’d just go from the chit-chat to asking (nicely) if s/he is willing to meet me for coffee so I could ask a couple of questions about [topic]. In my particular case, I would want to know about how the documentation department in their company works – who do they work with? how are they seen in the organization? what tools they use? are the salaries crap/good/great? does she know of any professional groups I could join? would he recommend any classes/software I should learn to become more competitive? And, in the end, maybe I’d ask if they have openings.

      (This is a bit wishful thinking for me. There are few people in my profession around here – in the country, I mean – so most of my information comes through the intertubes from America, and I don’t know how much of it applies to the local situation! I would like to have this kind of conversation even though I’m not looking for a job, and I would be very happy to share my experience with people trying to get into this field.)

    3. Sydney*

      Step 3 is asking them questions about their field, job, etc. and talking about yours. You are basically doing the same thing you’d do with a potential new friend, except in a work context as opposed to a social one. So instead of only talking about your recent trip to the beach or your new beagle Shiloh, you’re talking about chocolate teapots.

      Depending on the person, you can start veering into social talk, and that might work for that relationship. Some of your networking contacts may start to blend into friends like a coworker would, but most of them won’t because you’ll likely not mesh on a social level statistically.

      If that’s not enough detail for step 3…
      – So Joe, I’m curious, why did you choose teapots instead of coffee makers?
      – How do you like working at Chocolate Teapots, Inc.?
      – Did you see the new spout Teapots, Etc. came out with last month? That’s going to revolutionize the way we make spouts.
      – What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned as a Teapot Specialist?

      1. Sydney*

        P.S. You don’t necessarily have to ask someone to coffee or a later meetup. You can do most of the business small talk while meeting them, and then follow up via phone calls/emails/LinkedIn as appropriate later.

        Networking is changing right now anyway because of the Google generation. We’re wanting more and more interactions to happen online, on the go, etc. because of the convenience. You won’t be expected to take people to coffee to maintain the relationship; you’ll just be expected to reach out occasionally with something* and keep in touch. That’s just so they don’t forget who you are when you need them later. I also recommend connecting with someone online very soon after meeting them. Establish that LinkedIn connection within the first weekish; it’ll make it easier for them to confirm the relationship later if the original intro memory became fuzzy.

        *something could be a relevant article that they’d enjoy, or a specific question, or could be as simple as an email like “Hey Mary, just wanted to see how things are going over there at Chocolate Teapots, Inc.” Almost everyone will respond to that email, and then depending on their answer, you craft your follow up. If Mary replies with a novel or asks you follow up questions, it makes it easy to continue on. If she just replies with something like, “Pretty good, I’m super busy with this new heated teapot.” then you know she’s not really interested in making small talk right now, and you can wish her well and leave it at that for now.

  10. Erin*

    I kind of get all this, but honestly if a new grad from my college or grad school emailed me and said “hey, I’d just like to get to know you” I’d think “actually, I’m busy enough that I have trouble keeping up with the friends I have, so thanks but not interested.” However, when the same kid emails and said “I just graduated from [alma mater] and am interested in [your field]. Do you have a few minutes to talk?” I set up a time for coffee. Am I getting anything out of this specific meeting besides warm fuzzies? Not really. But it’s karma. You help people because 1) others helped you and 2) who knows who this person will become — they maybe can’t do anything for you today, but in 5-10 years they might be a golden connection.

    The kind of just getting to know people to get to know people is fine. I do that with work and my professional and charitable organizations and my friends from school. And that’s absolutely networking. But in the case of the professional introduction, I just expect it to be a “pick your brain” kind of conversation. I’ve asked for those meetings, and I’ve given those meetings. It’s just being a good person.

    1. Anonymous*

      But how would this new grad maintain that contact with you over an extended period of time? How would he/she sustain the warm fuzzies?

      1. Erin*

        They don’t really. When this happens, we meet for coffeee. I hear what they’re interested in and, if I’ve been at least somewhat impressed by them, I think about who I know. If my employer is looking for someone with their credentials, I invite them to apply. I also think about former classmates or friends who might be interested in this person. I offer to make an introduction. After one such coffee, I found out the new grad was a former Navy pilot. I knew a former Navy pilot at my old employer and offered to make the introduction. They got along great and the new grad got a job with them. But, without me as the go-between, the new grad would have had no opening to talk to the guy at my old employer.

        If we organically keep in touch, so be it. I ran into Navy pilot grad at an industry function a year later, and he told me how his job was going. Having succesfully helped him get a job once, and hearing that he’s doing well with that employer, I’m more likely to think of him next time a similar job comes up.

  11. Malissa*

    Networking is like nailing jello to a tree. It can be hard and tricky and often the point in getting to know someone can be puzzling.

    I’ve actually got to sharpen my network skills by being involved in a professional organization. I was constantly collecting contacts.
    You don’t have to have a purpose for getting to know some one. You can just talk to them and figure out who they are.
    Sometimes networking is mutual usury, both of you are looking for something from the other person.
    Sometimes networking leads you to finding similar people that can understand your problems better than anybody. (Anybody want to talk taxes?)
    Networking is a lot of things. mostly though a good network will have a collection of people you can consult with for just about anything.

  12. fposte*

    I haven’t seen anybody mention venues other than LinkedIn so far. In some fields, conferences are a great way to network, because that’s a big part of why people are there and there’s time for it. Most of my networking happens out of conferences.

    Additionally, if there are industry online forums, blogs, or even listservs (ours still has ’em!) that can be a way to cultivate relationships as you enrich yourself professionally. I know quite a few projects that have come out of those connections.

    1. Jamie*

      Besides Linkedin – Spiceworks is an awesome IT community.

      And I second conferences – I’m the least networky person I know and I always leave with tons of cards. Ditto training events for software. The more specialized the software the more important local contacts who also use it are. Because they are the ones to whom your specific skills will be most valuable if you are looking.

      And larger professional groups have local meetings oftentimes. I’m a member of the IIIA and I can hit up a Chicago event almost any month I like – I keep meaning to do that. This stuff might be tougher in less urban areas, but there are a lot of things out there.

      1. Scott M*

        I had not heard of Spiceworks. Thanks for mentioning that – i will take a look.

        I haven’t had much luck at conferences – it’s sort of like LinkedIn groups. Everyone’s needs are so specialized it’s difficult to have any insights to offer a particular contact.

        1. Jamie*

          I’m Jamie8398 over there. And interestingly enough I’m not the only one who links to AAM on occasion.

          1. Scott M*

            I’ve signed up at Spiceworks. But it doesn’t look like it applies to me much. I’m only a Oracle PL/SQL programmer, and this is all networking, Microsoft Sql Server, Cloud computing and other stuff I’m not involved in.

  13. Henrik*

    I need to understand this – when do you meet with your contacts?

    I usually work from 9 am to around 8pm. During working hours I am chained to the desk, clutching my phone or frantically typing emails.
    Lunch is gulped down in ten minutes, still in front of the monitor. Those 10 minutes I consider my own time and I absolutely don’t want to talk to anyone.
    Even if I had network contacts, going for a coffee would mean a 20 minute commute each way and is not practicable.

    Do you go for those networking lunches on the weekend, or?

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