Making Relationship-Building More Effective for a Successful Job Search: Six Pitfalls to Avoid

There are two common comments that students and clients will commonly present to me in a first meeting about a job search, and these comments will immediately let me know what’s wrong.  The first is “I’ve sent out at least 1,000 resumes, and am not getting any interviews.”  Of course, that one’s easy to explain.  The job seeker is depending on non-targeted, passive search methodology which simply won’t work 99% of the time.  Success here is equivalent to incredible good luck with very low odds. 

The second, and the topic for this piece,  is “I’ve met with at least 40 people so far in trying to build an effective network, and it’s not working.  I feel like I’m spinning wheels.”  Or, “I’ve met with a bunch of people, and have really enjoyed it – but nothing’s happening.” 

I’ve learned that there can be at least six possible reasons why the networking might not be working. 

1)            Not enough discipline and consistency. 

Are you approaching your search in high-activity blasts or are you moving it along with a consistent pace?  If you’re working full-time, then that means that you should aim for at least one live meeting a week, and should do something job-search related every day of the workweek, even if it means only 15-20 minutes daily.  That would include research, record-keeping (essential), email writing, following up. 

If you’re not working full-time, your goal should be 4-5 meetings a week, with every other aspect mentioned above amped up significantly.  Job search is a full-time job. 

Time off is ok for mental health during what is always a difficult effort, but not for long periods, i.e., the period between Thanksgiving and New Years Day or summer.  A loss of momentum will make the search much longer overall, and any good relationships that have been started will lose impact.  Trying to restart an interrupted search is difficult and frequently demoralizing.  Keep it going as part of a regular, structured schedule.

2)            Not meeting the “right” people.

Who are these “right people?”  Relationship-building efforts are usually built around peers, at least at the beginning.  This is great for getting good information, finding out about markets, penetrating organizations that interest you, and getting some affirmation that the target is a good one.  Over time,  meeting peers can be a major wheel-spinner.  Why? 

Peers are usually not the decision makers.

After building a peer-based network, the goal should be to get those contacts to introduce you to others, who can get you to decision-makers.   That’s a major objective. 

3)            Not structuring a networking meeting. 

This is where those in career transition may get lost.  A meeting is not about having just a pleasant chat, and then hoping that things will just move in the direction you want. 

The answer to this problem is simple, which is to structure the meeting with questions.  There are three basic types of questions that should be utilized.

First, the personal connection.  This is the “chat” part, the small talk, the possible exploration of the other person’s career. The humanizing aspect that can make you memorable.  It’s always a good idea to ask “So how did you get to this place in your career?”  It appeals to ego, gets the other person talking, and…you might find some possible new ideas for yourself.

Second, and this is the bulk of the questioning, information and advice questions.  Information questions are designed to demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about, and have done your homework.  These are going to be questions oriented towards what the organization does and what you’ve learned about them.  Advice questions are personal, about what they may perceive about your potential market, about how they think you might fit into that market, and suggestions about how you might best position yourself.  Of course, you never would ask for a job, because that would put them and you in an awkward position, with a low odds chance for actually uncovering something at that moment. 

Third, and at the very end of a conversation, building your network.  This could be in the form of “Would you suggest anyone I speak with, in the same manner we’re speaking today?” or “I have a list of organizations I’m interested in; what do you think of the list?”  With the latter question, it’s a direct cue to get the person to think specifically about those companies – and whom he/she might know there, but without putting them on the spot. 

If you can hit one of these three benchmarks, you’ve had a successful meeting.  If more, you’ve had a great one.  But it won’t work because of…

4)            Not following up (the key ingredient).

One meeting won’t accomplish much.  Your goal is to create a relationship over time, so that when your contact hears of a possible situation, they think of YOU.  Of the six pitfalls of networking, this is the key one, in my estimation. 

Follow ups include the thank you email immediate after the meeting.  This is not just a perfunctory thank you or plain etiquette; it’s a thank you, plus a recap of what you discussed – as a reminder of who/what you are.  Your branding.  Maybe you could add something that you didn’t get to discuss. 

