Personal networking has a bad reputation. The word "networking" conjures up images of someone wanting to "use" you, to take your time and connections without offering anything of redeeming value in return. If your first reaction to the word "networking" is negative, stop using the word. Instead, use words such as "wanted to catch up," "swap some ideas," "pick your brains," "tell you about an interesting lead." Anything that is honest and points out the reciprocal nature of your request is preferable, because the point of networking is to share mutually valuable information. That is what makes networking a level playing field. It is about giving rather than receiving, which is in keeping with the spirit of the season, right?
Any time you speak informally to other people, you are creating relationships. If you share interesting ideas, knowledge, and connections that are helpful to other people, they will do the same for you. The real secret is knowing what your needs are. Building and sustaining some of these more strategic relationships is critical for your long-term career development, and what time better than the holidays to make some progress with them?
Two Reasons Why Networking is Critical Now
The wrong time to start networking is when you're between jobs, anxious to find the next one. Don't wait for that to happen. Start making deposits into your career bank now, before you need to make withdrawals. By talking to people, both inside and outside of your company, you can get a feeling for where the IT market is headed and what you need to learn to stay competitive. Which companies, besides your own, are doing interesting work? Who do you know inside of them? How could you get to know them better without giving away any corporate jewels (think professional associations)? Such efforts help develop a strategic network that serves you for the long term. And it builds relationships with people who are there when you need them and have your best interests in mind.
Knowing how holiday networking differs from networking during the rest of the year will give you an edge in making and sustaining your relationships.
Things move slowly during the holidays. Reaching the right people and setting up appointments can be challenging. If you don't get a response to a call, don't read it as a rejection or lack of interest in seeing you. The person you're trying to reach simply may be out of the office or overbooked.
Planning early helps avoid this. Send e-mails right now to two or three people that you'd like to catch up with. Propose a time and place that doesn't interfere with other commitments. A message such as, "Can we meet for about 20 minutes before the company party?" takes advantage of your being in the same place with a person you wish to speak with. It's a better venue than a large party to trade ideas (notice, I didn't say "network").
The rule is that nothing happens between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. But there are exceptions to the rule. Did you see the movie Kramer vs. Kramer? Dustin Hoffman gets a job offer at a Christmas party. It happens outside the movies, too. You have to state clearly why it's in a company's best interest to close a job offer with you now. It is important to let them know that by doing so they can hit the ground running in the new year. Strategize for the exception, communicate from the company's perspective, and leave the door open should they not want to make a decision until after the holiday season.
You don't have to be a party animal to gather information, meet new people, and talk to colleagues at a holiday party. Planning ahead of time leads to greater returns. Try a Three Step Party Approach by asking yourself: What do I need to know? Who might be at the party with valuable ideas? What can I give back to them? Tell someone ahead of time that you'd like to make a point of seeing them at the party, and they'll be looking for you, too.
Even though you may feel anxious gathering connections and job leads, try not to show it. When you feel anxiety coming on, take a deep breath. The more needy you appear to other people, the more they'll back off. Typically, asking about job openings in a social setting puts people on the spot. While they may wish to help, they may be able to say only "yes" or "no" at that moment.
Remember, a party is a social situation, and talk is conversation. One client of mine called social conversations a dance. "I would take the lead for a while, asking him which companies he thought were doing interesting things and where the bottlenecks were in his own business, then I give him the lead on more personal topics, such as his family, vacations, etc." No pressure, just relationship building. If you have a couple of ideas that might be of help, ask for a card and permission to give a call at work. That's where the business conversation ends and a return to lighter topics begins. Keep your needs in perspective.
Networking as a Career Tool
Career networking has protocols and guidelines that will serve you well in your extended career management. Identifying what you have to give other people, what you need to know to stay competitive, and where you need relationships for long-term growth are essential building blocks of your own strategic planning. Holidays are a great time to kick off market research, so make networking goals part of your New Year's resolutions. //
Pam Lassiter is the principal of Lassiter Consulting, a career management firm that works with executives and companies in transition. You can reach her at www.lassiterconsulting.com.