According to research, about 85% of all jobs are filled through some form of personal referral. Understanding this simple fact is essential for making progress in your career and in your life in general. Back when I worked in recruitment, we used to have a saying that “People hire people.” And it’s as true now as then. The word “networking” often has multiple negative associations, connoting as it does some insincere schmooze artist at a cocktail party handing out business cards like pretzels, while simultaneously looking over your shoulder for someone more important to enter the room. I prefer to think of networking as the conscious act of building your allies over time.
Case in point: My client William recently landed a new job. A position became available at a rival firm that was a match for his skill set. A friend of his at that rival firm tipped him off to the opening before the job was even advertised. Another colleague at this firm vouched for him, or “put in a good word” which helped William secure an interview. He did well enough at the interview that an offer was made. A third colleague helped him puzzle through the contract terms. He assured William that it was a hell of a deal, and urged him to take it. William was uncertain if he could manage the greater demands of this job, so he phoned another colleague who had done something similar. This colleague told him: “You can totally do this! Anything you don’t know, I can teach you. If you stumble, I’ve got your back.”
As of today, William has been happily installed in his new position for a month. He made the right move, and he has his work allies to thank for it. Keep in mind: William secured this fantastic new job with the help and support of no less than four people within his professional network. Without any of them, he might never have known about the opening, he might have bungled the contract negotiations or blown the whole thing through his own fears and doubts. William deserves full credit for actively investing in his professional network. What are some of the ways that we can do the same?
- Build it before you need it
The best time to look for a job is when you don’t actually need one. What this means is that while you are working, you are cultivating the allies that you might need in the future. When you’re flying high, you have a lot to offer and can afford to be generous. This means checking in with colleagues every now and again, perhaps sharing useful information, or generally taking an interest in other people’s lives beyond the scope of work. Don’t think of it as “networking,” but think of it as “making friends.” Friends support one another, and not just in a crisis. Try to make time for people even if there is no obvious “gain”. In this way, any future “ask” will be sincere, and not without meaning or context (“Hello! We haven’t spoken in fifteen years. How you doin?”)
- Be generous but don’t overstep boundaries
As much as possible, offer “value” to your acquaintances. Give away leads, contacts, research and so on. Make a conscious decision not to be the “withholding” kind. The result of that decision often is that you’ll get far more than you give away. When you give it away, don’t count the cost or keep score on who owes you what. Give when you can, take what you need, and trust that the balance will work itself out. Sometimes people will ask me for an “introduction” to someone in my professional network, maybe to a successful author or a CEO, and here I’m careful. If we are friends, then it’s only because that person trusts me to be discreet and not use our personal relationship as currency. People respect people who have their back and don’t cross boundaries.
- Cast a wide net
You’ll need allies for all sorts of reasons: Reference letters, customer referrals, advice … but also graphic design, financial counsel, and dental work. By reaching out to people who work in other fields, live in other countries, or come from other backgrounds, you get access to insights, and resources you wouldn’t otherwise have. Scheduling a “virtual” coffee meeting via Skype works when you’re far away. If you’re attending a conference in another location, pull out a list of people in the area that you’d like to know better. Go for depth and embrace diversity, too.
- Be an active ally
A good ally is someone who champions you, in good times and in bad. As professional allies, that means we are actively invested in each other’s success. An ally is not someone passively hanging out in your network until they need something from you. There’s a big difference. If possible, try to bring your allies together. Be a bridge and connector to the other amazing people you know. Facilitate connection and you’ll become a conduit for support and professional generosity. In the age of digital “connection,” I know many people who feel more disconnected than ever before. As human beings, we crave meaningful connection with others. So it’s up to each of us working together, to create the world and the social network we want to live in. In these uncertain times, we live and we die by the strength of our allies.