Networking: Developing Mutually Beneficial Relationships

There's nothing complicated about networking, although many are confused by it, misuse it, or fear it. Networking is simply the development of mutually beneficial relationships. The key word here is mutually. Both you and your contacts will benefit from your networking efforts.

The Purpose of Networking

The purpose of networking is the exchange of information, advice, and referrals, via the informational interview process, to assist in attaining your goal of changing careers. As competition becomes fierce in some fields and there are fewer qualified candidates available in other fields, both employers and career changers rely on networking, the former to identify qualified candidates and the latter to communicate professional and personal skills to employers. Employers hire those they like personally and professionally. The informational interview, the vehicle for networking, gives employers an opportunity to informally get acquainted with potential candidates.

The Formal and Informal Job Market

The jobs listed in newspapers, trade journals, and employment offices, which constitute the formal job market, represent only about 25 percent of the total jobs available at any given time. The ads in the newspapers tend to be either low-end or high-end jobs in terms of skills. Want ads work for some career fields better than others; you'll need to find out what works best in your field of interest. Most jobs, therefore, are part of the informal job market. They are not advertised or listed at agencies.

Because of this structure, you must rely on yourself to make sense of the whole process and identify available jobs. During your job search, divide your time up according to the percentage of time a particular job search method works. For a general example, take networking (informal job market) versus ads and agencies (formal job market). Because approximately 75 percent of the jobs are found via the informal job market through networking, that's where you should spend 75 percent of your time. However, people still get jobs via the formal job market, so you should spend the other 25 percent of your time there.

Employers Prefer Networking

This might come as a surprise, but employers would rather use informal networks also. They know that if they advertise a position, they could be overwhelmed with resumes, phone calls, and visits. They have a need -- a position to fill -- and they want the quickest way to find a qualified applicant. Many can't afford to hire through an employment agency, which may charge 15 to 25 percent of the position's annual salary as a fee. In addition, most employers would rather go with a known quantity (via networking with friends, family, or business associates) than an unknown quantity (an applicant responding to an ad). Unknown applicants represent a greater risk in terms of time, money, and training to employers.

The Challenge of Networking

Be honest during an informational interview. You should just request information; don't ask for a job. However, the networking process is indeed a good way to find a job. This sometimes seems like a contradiction. As a career changer, you probably do have many questions and could use the information. Even when you're experienced (or further along in the career planning process), there's always more to learn. Nonetheless, at this point, your main objective is to get that targeted job.

The dilemma is that if you say you just want information and it becomes clear you actually want a job, you are likely to ruin your new contact. So, how can you be honest without ruining your chance of gaining that new contact? We suggest that you be specific about what type of information you want. Let your contact know, from your initial request for an informational interview and thereafter, that you're interested in the following or similar areas:

* Advice on opportunities in that particular field

* Strategies for gaining employment

* Feedback on how realistic your career goals are as you research your ideal job

This approach is straightforward about your intentions. You're seeking more than general information at this point; you have decided on a career field, and it's acceptable to say so. However, whether asking in writing or on the phone, be sure to state that you do not expect a job to be offered or referred to during the proposed interview. This helps put the potential interviewee at ease and removes pressure because of certain expectations they think you have. If, during the course of your informational interview, something in terms of a possible job comes up, great -- but don't expect it.

With regard to finding the people with the power to hire, don't go after them unless your contacts lead the way. Attempt to reach them via contacts and networking your way up. Hiring professionals are usually the busiest, and they don't usually have a lot of time for networking. Therefore, they'll be more inclined to make time if you're a known quantity with a mutually known contact person.

Although some experts will tell you not to waste your time with people who do not have the power to hire, we believe they are mistaken. People not in a direct hiring position nevertheless could have insights about the career field, companies, or a particular organization. Also, many will have contacts that lead to persons with the power to hire. You will never find out unless you take the time to check it out.

What People Fear the Most About Networking

Many mature and capable adults fear picking up the phone and calling someone they dont know, even when the name is given to them by a mutual contact. After all, they wonder, who would want to talk to them? That's not a complicated question to answer. Those who have 15 to 20 minutes to spare and like their jobs will usually talk with you in an informational interview. If you get turned down, it's likely that they're just too busy or simply don't like their job and don't want to talk about it. In this case, try not to take it personally. Ask whether they can recommend someone else for you to talk with, thereby continuing to build your network. If you're hesitant about this process, start with people you know and those they refer you to. It's easier with that intermediary contact person.

When one of your contacts offers you a referral to someone, send the person an approach letter. Your letter should be typed and have a businesslike appearance. You might even create your own letterhead using word processing software and a high-quality printer, or have it created at a print shop. Include your name, address, and phone number.

Your approach letter should include the following content:

* Who referred you to the person you're addressing

* Who you are, your current employment situation, what specific information you want, and how much time you need (15 to 20 minutes)

* Why you picked this person to speak to and how you hope he or she can help you

* When you'll call to set up an appointment (a specific day, within one week)

Your approach letter could also have some information about the person's employer that you have found as part of your research. You might even add some ideas related to the career field that you've been thinking about and would like the person's opinion on. This says something about your interest and commitment level and might lead your referral to be more inclined to respond positively. You need to make yourself sound worth meeting.

By the way, I'm sure you noticed the title of this article: Networking: Developing Mutually Beneficial Relationships. In addition to the fact that employers like to network to fill positions with known quantities, as mentioned earlier, there are other ways for you to make this more of a two-way process. If you think your contact has a worthwhile product or service be sure to mention that you'll be referring others when the possibility arises. This perspective adds balance to a process that many tend to distort. There's always the possibility of giving back, returning the favor.

Excerpted from Career Change by David P. Helfand (VGM Career Horizons 2nd ed. 1999).