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Our Take: Networking is Hard

Networking your way to a job opportunity takes both ingenuity and a significant time commitment. That's why so many of us get it wrong.

Like many a business buzzword, "networking" is a victim of its own success. Over the years it became so enwrapped in oversimplified myths perpetrated by consultants, gurus and spin doctors, the central idea was lost. The unfortunate result is that many individuals who'd benefit if they put enough effort into networking give up before they've given it a serious try.

For instance, one widespread myth portrays networking as a parlor game built around trading business cards the way school kids once traded baseball cards. Attend a variety of business/social events, press the flesh, make a few good impressions, and presto! A newfound acquaintance will refer you - or even introduce you - to someone who's interviewing candidates for your dream job.

Of course, it's never that easy.

Even a less pie-in-the-sky version - request job leads from people you already know professionally - rarely yields results among those I've polled. "Personally, everyone I know professionally already knows that I'm looking and have been almost zero help in finding a job," an experienced research analyst and CFA charterholder told me not long ago. "It's not their fault, they just don't know of any job openings, and everyone they know who is out of work is in the same crappy position. Whenever I do see something that looks pretty promising, I try asking if anyone knows somebody there. The answer is usually no."

Never Stop Trying

Guess what? I had the identical experience many times when I was job-hunting. Instead of handing me a coveted entrée to that "hidden job market" we all hear about, my contacts would e-mail me job postings from eFinancialCareers and other job boards. Even after I learned to stop expecting fresh leads from my network and asked instead for referrals within firms whose promising openings I'd discovered on my own, time and again I was stunned to learn how many important people and companies my own network contacts did not know.

Does that make my network worthless? Hardly. It simply means greater effort is required to unlock its value. When I refused to give up after such setbacks, but kept on trying, I often succeeded in finding someone from my past who could ferry me across the forbidding moat that surrounded my target employer.

Here's an example. After being laid off from a fixed-income research job, I sought a referral inside a certain institution known for prominence in that field. To my amazement, one ex-colleague after another said they knew no one working there.

On the company's Web site, I found a list of names and bios of professionals in the department I hoped to network into. I e-mailed the list to my contacts, and one recognized a name from his distant past. That long-lost connection proved strong enough. The man inside took my contact's call, and then took my call, which ultimately led to an in-person interview with a hiring manager.

Go Outside the Box

On another occasion, when efforts among my professional circle brought only goose eggs, I turned to a high school classmate I'd found in a roundabout way using the Internet. We weren't close in high school and I hadn't spoken with him since - so I had no idea how, or even if, he would respond. But respond he did. And although he worked in a business segment remote from the opening I sought, his intervention opened the door to an in-person interview.

Which brings me back to the beginning of this column: A key reason many people seem to fail at networking is they don't appreciate what hard work it is. Networking with strangers is hardest of all. Advancing from a new acquaintance to a potential job referral usually means cycling through multiple levels of contacts (one refers you to another, who then refers you to another, and so on) and informational interviews - whose only return on your time invested may be the opportunity to secure yet another informational interview with a next-in-line contact.

Even when networking with people you already know, success requires tenacity, creativity and a willingness to take chances. It also requires returning favors - but that's a subject for another column.

Originally published Jan. 9, 2009

AUTHORJon Jacobs Insider Comment
  • Na
    24 February 2013

    Thank you for admitting it is hard, and doesn't yield results quickly.

    And that the network you have may be no help.

    I think trends come along and they're treated as a panacea, or a one size fits all solution. If it's not working swimmingly for you, you're a loser or you suck at it, therefore there's no job for you.

    If people are individuals, with different skill sets, why would we naively (and moronically) think, everyone should have get a job based on their social skills instead of their talents?

  • Jo
    Jon Jacobs
    2 July 2009

    Janet, that sounds like the sort of thing that more often happens during boom times. It reminds me of real estate anecdotes from the good old days - you know, "I closed on the property on Thursday, renovated it over the weekend, and sold it on Monday for a 80 percent profit." (If your brother landed a job that way during the current bust, then more power to him.)

  • ja
    2 July 2009

    My brother found his way to his current job through referrals and networking. He met someone casually in a restaurant, who told him about a networking event. He attended the event and was introduced to someone who knew of a contact who needed an accountant with his software skills. He met with the contact on a Tuesday, they checked his references on Wednesday, hired him on Thursday and he started on Friday. It can happen. But it does not happen often enough.

  • ka
    26 June 2009

    Good article. I have found using sites like LinkedIn and even has helped me reconnect with people I worked with years ago. I have also mined my husband's network. I have found several consulting opportunities by expanding my network and reconnecting in this way. Recently I have signed on to consult with a firm in my town that is headed by a man who was a college classmate of my husbands. It turns out he is also working with a former senior executive from my former company. In turn, she connected me with the former CEO who is also throwing me some work.

  • Ti
    Tim Rodgers
    16 January 2009

    There are times when this approach feels like spinning our wheels. Well, you need to keep spinning until you get traction. You simply never know where the connection will come from, but the more connections you make the better the odds. Keep contacting and meeting. Go for the face to face - emails and calls alone are not going to cut it.

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