When you hear the word “networking” do you shut down? Does the idea of putting yourself out there and asking people you don’t know for help make you cringe? You’re not alone. Most people would like to skip the networking step and have valuable job connections just magically appear.
The fact is, though, that networking can be a lot less painful than you think. Here are four quick tips that will help you network out of your comfort zone:
- Establish even a very loose connection. Networking involves a shared connection, not just out-of-the-blue cold calls to strangers. Networking connections do not need to be people you know well: you can establish connections through relatives, school or employer alumni groups, club members, or a friend of a friend of a friend. Figure out how to give your connection the comfort level of knowing that in some way you are connected. It could be as simple as having children in the same soccer league or being connected to the same person on LinkedIn.
- Be specific about the help you need. No one wants to hear, “I’d just like to pick your brain about flexible fundraising jobs.” That’s a conversation that could wander aimlessly with no easy end. Busy people want to slot you in for a quick brain dump of specific information they have at hand. A better approach would be, “I’m trying to get an idea of how most large fundraising departments are allocating part-time responsibilities among functions, and I’d like to see how yours is structured in relation to peer organizations.” If you lay this out in an email or LinkedIn message, your connection can think about and summarize a worthwhile, bite-sized response. This very focused networking request would help you gather information about where and how your skills and experience would most likely fit at your connection’s organization and many others. When you ask a dozen networking connections the same question, you start gathering valuable anecdotal research.
- Limit the amount of time your connection needs to invest. Networking meetings over coffee and lunch should be reserved for people who know you well—and people who offer that valuable block of in-person time. When you don’t know people well, it’s best to say, “I’d like to schedule 15 minutes to talk with you by phone about these two things. . .” This approach is more likely to get you on busy calendars because there’s a specific timeframe and agenda and no need for a harried person to leave the office.
- Pursue general “word-of-mouth” intelligence. Ask friends, acquaintances, and loose connections if they know professionals who left the large corporate world to launch a small business of their own, or if they know about smaller, rising companies that have top-ranked clients. Many entrepreneurs need flexible help as they grow their businesses. Often suburban towns are the homes of executives who semi-retire and need help running smaller ventures. One great example is a tiny firm in a small town run by a household-name, three-time CEO. When I was a recruiter, I placed a woman at his office, and she basically supports this ex-CEO’s personal investments, real estate holdings, and corporate board activity. It’s a flexible and exceedingly interesting opportunity for her to gain insights from a legend in the business world—and through networking you can find these influential small business owners, too.
When you want a flexible job—or any job—the first step is not to start applying to every job that sounds like a reasonable fit on myriad online job boards. Most job boards are big black holes, and scrolling through their postings should be a very small percentage of your job search time. The first and most critical step to finding a flexible job is diving in to what I call “networking research”—gathering as much data as you can from insiders actually working in your field of interest. For anyone who is not a high-octane extrovert, the good news is that today most of that research can be done via email and LinkedIn.
A step-by-step guide to the networking research process and extensive tips for finding flexwork can be found in my book, Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office is Not for Every Woman & What to Do Instead.