Saturday, 7 December 2013

Catapult Your Holiday Networking into the Stratosphere

A Sure-Fire Way to Upscale Your Contact List while Sipping Eggnog and Merry Ho Ho Ho-ing your way through the Holidays … and Beyond!

People always seem to freeze up and look petrified when, in my role as their Career Coach, I remind them that the holiday season is the best time of year for networking.  The reason behind this deer in the headlights response is because it seems to trigger that old and horribly awkward, asking for a job misconception around networking. 

This usually occurs innocently enough when the erstwhile networker launches into what they think is the key question of networking:  Do you know of any job openings?

Most don’t realize this is the LAST thing you want to ask at any seasonal do!

You may be scratching your head now, wondering what planet I’m from.  But, just for a second, twist the situation on its ear.    

Put yourself in the potential contact’s shoes. 

At your job -- or when you were in one -- and people asked you about jobs in your company, did you know enough about that area to give a helpful answer? 

Typically, your answer will be no, unless you’re in Human Resources or in a small enough company where the managers and staff get involved in hiring.  (In those situations you’d have hit paydirt!)

It’s not that people are running away from you because they think you’re a needy imposing pariah! It’s because they feel badly because they don’t have anything to help you!

Bottomline:  People like to help!!!  And they are often very happy to tell you about their job and company, so long as they don’t feel pressured to try and find you a job.

Phew… so now does it make more sense why so many people resist networking? 

Which leads me to the NUMERO UNO thing you need to change to get better job-finding results through networking:

Forget about job searching and focus on INFORMATION GATHERING instead.

Mentally put on a DIFFERENT HAT:  Imagine you’re an Investigative Reporter or a CSI guy/gal looking for and then following up on leads and clues!  Whichever floats your boat.

This is the most important distinction you can make when launching a conversation over the canapés.

Sure, it requires a bit of pre-planning and likely a shift in your typical conversational style but here are 4 great questions to get you started (after a brief rapport-building chitchat – you know, the stuff you usually talk about before you shuffle off to find another target because the first conversation died as soon as you mentioned you were looking for work!  The old standbys like the weather, the food you’re eating, your kids or the most publicized football/hockey/ soccer game!):

Ideally, go with the flow:  Let part of the natural conversation spark the most relevant segue into one of these.  Then try to finesse it somewhat as you start to gain momentum.

1)   Your stance:  during a natural break in the conversation, when you’re leaning over, to spear another meatball or lift another drink from the passing tray…

a.    Question 1 (casually):  So …(pause and munch/sip) … what kind of work do you do?

NOTE: in this day and age when far too many people are unemployed, one must be careful here, because if your target is also looking for work, you will need to switch tracks and launch into a potentially great sharing conversation where you may be able to get leads from each other (ie. your current network/knowledge may be able to help him and vice versa).

2)   Your stance: Above all, be naturally curious about this person.  Let that curiosity lead your questions but also comment appreciatively or with interest to whatever your contact is sharing with you… even if you have no idea right now whether or not this information will ever prove useful.
a.    Question 2:  Sounds like an interesting line of work.  (And, if they haven’t already mentioned it yet)…  Where do you work? (and, if you’ve never heard of them before and the contact’s stated job doesn’t tell you implicitly: What do they do?)
3)   How long have you been there?
4)   Is it a good company to work for?  If so, or if not, why? 

Once you have an idea whether this is a company you might be interested in learning more about, you can take the questioning to the next level?

You can go in two directions at this point:

A)   Your stance:  on hearing that the company sounds like it does hire people with your skills, or is an industry you have been wanting to explore for a career change, you can start to deepen your questions into more leading directions, continuing to gauge the receptivity of this person by asking:

5)   What kind of people/skills does your company need? (You might also ask how big they are: how many people work there?  Medium to large companies are more likely to have many departments and, ergo, more potential job openings!  Plus more variety in jobs.)
6)   Do they ever need people with (list your top 3 skills based on what you’re now hearing are potential matches to the needs of this organization)?
7)   They sound like a good company to work for!  (If they do!!!)  Is there anyone you know internally who might be available to give me an informational interview, maybe someone in the relevant department (specific area you’ve determined could relate most to your skills) or the HR department (for more general information source)?


