What Is Networking, and How Can It Help?

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What Is Networking, and How Can It Help?

This is a networking site. That’s why it exists. Yet it’s surprising how many comments and emails we get with people uncomfortably admitting they don’t really understand what networking is. And really, that’s understandable … no business school out there, to my knowledge, teaches a class in Networking 101. Academia doesn’t really teach networking: for one thing, academia is its own network, by default.

Plus, if they’re teaching you, that means they already HAVE jobs. So networking often isn’t even on their radar.

The thing is, though, networking exists for more than just the job search. Oh, it can be used for that–in fact, networking is one of the most powerful tools you can have in your job-hunting toolbox. But it’s a significantly more useful tool if you don’t wait until you’re out of a job to use it.

At its core, networking is about connecting, building ties between people, believing that shared knowledge works to everyone’s benefit. Which sounds great on paper, I know … it’s not that easy in real life–if for no other reason than the fact that the payoff usually isn’t immediate. Networking is the art of fostering and nurturing two-way relationships that will serve both parties; that doesn’t mean the first time you talk with someone, it will change your life … but there does need to be a first time. And that’s where people get stuck.

Networking: It Isn’t Just for Job-hunters

As mentioned, many people don’t even consider networking until they need to find a job–and even more stop networking the moment they find one. The immediate problem with this is that it tends to limit the number of and types of contacts in your network.

You might say “Yeah–isn’t that the point?” Well, in the long-term, no. But even in the short-term, the broader your network is, the more potential opportunities you’re exposed to. When people job hunt, they tend to look for positions similar to the last one they held. But in this day and age, new technologies are changing the employment landscape on a daily basis. There may be a position out there that’s a better fit, in a company or even an industry that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

So the fact is, even if you’re only networking to find a job, job leads can come from just about anywhere: sticking to your comfort zone is usually a mistake.

Networking Through Your Fear

Not everyone is an extrovert. And sometimes trying to make a new contact can be as anxiety-ridden as the first time you ask someone for a date. Fact it: nobody likes rejection.

But really, there’s no need to start accosting strangers. In fact, you probably already have a larger network than you realize, once you start adding up contacts: there are relatives, friends, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends. There are all the people your spouse/significant other knows, and people you interact with through your kids, like teachers and other parents.

There are people you work with, people you used to work with, and people you’d like to work with some day. People you’ve met through professional organizations, and those you know from more social groups, like clubs or church. There’s the barista where you buy coffee, the plumber that installed your dishwasher, the stylist who cuts your hair. It could even include people you communicate with on social media but have never met face-to-face!

Networking for Life

The point is, building a network isn’t just about meeting strangers. Sometimes all it takes is getting to know the people you already kind of know. In most case, those people will end up introducing you to people they know–and being introduced to someone by a mutual friend is much easier than “cold-calling” strangers. And if you have a skillset you’re willing to share (like this entrepreneur), people may end up coming to you.

Is it still scary? Sure. But people can learn to move beyond that fear, cultivating their contact list even while staying relatively uncomfortable with the process themselves. A lot of them never get beyond that stage, and as soon as a new job offer comes in, those networking skills go right back into the closet until next time.

The ones who don’t do that, though–the ones who push themselves past their normal tendencies and continue to develop those relationships–these are the people who reap the full benefits of the network. They are the ones who understand that networking isn’t a hit-or-miss proposition: the process–and the rewards–go on indefinitely.