Another subsequent follow up could be a second thank you if you’ve made contact with a referral from that person. 

Yet another could be a quick question.

Even another could be an article you have read that might be of interest to your contact.

Basically, this is sales technique, a method for keeping in touch with someone over a period of time, and keeping your name out there. You won’t do this with everyone because not everyone will be supportive or helpful or particularly responsive. 

5)            Not listening.

Active listening in all meetings is important.  One of the critical aspects of building new relationships is to hear opinions and experiences – both of which could give you new ideas.  Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of going on automatic when either meeting new people or even on job interviews.  You’ve got your pitch down, your stories ready, your answers to difficult questions all queued up. 

It’s important to be flexible, and be able to think and improvise a bit.  You want to be responsive to what the person is saying and adjust accordingly.  Sometimes, an opinion or experience can totally shift the direction of the conversation - and the search. 

6)            Not handling the search like the sales situation that it truly is.

This is the psychological part.  There is always a significant amount of rejection in transition.  There is also too much bad advice and bad behavior, which has to be sifted carefully, not to mention the negative advice.  Make sure that your decisions are based on several opinions, and not just one or two. 

How to deal with rejection?  Or the sense that you’re feeling as though you’re walking around with hat in hand asking for handouts?  You must internalize the notion that all of this relationship building is a business proposition, on both sides.  There’s just as much in it for them as there is for you.  Hard to realize that, right?  Smart professional people understand that the more people they know, the better.  Even the incredibly busy ones. 

Very few of my clients and students actually enjoy networking.  Only the true mega-extraverts do.  The skill can be learned, and even end up being somewhat comfortable.  As the numbers will always show, it’s statistically the highest chance for success, by far, of all job search methodologies.  

A Networking Story: The Benefit for the OTHER Side

Building new relationships is an essential part of career transition. But it often causes discomfort. One of the common questions I receive from clients and students is, “Why would anyone respond to my request for an informational interview?”

They don’t understand why someone, especially someone they don’t know, would want to talk with them about their career.  

After we spend time discussing possible ways of expressing the request, i.e., “I’m doing some market research in…” or, “I’m performing some personal due diligence on next career options in…” there is still this issue of “Why would someone spend valuable time talking with a stranger?”

While it’s true that some will not respond well to these requests, begging off because of time issues, or thinking that it’s a direct job request (which it most certainly should not be), I’ve always thought that people interested in building their own careers should be amenable to a reasonable request for their time from those in career transition.  

Even more important, I believe saying “yes” to those requests may have a significant career benefit – for both sides.

I figured this out in my own career several years ago when I began to notice that when I agreed to meet with people who were attempting a move in my field, sometimes these people were able to help me out later on.  

There are many examples of these incidents that I enjoy telling my clients and students in order to make them more comfortable with building new relationships; the following is my favorite.

Around 8 or 9 years ago, the Dean of the program where I have consulted for the past (almost) 14 years, asked me if I’d talk with someone who was an alum of the program, and had done some advising work for it, as well. Of course, I agreed, for many reasons – it was a favor for the person who had hired me and she was the person who sent in my invoices every month.  (I also like her a lot.)  

Her referral was unable to meet with me in person, so we set up some time on the phone, and had – as I learned later – a good talk.

About a year later, the Dean and I were interviewing candidates for the Director’s position in the program where I was consulting. I particularly liked one candidate, as did she, and he was hired. He was very impressive and I thought he would be great for the program. He was, and is.  

Here’s where things get complicated for consultants. When a new head of a program is hired, the consultants usually are the first to go, because that new management person will want to bring in his/her own professional associates. I was convinced my tenure was about to end shortly. The new Director was very connected to the school, so I figured he had lots of people he would want to bring in to replace me. 

We did hit it off, though, and began to significantly add to and build the program.  We spent a great deal of time conceptualizing the growth of what evolved into a ground-breaking department in its field (and still is).

But I still wasn’t comfortable, even though my hours had increased.

Then, he changed our arrangement to put me on retainer – every consultant’s ultimate goal.

I began to realize that maybe I was going to stay.

