Saturday, January 14, 2006

Structured networking

A tool for all kinds of situations. Just as when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, when you master this tool, it seems to apply everywhere. Here are the basic steps:
Figure out what you want and write a script.
Call ten people a day and ask for their help.
People will be helpful. When their advice works for you, circle back and thank them.
Offer to respond in kind.
Keep notes, keep expanding your list, keep calling.

That’s pretty much the outline. I learned to do this in the context of job hunting, under the general heading of “Looking for a job is a job.” My counselor reviewed my script, then insisted that I make those ten calls a day, which really doesn’t take very long once you have the script and a list of people to call. A shy person, I went in kicking and screaming, but I didn’t have a lot of alternatives.

I was blown away by how helpful people were, how much more helpful they wanted to be. My script wasn’t even particularly focused. It went something like this:
“Hi, I don’t know if you remember working with me on ___ project. I have been working in credit analysis—both for bond deals and bank lending for the last several years—and I am thinking that I would like to do something a little different. I like the analytical part of my job and the human interaction. I wonder if you have heard of anything that you think sounds creative and interesting, something that would use my kind of skills?”
And later in the conversation, “Can you think of anyone else that I should talk to?”

Depending on the person, I might disclose that I had just been caught in one of the waves of layoffs that battered Wall Street in the nineties, but I would note that the most important thing right now was finding the right opportunity—that I was fortunate to have a little time now to look for what I would like to do for the next few years. When I started writing the script, I was furious at the counselor. After all, the truth was that I was desperate for a new job. But by the time we polished every word of the script, I believed it. And I was able to approach the people I called without pressuring them, to assure them that I was delighted to have this opportunity to catch up with them, and that I valued their suggestions.

The hardest part of structured networking is getting your head straight in the first place. You don’t have to believe the story all day long, but you do have to believe it for the hour or so it takes to make ten calls a day. You don’t want to pressure the person in any way. You don’t want to ask for a job or an interview or even an informational interview. You just want them to apply their creative intelligence to help you expand the number and quality of opportunities available to you. You don’t, after all, want to have to rely on the dreary postings in the newspaper, and you don’t have to.

When you wrte the script—and even more when you review it with someone who can help you polish it—you will see all your secret insecurities come out.

“But people won’t want to help me.” Actually, people love to help.

“No, I mean, they won’t think my skills and talents are adequate.” Maybe, maybe not. Start with the ones you have confidence will want to help you and work up to the cold calls. You will be needing to make cold calls, and it will not kill you. It’s only ten a day.

“Ten sounds like a lot.” Okay, start with five. But the more calls you make in a day, the faster you will get to a wide variety of opportunities to change your life in a positive way. Some days you will hate to pick up the phone, just as some days are tough on any job. But now you are working for yourself and for your future. So pick a minimum number you can live with, and get moving.

“I don’t think there are any jobs out there.” Oh please. Get real. There are always jobs. If you are willing to do some networking, there are more jobs. If you are flexible enough to consider consulting and short term opportunities, worlds open up. The downside is that it may seem you are always looking for a job; the upside is that you don’t mind so much because you are always expanding your opportunities.

“I don’t know enough people to call.” Talk to everyone. The other members of the nonprofit board you serve on, the other mothers in the carpool, the soccer coach, the guy you run into at the dry cleaner, everyone you ever worked with, old school friends. You don’t know who they know until you ask them. Many, many conversations take a turn at “Well, actually, I do know this one guy who said something about….”

“I just don’t think I can do it.” Okay, so your shyness is more important to you than finding a job that makes you happy. Your choice. But do you think you could write the script? And once you do, ask yourself whether you think you can make a few calls. Make a list of who you would call if you felt strong one day. Say your spiel out loud until it doesn’t sound stupid to you any more. Then one day, you will pick up the phone and ask for help from friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers. And you will be amazed that you ever let shyness get in your way.

There are a few important guidelines. Don’t whine. Don’t pressure. Do say thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your ideas. And when something pays off, call back the person who gave you the lead and say thank you again. And don’t be surprised when in a few months, your phone rings, and you hear, “Hi, I don’t know if you remember calling me…but now I am looking for some new opportunities….”

That is structured networking. I grant you that learning it is painful, but it is a skill that can be applied to all kinds of needs. Now, whenever I need anything (where to find a good puppy kindergarten, who should I ask to paint my house, what innovative programs in workforce development can we develop, what seminars would be interesting to the business community, how do other single women manage large household tasks, what can be done about an obstreperous board member, why can’t I keep staff….and so on), I just ask everyone I know until I generate a robust range of alternatives. What a difference from relying on my puny brain!

Structured networking is good, I think, for a shy person, because it gives us a controlled way to tap into the riches of the outside world. At the same time, I think it would help an extrovert to focus on the goals of interchange. By marking progress against an objective, an extrovert would be able to take that social interchange that is so easy and focus it on a desired outcome. I’m just guessing that for an extrovert, the organizational parts of the process might be harder and the calling easier.

In any case, according to my outplacement counselor, this is a technique that works for a broad range of people in all kinds of situations. After kicking, screaming, and trying it, I know it works for me. I came out of my first, supervised experience with structured networking with two exciting job offers, numerous interviews, a lot of very interesting conversations with people I didn’t know, a lot of wonderful reconnections with people I had not seen in years, and a new confidence in myself and humankind. Not bad for ten calls a day.


Anonymous said...

Thank you!

Jean said...

Thank you for this - so lucidly and encouragingly written. I've printed out a copy, and sent a copy to a friend.