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Networking: An Effective Tool in a Job-Search Arsenal

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Many people believe networking was just a fad, well on its way to becoming a cliché. Even some job seekers complain that networking successfully can become intensely frustrating, while potential employers occasionally label it a devious, much-abused pretext for outflanking their defenses and hitting them up for a job.

However, surveys and studies have revealed that whatever networking is, it works. Despite being abused, maligned or misunderstood, networking has proven to be the most productive technique for getting job market exposure, unearthing opportunities and landing employment. Year in and year out, about 60 percent of all positions are filled as a consequence of an informal, interpersonal contact, according to national surveys by such groups as the Association of Outplacement Consulting Firms and the American Management Association.

What really is the truth? Actually, both sides are right. When carried out in a structured, systematic way, networking is a super effective method of getting job market exposure and gathering useful information. On the other hand, there's no denying these facts:
  1. The information gathered by networking is informal, anecdotal, potentially biased and frequently distorted or incomplete.

  2. The world of gossip is completely disorganized and unpredictable. Months of networking activity may produce little useful information; then a snatch of conversation overheard at an airport may lead directly to the job of a lifetime.
The fundamental principle behind successful networking is familiar: What goes around comes around. The corollary states that a lot of going around may happen before anything comes around. Even more frustrating is the fact that no advance notice tells when job leads are going to come around. A meeting that seemed a total waste of time in August may produce an excited phone call in November: "I just heard of an opportunity that immediately made me think of you.

Job-applicants reading this will certainly not end up thinking that networking is enjoyable. All those who find networking a lot of fun and a real mind-expander should expect the scorn optimists always encounter. Even skilled networkers often find the process stressful. And networking certainly isn't a science, or even an innovative approach to the age-old task of finding meaningful employment.

Networking is about human nature in action, and we all know that human nature is subjective, irrational and frequently unfair. In other words, it's a long way from the rationality and objectivity of science. There's no claim of discovery here; we're talking about an approach to securing employment that existed long before anyone chose to make a pop phenomenon out of it by hanging the "networking" label around its neck. People have been banging on their relatives, friends and acquaintances for help in finding work for centuries.

Networking needn't be made into more than it is. We can laugh at its excesses, twist it, fold it or make a funny party hat out of it; it will still outstrip any other job search technique. There's nothing magic about the word networking. If a little irreverence will make you feel more comfortable, frame the word in oral "quotation marks" whenever you utter it: "Joe? This is Doug. I wonder if we might arrange to get together for one of these 'networking' meetings." If the conversation is face-to-face, you can add little quotation-mark gestures in the air with your hands. Try it; it drives the phobia away.

Every job seeker needs to network. Following the ideas and techniques described herein will work equally well for developing "information power" once they land their new job. In fact, everyone at every level in the working world, whether looking for work or not and whether realizing it or not, is constantly networking as a way of staying on top of things and creating useful connections.

Anyone running a "conventional" job search—that is, looking for a job that's a logical extension of a prior career will find that networking can help him achieve his goal.

A variety of techniques can be used in addition to networking: answering ads, trying to catch the attention of recruiters and headhunters, and trying to make "direct contact" with potential employers, usually by sending a cover letter with a resume attached. However, most pie charts depicting the relative effectiveness of job search techniques say that ads fill no more than about 20 percent of all openings. Recruiters, headhunters and other "broker" types probably fill half that amount, and no more than 5 percent are filled via mass mailings, "targeted letters" and other forms of direct contact.

About two-thirds of all "conventional" jobs get filled, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, in "informal" ways—through gossip, word-of-mouth, relatives, friends, acquaintances and behind-the-scenes favors. The methods that people use to tap into this wellspring of information and create job market exposure for themselves are not new. In recent years, the word networking has come into fashion to describe them.

For anyone making a major change in career direction or emphasis, the ability to build and draw on informal interpersonal networks is absolutely essential. None of the other conventional job search techniques—ads, headhunters or direct contact—works very well for career changers. Ads slot conventionally credentialed people into conventionally defined roles; career changers represent a risk most employers are hesitant to take. This is doubly true with headhunters, who collect large fees to reduce employers' hiring risks. Headhunters don't take chances on untried, untested possibilities. They avoid career changers like the plague.

Direct contact doesn't work much better for career changers than for anyone else. The inescapable conclusion is that networking is the only job search technique that works for people who are making a major shift in job role or setting.

Networking ability is crucial for consultants starting new practices, entrepreneurs looking for financial angels, for anyone marketing ideas, programs or concepts. For anyone operating in the political arena, lobbying is no more than licensed networking, and for anyone in a setting where whom you know is as important as what you know.

Are you one of those people who think that cultivating "connections" is somehow illicit or sleazy, that all of life's activities should be conducted on pure merit and that networking is a technique for creating privilege or unfair advantage? Are you uncomfortable about "trying to work the angles"? Networking isn't about angles; it's about creating access to opportunity. You can't win if you don't play, and you can't play if you don't know where the game is.

All those opposed to networking should understand that it is not about manipulation, deception or selling someone a false bill of goods. It is a building of sources in the most effective ways to build rapport and trust and to present an undistorted picture of your strengths and virtues. Done right, networking is fundamentally collaboration.

If you don't do it right, networking adds to the abusive practices that have made many potentially valuable contacts defensive and suspicious. In one's work life, finding a fit is more important than merely landing a job, and the informal aspects of interpersonal relationships frequently decide whether there is a fit. If a job seeker shades the truth and creates an unrealistic picture of himself as a "product" simply to attract job offers, two things will happen when he gets an offer and accepts the job:
  1. The employer will soon see that he didn't get what he bargained for, and that will make him mad.
  2. The employer will realize that the job seeker deliberately fudged the truth, and that will make him madder. His trust in his new employee will be permanently destroyed. No trust, no fit, and, before long, no job.

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