One day I asked him why he had been so nice to the guy (me) who had been left over from the previous regime. He looked at me, puzzled, and asked, “Don’t you remember that you spent quite a long time with me on the phone a few years ago?  You were really helpful.”

I didn’t remember.  

“Do you remember that I sent you a bottle of wine to thank you?”

This I remembered.

Then I looked it up in my notes and saw that we had indeed met.

I love torturing him about this story (especially in front of large classes), saying he needed to improve his presentation to create a more lasting perception (this always gets a big laugh). Truth is it was my memory that was the problem, and certainly not the way he presented. As I mentioned before, the guy is impressive.  

The real point of the story is that I had created a relationship that came back to reward me in a very significant way. I hope he feels the same.  

I had been on “the other side of the desk,” and there was at least as much in this interaction for me as there was for him – probably more, in the long run.  

The relationship continues, and has resulted in the most gratifying and productive consulting assignment I’ve ever had. All because of one phone call.

A Simplified, Three-Step Approach to Salary Negotiations

The most important part of salary negotiations ISN'T the actual face-to-face, back and forth part.

What’s important is the setup.  Nearly everyone thinks of a salary negotiation as that point in an offer process when you get to hammer out all the details, starting with salary, moving on to bonus and benefits and cars and cell phones and laptops, etc. That's actually the easiest part.  

The following is a negotiations strategy is based on three steps:

Step 1 - Setup: Avoiding the Issue/the Right Mindset

The setup is not only the most important part of a negotiation; it’s also the aspect so many people find uncomfortable. 

There is something about "making the ask" or pushing back that creates an urge to say yes to everything and just be done with it. Or there's a fear that if you don’t agree right away, the offer will be rescinded. (Whenever an offer is actually rescinded, which happens rarely, it's almost always a clear signal that something's wrong with the position and/or the organization.)  

It's important to go into any interview situation, including a phone screen, with a positive mindset  -- you feel like you've earned it, you have the background and skills, and you're qualified to not only get the offer, but also to be paid accordingly. You're prepared.   Going in with a sense of desperation or urgency (You’re finally ending the search!  You’ve hit your dream job!) will be counter-productive. 

Whenever the subject of money is brought up, at any point in an interviewing process, the negotiation has started. That could include a five-minute phone screen, even if you haven’t had a formal interview.

Here's the hard part mentioned earlier: You must try to avoid the subject of money for as long as you can. The longer you defer the better. The longer you defer, the more opportunity you have to build value. The longer you build value? The better total compensation you will be offered.

If you don't set up an optimal situation for making the best deal you can, then you could easily get stuck later on during reviews with those dreaded COLA raises or some other organizational limitation.  

There are many ways to avoid the topic. 

For example: "Money is very important to me, of course. But, if it's ok with you, could we defer this discussion until we figure out if there's a good fit?  I'd hate to knock myself out of contention because I'm coming in too high or too low early in our conversation. I'm confident we'd be able to work it out."

Or, if that doesn't work, how about, "Could you give me an idea of your range?" If the interviewer does respond with a range, and it's anywhere near where you think it should be, you just say there will be no problem working it out if you get to that point.  

Or, if you perceive the interviewer getting impatient, you say you'll be looking for an "all in" (including benefits, bonus, 401K match, everything) of __________. That, of course, is if you're looking to bump your total comp up significantly. If you're seeking to keep it lower for other reasons, then you say you'll be looking for a base of ____________, which is close to what you're currently earning, or maybe an average of the last four years’ bases. 

Or, if the interviewer is insistent, you'll have to give in and tell the real numbers. You cannot fabricate your history; it's easy to verify. All the interviewer has to do is ask you for a previous W-2.   

Even if you have to give in, you've at least set a precedent where the interviewer will know you're not going to be a pushover in any subsequent compensation discussions. That's creating a strong brand. 

This pushback, of course, will be continued in the actual face-to-face negotiations later on.  Collegial and friendly, but still a pushback.  

One note: Working with HR professionals or recruiters makes this much tougher. They're there to screen. It's why I encourage clients to do their best to get to decision makers, who will usually be far more amenable to the approach described here. 

