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February 7, 2002

Networking Skills Require More Than Just Making Contacts

By Jim Leverette

Ask anyone to define the word networking and they’ll spew out something vague like “making contacts.” The word, unfortunately, belongs to sophisticates who casually toss about such connotative bits until they compress a wealth of meaning into something glib and trendy — the kind who chalk up any contact with associates as a valuable networking effort. Everyone seems to know the word and its relationship to the career ladder, in other words. Few, however, actually realize the effort involved in that process.

So what is networking? Did the individual who happens to engage in a convivial barroom conversation and land an executive position — it actually happened — reap the benefits of networking skill or luck?

Who’s to say? On the surface one cannot tell whether happenstance or strategy landed that particular executive a job. Mark Twain, the famous American author and humorist, once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” I believe the same can be said for the effort that goes into building a powerful network. Networking is a lengthy and continuous process whereby a candidate connects with and through people to identify possible opportunities. It doesn’t necessarily require backslapping and friendly affirmation, the sort of yes-man ritual practiced so ineptly by less conscientious types. Rather, it’s an exchange of ideas with other professionals, a process of accumulating knowledge and data that will support career decisions. The accumulation and management of useful contacts demands respect from all parties involved, constant updating, and real work. Ultimately, networking will direct you to the right person at the right time — if you pursue it with diligence and forethought. And that right person might just drop by the local tavern.

Whether we like it or not, a successful job search often hinges on who we know rather than what we know. That is not meant to discount education and experience, for talent and quality are integral to who you choose to know and who knows you. People must know you for the right reasons, in other words. Access to opportunities opens up when others observe the skills you possess — and recognize your name. On average, everyone is on speaking terms with at least 250 people. Therefore, each person you “connect with” adds a few hundred potential new contacts to your networking list.

Successful networking depends upon managing and expanding your professional and informal relationships, both within your particular industry and outside your field. It also requires what in economic terms would be called “pump priming.” In other words, networking is a two-way street. The executive intent on a long corporate climb may find the steps unstable indeed if he ignores the efforts of others seeking to accomplish a similar climb. If you act first, assist others in their networking efforts, you build up significant goodwill and reciprocity that will generate benefits down the road. Remember, we give in order that we may receive, and in turn, receive in order that we may give, thereby completing the circle of reciprocity.

You’ve got 120 seconds

With all of that in mind, the steps necessary to create and maintain a contact base useful for career development should be evident. First, consider every interaction, formal or informal, as a networking opportunity, a chance to impress others with your competence, knowledge, or bearing. This does not imply that you must talk the longest or the loudest. Next, develop a two-minute commercial showcasing your talents and the benefits you bring to an organization along with a couple of ideas on what type of opportunities you’re most interested in. This forces you to economize your words and speak about your career in impactful net-net terms. Few people can remember, nor do they enjoy, long-winded monologues. However, most find a conversation with someone truly in command of himself and of their industry a pleasant and memorable thing. In order to create a useful two-minute commercial, you must look at yourself objectively, develop and narrow your list of strengths and benefits to an organization, and finally seek honest feedback from colleagues and friends.

Everyone develops a series of two-minute commercials prior to a job interview. Just apply that process to your daily interaction. Use your two-minute commercial to tell your story at every opportunity – there are no such things as chance meetings or coincidence – seize the moment and strike up a conversation!

During conversations, you should never ask for a job. Instead, ask for the other person’s insight or perspective regarding their industry, business events, or a job opportunity. Listen to their thoughts, find out their success story. During the course of the discussion, they will provide you with opportunities to sell your successes, so insert well-informed comments, and impress another contact. Working the room, in successful networking terms, does not mean spewing out feel-good comments. It requires engagement and sincerity.

The preparation for successful networking actually involves more time and effort than networking itself. A few tools will assist your self-marketing campaign. Carry business cards with you at all times. It’s amazing how many people miss real opportunities because they left their business cards in a briefcase or in the car. Respond to emails, voice mails, and letters. Remain active and visible. Join groups involved in your areas of interest, attend functions and focus groups, for example. Networking is an interactive long-term process requiring a certain amount of participation on your part. But the most important preparation tool in the career-building campaign will always be research. I cannot stress this enough. In order to build and manage a contact list, you must remain well informed and know your subject matter. Read the newspapers and trade publications, conduct research, study happenings beyond your field. As networking opportunities come up, you’ll be well positioned to provide something of value and will speak from authority.

Let others approach networking in a haphazard or lackadaisical manner, the masses who refer to networking in vague terms will never be competition, anyway. However, if you’re interested in moving ahead in your career, then begin first by adhering to the basics of preparation, discipline yourself, develop your presentation skills, and most importantly take advantage of every opportunity to sincerely connect with people.

The power of reciprocity will deliver the rest.

Jim Leverette is senior vice president and partner of The Broadmoor Group, a Dallas-based global executive search consultancy. Contact him at