Our Take: Networking is Hard

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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