Step 2 – Defer: Don’t Negotiate at the Point of Offer

You’re in no shape to begin a negotiation at the point of the offer.  No matter how well prepared you think you are, or how unemotional you may be in the interaction, your emotions of the moment will cause you to make mistakes, or forget critical questions.  You need time to develop a strategy. 

If the offer is low, say that you need some time to think it over, that you will have some questions about the position.  Then mention that the offer seems a bit low, from what you’ve determined in your market, but you still want some time to think it over.  On the other hand, you’re excited about the organization and think there’s a great fit; always make an employer know that you’re enthusiastic about the position.  No one wants to hire a candidate who doesn’t seem to want the job.  That way, you’ve planted the idea that there will be some discussion about comp.  And you’ll have time to plan a strategy.

If the offer is in the right range, same response – except for the part about the comp being low.  And the excitement is there, too. 

If the offer is great - again, same response.  You still might have other issues to clarify.  You could even mention that there won’t be a problem with the compensation, but you’d like to be sure about all aspects of the new job, and look forward to closing the deal the next time you meet.

Do NOT negotiate via email.  Tone is lost, and there will be problems.

If the offer is long distance, try to negotiate via Skype or Face Time.  You want to be able to read the other person as well as possible.  Phone is ok, but you prefer to actually see the other person. 

Step 3 – Negotiate: The Actual Face-to-Face Negotiation

We hope that it’s face-to-face, because that provides the advantage of checking visual cues. 

The balance of power has shifted once the offer is made.  They want you, not their second or third choice.  Keep that in mind.  They do not want to start over or settle for someone else, and want the job filled. 

If steps 1 and 2 have been followed, you’re in an excellent position to begin the negotiation.  First, before you start, decide what your “drop dead” numbers and situations are.  In other words, what’s your bottom all-in comp number?  Does the job match up well with your expectations – or not? Don’t go into the negotiation without thinking those issues out.  What is important to you?  Be prepared to discuss every loose end. 

Prepare a list, one that you can bring with you and place in front of you.  It’s your best opportunity to not only set up the perception about how you conduct business, but to make the “ask” for every item that’s important to you.

My favorite words in negotiations are “we” and “clarify.”  Never “I need.”  We talk about what’s going on in the market, rather than what we “want.” 

My suggestion is that the list of questions creates a “win-win” rather than “I won” or “they won.”  For example, don’t start with the most critical items.  Start with something easy like a job description question, addressing something that wasn’t clear during the interview process.  Ask about the 401K or 403B, if that hasn’t been described.  The #3 question should be your biggest issue. 

For some, that tough #3 issue is base salary.  For others, it’s bonus structure.  Or perhaps reporting relationships.   Or vacation. 

If your “#3” is base salary, most of the time the organization will have more money to offer; most hiring managers or HR professionals will start as low as they think they can get away with.  If the offer was low and/or you think you should be paid more for this position, discuss your research into what the market is for your level of experience, education, and expertise – and be prepared to discuss where that information came from, if pressed.  Sometimes, it comes from salary websites such as Glass Door or any of the many other surveys, sometimes from peers, sometimes from previous and ongoing interview situations.  They are all part of the research. 

Do not expect that the person offering the position will be prepared to immediately respond.  They may have to go back and discuss with others in the organization.  This is part of the process, so don’t be concerned that there’s not a quick decision. 

If the big issue is bonus, do not accept the word “discretionary” as a satisfactory response.  Ask what a good year means for you and for the company, or a bad one, or just an average one, and what your upside might look like.   Is there a formula for part of it?  Take notes; you may need to refer back to those later on.  (That’s also sending a message, too!) 

Now’s the time to ask all of the questions you’ve been deferring throughout the interview process. Technology? Office space? Work culture issues?  Reviews?  Severance policy (yes, even that)?  Start date?  Anything goes on the table here.   

By not negotiating, you are almost always leaving money on the table.  Remember, it’s expected.  Using these three steps should improve the outcome of most compensation discussions.  Nothing to lose, plenty to gain.