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Making the Connections: Beyond Networking

By Meghan Clag

Does the word "networking" make your skin crawl? If so, it's time to take a new look at the name game.

We'll show you how to find connections and make contact in a comfortable way.

Once upon a time, a go-getter named Susan made a beeline from the graduation podium to that infamous corporate jungle called New York. Wielding little more than a resume, a sack of change, and a mind set on a publishing career, she found a pay phone in Grand Central Station, opened her phone book to the name of her mother's friend at Simon & Schuster, and deposited a dime for the first of many calls. She made that pay phone her office for two weeks.

Susan converted her one publishing connection into five and, from there, multiplied those names into a sprawling list of contacts throughout the industry. Within weeks, her no-holds-barred approach to networking resulted in an entry-level position at a well-known publishing house. Through careful maintenance of existing connections and continual expansion of her Rolodex, Susan then forged a path through the publishing industry to a corner office at one of the nation's most influential magazines and lived happily ever after.

Susan's fairy tale version of the college graduate's job search omits some details crucial for aspiring professionals. While there's no denying that Susan is a model of hard work paying off, she also had the added benefit of a family friend in her chosen industry. In addition, Susan's aggressive entry into the daunting labyrinth of professional connections and relationships may terrify more reserved job seekers. So, how can someone who is not a natural networking dynamo use personal connections to find a satisfying job or career?

If you've heard of the philosophy of six degrees of separation, in which everyone is connected to everyone else through six people or fewer, then you understand the gist of networking. In theory, by delving into your arsenal of friends, family, and acquaintances, you can weave a web of personal and professional connections until you eventually come into contact with a potential employer. Career counselors often advocate the 15-contact formula, in which job seekers begin with a list of 15 names. If each contact then leads to three additional names, suddenly the candidate has connections to 60 people and a head start on knowing the entire industry.

While the 15-contact theory is not a perfect science, the general premise can serve as a template for a job search plan. Networking is widely regarded as the most effective strategy for landing a desirable job. Not only can it lead to unadvertised career opportunities, but it allows you to thoroughly investigate an industry, company, or position from the vantage point of an insider. According to a survey conducted by Drake Beam & Morin Inc., a career management firm based in New York, 70 percent of successful job searches stem from networking strategies.

Too often, though, whether it's due to fear, lack of job-seeking experience, or pure laziness, young job seekers revert to the help-wanted ads with a dismissive shrug. Most college seniors do not graduate with an extensive list of connections for the simple reason that they have yet to set foot in the professional realm. But, that doesn't mean that you should disregard networking. Instead, take a direct, proactive approach and seek out those contacts.

Soon after Miriam Adelman relocated to Seattle with an art degree from Carleton College, she decided against a career in arts administration and focused her networking energies on one company--Microsoft. "I treated networking like a job," she says. For five months, Adelman courted the software giant. She remembers visiting the company twice a week during that period, setting up informational interviews and meeting with countless Microsoft employees. "I did what I was supposed to do," she recalls. "I followed the rules. I wouldn't leave without the names of two people." With her heart set on full-time work, Adelman accepted a part-time production position at the company. Inevitably, one of her initial contacts bumped into her and invited her to work full-time for Microsoft's children's interactive television project.

With a defined goal--a specific industry, company, position, or location--you can more clearly determine whom you need to contact and how to find them. Seek out contacts with similar interests through associations and events related to your field. Consult the appropriate trade magazines and scour the pages for analysts or company representatives with something interesting to say.

But what if all your contacts lead to dead ends? Or what if you're simply too shy to call a complete stranger and ask for advice?

Look no further than your desktop. Internet communities are dramatically changing modern methods of networking. Demographic groups who once felt professionally paralyzed by their isolation from the old boys' "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" network are now discovering the benefits of making connections through online communities.

Kathleen McMahon was teaching a networking seminar three years ago and began searching the web for resources. When she and her business partner failed to find any sites catering to women, they decided to take the initiative and build one. In 1997, they introduced Bridges Online, an online community for professional women in the San Francisco Bay area. "In the traditional world, you had to know someone who knew someone who knew someone," McMahon says. "With the Internet, you don't have that barrier."

"People now have access to a whole other set of professionals outside their realm," says Susan Earley, a community producer for the career channel of iVillage, an online community for women. On the career channel's message board, members can network, express job-related concerns, give and receive advice, and sound off on the site's "Dilemma of the Week." "There's definitely a huge sense of camaraderie and wanting to keep people from making the same mistakes they made," Earley says, adding that in the past, members from the same city have helped one another find job opportunities.

