Networking

The Summer Rant

I hear it multiple times every year from clients and students, at both the beginning of the summer, and at Thanksgiving. 

“What’s the point of continuing my transition process?  Everyone’s on vacation, not much is going on, so I think I’ll take the time off myself and reconvene in September (or January).”

Big mistake.  Aside from the fact that both August and January tend to be high volume hiring months, abandoning a search leaves the field to your competition.  Just because some businesses slow up during holiday/vacation times, doesn’t mean that building relationships stops. 

Your competition will be lying on the beach on the Vineyard, visualizing their energetic return to action in September.  By the way, September is frequently a tougher time to get things going.  Not to mention the loss of momentum involved, which makes things even more emotionally draining than job search usually is.  I’m not suggesting that taking a break during a search is a bad thing – it’s actually a great idea – but to lose a whole season when everyone else is taking time off is not smart. 

As a matter of fact, reaching people you want to meet might be easier than usual.  Things do slow up, but there’s a good likelihood it could work to your advantage. 

Yes, some organizations do get slow during December or late August, especially in financial services, but does that mean companies are closed?  Of course not.  Someone is keeping the place open, right?  There is some business going on.  And there will be, therefore, valuable contacts to be made.

It’s also easier to get people to spend some time with you at these times; the overall pace is usually slower.  Many would rather talk with you than work!  And talking leads to business relationships, which leads to effective networking, which…

Just in case your relationship-building does slow down a bit during these times, it is also a perfect time to do your basic research, stay knowledgeable in your field, utilize the somewhat empty business libraries (in New York City, for example, SIBL), re-think your e-mail writing campaign, organize your resources and records, and get a lot done.  We’re now in the period following Memorial Day.  It’s time to step it up. 

Don’t Stop Until the Door Slams (or Opens)

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Private clients, business school students, and corporate clients have frequently asked a basic question about executing a successful career transition:  How many times do I contact someone I want to meet until I get a response?  Or, how many times do I call or email before I can get an answer, any answer, about the job I interviewed for?  

My standard answer is “Until the door slams.”  In other words, until there’s a firm “no.”  Or, we hope, the door opens: “We want to make you an offer,” or “I’d be glad to meet with you; sorry it took me so long to get back to you.”  We want that door to do something.  There are exceptions, as when you start to feel that it’s pointless or that the situation isn’t important enough to keep putting yourself out there.  Or that the job wasn’t that great to begin with, and the non-response is telling you something about the organization’s culture.  Career transition is tough enough, right?  Maybe you just are tired of going after that one situation, without any response, after you’ve tried so many times.

Many think all this persistence is standard sales technique.  In many ways, it is.

A View from Within the Organization

A while back, when I was a staffing officer with what was then called The Chase Manhattan Bank (employees referred to it frequently as “Mother Chase,” since in those days you could count on lifetime employment in many departments), I dealt with many external recruiters. 350 of them when I first started; no exaggeration.   

This was in an era of the brand new fax machine – the one that created an odor throughout the entire 22nd floor of 1 New York Plaza, which used a slick, oily paper roll feed.  The resumes from recruiters literally flew out of that machine.  And, unfortunately, the phone never stopped. No answering machines allowed in the office in those days.  They were considered impolite and possibly a missed business opportunity.  Needless, to say, no pc’s on individual desks yet (and, of course, no email).  

By the time I left “The Chase” after five years, I had learned an amazing amount about corporate hiring practices, i.e., networking, ads, internal referrals, logistics of setting up interviews, how to make which referrals to whom in the organization – and, most interestingly, how the utilization of executive search/recruiters works.   The recruiters exhibited a wide range of behaviors – relentlessness, dishonesty, misrepresentation of clients via doctored-up resumes, high quality clients, factory-produced candidates who may or may not have matched specifications, bribery of astonishing breadth (that’s a whole other article, but I must mention the word “kickbacks” here), and both excellent and terrible social intelligence.   

The most important thing I learned was that the relentlessness part was the characteristic that was most successful, in presenting candidates for open positions, whether or not we liked the recruiter. After the incessant phoning, the key was presenting quality candidates.   Some of the most successful recruiters were… obnoxious.  

I certainly wouldn’t suggest to people I advise that they become as relentless as the recruiters with whom I worked .  Unlike career transition, the chemistry between them and me or others on our staff wasn’t all that important.  I figured that out by the time I was about to leave the bank, and was training my successor.  He was surprised to hear that our “core” list of recruiters didn’t necessarily consist of people we liked; he was even more surprised that I couldn’t stand spending time with about 7 out of the 10 I worked with most.  I mostly cared about their presenting quality candidates for open positions.  Of course, that latter proportion is not appropriate for what we’re looking for in a career transition, where chemistry and fit are critical.  

A Recent Client Example

I’ve been working with a client recently who has a combination of strong presentation and impressive credentials.  She’s what I call a “walking unique selling proposition.”  Unfortunately, she is hitting her market at a time where the politics of her geographic area are having a profoundly negative effect on opportunities in her profession.  This means a rapidly shrinking market for her unique skills.  

She’s been relentless.  Not like the recruiters mentioned above, but in very subtle, sometimes indirect, always intelligent ways, which will work far better than the hard sell techniques I discussed when talking about recruiters working with The Chase Manhattan Bank.  

She was introduced to a major figure in her field, a man who could open many doors for her, not to mention that he ran an organization of great interest to her.    

The meeting went poorly.  Something was off, and my client couldn’t figure out what.  But the dynamic just wasn’t there, and the conversation went nowhere.  Of course, this happens frequently in any career transition, and you never know what happened.  Maybe the other person had a migraine?  Or just wasn’t in the mood for an informational meeting?  Too many variables to fully understand, unless you might’ve said something that you knew was off the mark.  My client had no idea what the problem had been.

I told her not to beat herself up, that bad meetings in this process happen sometimes, with no clear reason.  One of the hardest things in career transition is that it’s so isolating, and people end up ruminating about every aspect over and over again, which frequently ends up like an exercise in reading tea leaves.  Some introspection is good for a job search, but there have to be limits.  Otherwise, the whole exercise becomes self-defeating, and a job seeker becomes reluctant to risk making mistakes.  That fear, of course, could easily create a diminished search. 

My client continued her relationship building (otherwise known as networking), and oddly, two of the next people she met suggested she meet the man with whom she had had the bad meeting.  She was reluctant to follow up on their suggestions to contact him; I thought she had nothing to lose, and maybe he had forgotten the first meeting.  Her two contacts also mentioned that he was hiring for his own organization.  This was too tempting to pass up.  To hell with ego and fear of rejection.  

She contacted him and arranged a meeting.  This time was an entirely different story.  He did remember her, but the conversation flowed, and she now has a job interview with his organization set up.  She couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong in the first meeting, but it didn’t matter!  

Her persistence paid off in getting an interview for a job she really wanted.  Her key was to keep going until that door, in her case, actually did open.  

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.