Our Take: Is Networking Overrated?

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That question was put to me this week by a buy-sider who's been between jobs longer than he'd like.

Ask any expert, and you'll hear that networking is the answer - the pre-eminent tool for any and every job search.

But, "Every job I ever got came from a job posting," my friend protests. How can it be reasonable, he wonders, to expect a meaningful benefit from "approaching a perfect stranger at a cocktail party" or "talking to a friend of a neighbor's cousin"?

I used to feel the same way. But my natural skepticism is gradually bowing to evidence of networking's efficacy.

Personal Job Scorecard: Networking 6, Postings 2

For starters, there is my own career path. I got my present job and my very first job after grad school by answering postings, with no attempt to network my way in. Each of the six intervening jobs, however, came through people I knew, or who knew of my work and approached me. Here is a brief rundown, in no particular order:

A. A recent ex-colleague called to recruit me to a securities firm he'd jumped to a year or so earlier.

B. I learned from a trade newsletter that a new company with solid foreign backing had hired someone I once dated to lead their operation. I wrote her a congratulatory letter, got called for an interview and wound up getting hired.

C. A guy I'd worked with off and on for several years (never as direct colleagues) called me for a series of meetings that culminated in a job offer.

D. While unemployed, I practiced the classic jonesing-for-job-leads technique: I cold-called people in finance (dropping a name who'd referred me to them) and did lots of informational interviews both by phone and face-to-face. In less than two months I landed an offer from a research boutique, via a key player there who I'd spoken with frequently while in my previous job.

E. A competitor of my employer called out of the blue to recruit me. (This was before the days of non-compete agreements.)

F. A company I'd interviewed with a year or so earlier without success, called to recruit me for a new opening they had.

Strangers or Friends?

True, these situations differ from the cocktail-party and "friend of a neighbor's cousin" networking scenarios that my out-of-work friend pooh-poohed. But even the chat-up-strangers approach - which I used to dismiss as a caricature - seems to bring results for some job-seekers. I've heard it endorsed by many people I respect, from professional peers to career coaches I speak with regularly. Authors and readers of The Wall Street Journal's new "Laid Off and Looking Blog" offer similar real-life testimony (although just as many posters there say their efforts to network into a job proved futile).

Still, not all networking is created equal. Rather than look toward new acquaintances or four-degrees-of-separation contacts to point you toward choice job openings, I advise building your network around the following types of people you already know, and asking them for introductions to people in their networks:

- Current colleagues (the ones you're certain won't betray you).

- Former supervisors and colleagues - especially from your last prevous job, or a past job directly in the specialty or industry you want to work in now.

- Current and former trading partners. This includes customers, vendors or salespeople you purchased things from in your job, trade counterparties, and basically anyone you dealt with regularly at work, who wasn't a fellow employee of your firm.

- Alumni of your business school, undergraduate school, or even professional development classes you took, if you got to know them fairly well (such as being in a study group together).

Do a Favor Before Asking a Favor

If you've been out of touch with a past colleague or classmate, make an effort to do something for them when you re-connect. Pick up the tab for coffee or lunch, bring a relevant piece of news, an insight or even a contact who might help them in their job, and show interest in their activities and needs. (This is even more essential when networking with people you don't already know.)

A relationship that's all about you is unlikely to last or bear fruit.

The bottom line: The best networking contacts are familiar with both you and your work. Such people can give you not just job leads, but something far more valuable: referrals and recommendations. A "friend of a friend" doesn't sound like an impressive contact. But what about a close associate of the guy you sat next to in your last job? Or your next-to-last boss's early-career mentor? If one of them has an opening and you come in warmly recommended by your ex-colleague or ex-boss, you will leapfrog many potential rivals.

Originally published December 12, 2008