B)   You’re not hearing anything that really resonates with you, so you can double back to the weather, food or sports discussion again then, fairly soon after, extricate yourself and move on to another likely candidate.  No harm, no foul!

Okay, so when there does seem to be a potential opportunity there to dig into and learn more…then what?

Asking advice can be the next major step to facilitating that all important 2nd conversation, which I recommend takes place at a neutral time far far away from the cocktail party:  the follow up, more formal information interview that this new contact will hopefully help you arrange. 

FINAL MOVE:  at the end of your initial holiday party confab (especially if they’ve agreed to broker a meeting for you with their company somewhere down the line), make sure you get their business card or jot down their particulars/contact info in a notepad/phone memo if they don’t have one.  Always make a couple of identifying notes on the back of the card so you can recall something unique about the person that will help you engage with them again in either your follow up email or meeting.

Which brings me to the … POST PARTY ACTIONS:

Always, always, always… follow up within a few days or weeks with the person you met; reminding them of where you chatted with them and what you talked about.  You can do this through LinkedIn if you can find them there.  And since it’s always nice to offer them some recompense for their time, inviting them for coffee (or lunch) is a great way to start developing the relationship.

Remember:  Don’t expect instant results! 

Sure it can happen, but it’s really more like a lottery win when you land a job after just one meeting. 

Keep the faith!  Your new connection may not bear fruit for weeks, months or even years down the road.  Or they could also introduce you to a contact who opens your next new job door.  You can never really know but the closer you can get to people who can help you get closer to jobs or companies you recognize as being on your top 20 list, the better your chances of landing a position you’re really excited about.

FRIENDS FIRST:  If any of this scares you or makes you worry about imposing on strangers, practice first on people you know.  Very few of us truly know what our friends and families do at work or what their companies are all about. 

Most people are happy to be asked about their job and what they do. And, if you take that tack instead of asking if they know any jobs at their company, you’re likely to get a whole lot better traction. 

Proviso:  each of these questions and scenarios are only loose approximations of what can happen and above all else you need to stay light on your feet to flow with the conversation’s natural momentum.  Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same goes for networking in any capacity.  The more you practice it – just like the equally dreaded public speaking – the better you’ll get at it and the more natural you’ll appear to others.


Don’t burn yourself out:  try not to spend any more than 15-20 minutes with a possible contact at any one event.  And try to meet 3 new people, then take a break and go talk to someone you know; then do 3 more and call it a night!

Your Ultimate Goal:  get closer to the Hidden Job Market – where experts still say anywhere from 60-70% of jobs are found – is still primarily accomplished only by one-on-one networking.

 And what’s the secret to that:  Talking to people.  That’s it!  The key secret to finding more and better job opportunities -- and not just while you’re out of a job, either!  But that’s a whole other blog article!

Possible stumbling blocks:   when your target turns the tables on you and asks about your job, only you’re unemployed.  Is the jig up?  Will they, realizing your true job-seeking intent, scurry off to the powder room, leaving you embarrassed and ashamed?

NO!  You can handle this!  Be honest and deftly sidestep it or rejig it into something more upbeat.  You could say you’re looking at making a career change or you’re taking some time off to research your options – hence your interest in his/her work.  Or you can distract with some volunteer activities you may be doing and find a way to turn the conversation around to skills you are using or want to use more!  This is a great opportunity to throw the questions back at them and ask their advice about how they took what they’re doing and shifted into something else? 

If you’re currently seeking a career change or readjustment, you can definitely tell them what you are looking for (again, keep it brief – this is where a 60 Second Sell that you’ve prepared ahead of time – and which you can adjust on the spot, if possible, for relevance to your new contact’s organization -- comes in handy).

In case you are planning to meet them again -- as you should be at this point, otherwise why are you still talking to them?  -- never say you’re working if you’re not.  It will likely come out at some point, or they may check up on your LinkedIn profile and see you were fibbing, then they may question your honesty.  But it’s not lying, even if you are up to your armpits in job searching, to say you’re taking some time to explore some new career options and find a really great fit for yourself. 

Everyone can identify with that.  I know, I hear it every day and more often than not from people who are currently working!

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