"The Internet does level the playing field," Adelman agrees. "It brings people together because of interests rather than contacts." To emphasize the Internet's potential for global networking, Adelman relates a story about helping a friend search for a job in Antarctica. By seeking out web sites concerning Antarctica, Adelman was able to gather information about living and working on the frozen continent from people who were actually there. "In a matter of three hours, I was able to find 20 jobs available in Antarctica," she says.

After accumulating a sprawling list of contacts, some first-time job seekers let inhibitions or a lack of preparation put closure on their networking campaigns. Don't fall into this trap.

Every time you identify a new contact, gather as much information as possible about that contact, and his or her position, company, and industry. Read related books, journals, and magazines. Request information from the company's public relations department. Consult annual reports and the Internet. Not only will this make you seem more knowledgeable in your correspondence and at the interview, it will also help determine what you hope to gain from the connection.

When contacting a complete stranger for the first time, traditional etiquette calls for a brief letter; but an increasing number of job seekers are taking advantage of email. The content is the same for both: explain who you are, what your connection is to the contact, and why you're writing. Carefully consider what information will make the contact want to help you. "Present what you have in common," says Judy Hernandez. Once enough time has passed, muster your courage and call. Remind the contact who you are and ask to schedule an informational interview.

Before you put on your lucky interview suit, you should have a clear idea of what you'd like to glean from the interview. Are you looking for a job, information, advice, or contacts? You don't want to come across as pushy, but don't expect your contact to instinctively know what you're looking for. You set the agenda. "You have to be brave. You can't be scared to ask," Adelman says. "You really need to communicate what you want and what your needs are."

Networkers are often surprised by contacts' willingness to help with a job search, and their interest in young professionals. "Remember that networking isn't asking for a one-way favor," she says. "You're creating a relationship." Plan your interview with that relationship in mind. This is not the time for humility. Make the contact remember you, so that when a job becomes available, you are the first person he or she calls.

According to McMahon, the same rules apply for networking through message boards and online chat chat forums. "It's like a party," she says. "You don't walk in and say, 'Gimme, gimme.'" Instead of diving right in, simply read the message board for a week, observing the tone of the discussions and letting other people make mistakes. Once you begin to participate, don't forget to give as well as take: offer smart, well-thought-out advice to others on the list. Keep in mind that potential employers may be there as well.

As your networking meeting draws to a close and you slide a new list of contact names into your portfolio, don't take that concluding handshake as a cue to erase this contact from your memory. Unless you plan to spend your entire professional life at one company, this same contact may be a good person to know in the future.

Mentoring relationships are an invaluable asset in today's working world, where it's common to switch jobs and industries several times over the course of a career. Nevertheless, the commitment and deep relationship implied in the word mentor may make some contacts skittish--especially if they don't know you well. So while you may not want to take a direct "please be my mentor" approach, there are tactics you can use to cultivate an ongoing connection.

Always send a thank-you note. This conscientious formality is your first opportunity for contact maintenance. Comment on a specific portion of the conversation that interested you. If the contact provided new leads, reiterate your intent to reach them or report on how the leads panned out. Finally, promise to keep them posted on your job search progress, and follow up on that promise. Even after you've settled into your first job, clip articles relating to your industry and forward them with a note. Ask your mentor candidate for his or her opinion on emerging trends within the industry. "You do these information tidbits to keep that share of mind," McMahon says. "Engage them rather than throw things at them." No matter what your angle is, the main formula for developing a mentoring relationship is regular, consistent contact.

Melanie Herald, a management consultant in Concord, Mass., and a graduate of Bowdoin College, became friendly with a Bowdoin alumna during a summer internship after her sophomore year. Herald stayed in touch by sending postcards to the contact, who in turn would treat Herald to lunch during semester breaks. "When I needed a job this time around, I had no problem calling her," Herald says. "And when I was hired, I said, 'Now it's my turn to take you out.'"

Herald's experience is not uncommon. During your search for the ideal job, you too will most likely encounter established professionals who are willing to lend a guiding hand to industry newcomers. However, you cannot sit back and wait for some job-bearing fairy godmother to descend from the heavens. By actively developing your own intricate web of contacts, you can create your own networking magic and write your own happy ending.

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