COVID Has Actually Made Networking Easier, But Only If You Do It Right
Most people get one thing wrong when they are networking. They ask themselves “how can this person help me?” Instead of asking the person, “how can I help you?”
That is because most of us deploy networking as a form of strip mining. Even more so, in times of scarcity. Or maybe we are miserable at work and desperate to make a change. We think of the best connected or most successful person we know, perhaps even only on a very limited basis. And we hit them up for a favor. That is to say: We seek to extract knowledge and connections, without thought to their wellbeing.
COVID has left many eager to find new work, and as a career coach, I have seen an understandable uptick in the strip-mining approach to networking on the road to 2021. I am very aware of people who only show up when they need something, and how some cannot even ask a question about you before they ask for introductions at their chosen list of employers. But for networking to benefit any of us, we all need to approach it as a two-way street. And that is truer now than ever, since so many of us have seen our professional moorings shaken up over the last year.
Here’s the thing: Even if you are the most selfish person humanity has ever known, networking like a sociopath will not actually serve you well, professionally. As in most other areas of the human experience, people get reputations. So, what will serve you best over the long term is building a web of mutual support that will not only elevate your career, but also, those with whom you network. Even during a pandemic. And better yet, it might turn you into a nicer person. You’re welcome.
In other words, for your network to be valuable, you need to invest in it. You need to demonstrate your value to other people. This does not mean that you or they have a scoreboard where you are carefully logging who did what, when, and ascertaining its value. However, your efforts will be decisive for them to offer you introductions, opportunities, and other things most sociopaths see as the only benefits of doing networking in the first place. Eventually.
“But wait,” you say. “What is my value to my network?”
Maybe you are convinced that nobody is hiring. That people are too busy to network. And you are asking yourself why anybody would want to talk to you in the first place. In other words, you are asking: “What do I have to offer?”
Actually, that is a sign that you’re homing in on the key question you need to answer succinctly before you begin networking. And that is where a career coach or a colleague that knows you well and understands the professional landscape can help. Assuming you do not have the money for a career coach right now, I am going to give you the quick version: What industries or issues do you know better than most people? What are specific technical skills that you have? Where does your network have its greatest strength?
Even if you are a fairly junior person with answers that might be limited to managing social media for a low-budget production you did with some friends after graduating arts school, three years ago, it is worth owning the strengths you built during the experience. For example, you likely understand the social media landscape that many older people do not, a grasp of the influencer space, as well as the production space, and access to a willing bunch of talented young creatives. That is all potentially valuable if you are networking right.
Beyond that, I would ask you the standard question, and people have devoted entire books to answering it: What is your elevator pitch? What do you tell people you have been doing well, and that you are seeking to be doing next, for a living, when you are trying to sound impressive, at parties?
A sense of your value, and an elevator pitch. Having both ready opens you up to be successful in the virtual COVID networking world.
COVID makes networking easier because it allows you to eliminate some of the great disincentives that many feel when it comes to networking in person and/or in crowds. It strips away the need to commute somewhere and spend money you may not have on an entrance fee or a drink for you or your networking partner. It strips away the focus on wearing the right clothes, that nothing is fitting you in a way that makes you feel good or there is that hole in the socks that go with those shoes. It also equalizes us. We are all in this odd, shared moment where our barking pets and misbehaving children are equalizers in ways that we may not feel when person X is employed at Company Y where I want a job. And there is an added bonus, if you are an introvert: You do not need to work your way through a room of strangers and carefully manage your energy and the overwhelming desire to escape.
How do you take advantage of all this?
Well, first, as I say, you need to get your story straight. What is the compelling story you are going to share about yourself? What is the value you may bring to them?
Then you want to find people whom you might help, and you want to ask them, “how can I help you?” Sometimes they may say, I don’t need anything. But I do always note when people ask that question. Furthermore, you can follow-up and ask what they are currently learning about as another way to see if you can be useful. You might not have an ability to help them with that at this moment, but who knows who might be joining your network in the future.
The conversation might also include you asking them for advice.
The great thing is that people are around, right now. And this is a golden moment to find intriguing people and write personal notes. Yes, people are stressed out at home and childcare does not help. But a well-crafted “hello” from you might ease the boredom of yet another blursday in front of Zoom. Particularly if you don’t act like you are asking them for something.
At a moment like this, research has never been more valuable, and since you have time at home to figure out exactly what makes a person tick, you have got more time to craft that well-worded introductory email that might pique their curiosity. You can use COVID as a shared starting point, and the fact that people are wary of making big decisions about hiring, right now, means you can start from a place of curiosity. Figuring out what their major challenges are, and how you might be able to help.
You will be surprised at how often that conversation leads people in a healthier, more sustainable direction, when they are networking. Yes, many people are wary of networking because it feels so transactional. But that is only because they have misunderstood what networking is all about. And now’s your chance to do it right.
Russ Finkelstein is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor. A career coach, social entrepreneur, and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship, and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website Idealist.org and his new book, "Let's Sort Out Your Career Mess, Together..." is forthcoming in 2021.