Few careers go as planned in your head. The career path is not always smooth and can be full of bumps in the road and unexpected twists and turns. Also, opportunity comes from places you may not expect so your objective should be to expose yourself to it as best you can, without risking your integrity.
Charlie Henneman, head of educational events and programs at CFA Institute, has worked for seven employers since graduating from college in 1987 and shared his lessons learned with City AM, relevant for today’s aspiring job seekers.
Here are six ways he suggests boosting your career through networking:
- If you do nothing, expect nothing to happen
In his experience, relationships and timing are at least as important as a quality CV when entering a competitive job market. For this reason, networking is an essential component of a successful career strategy. Yet many people find it difficult to approach strangers and initiate the conversations necessary to advance their careers. Henneman says his early job searches took place before email and the internet, and he dreaded calling people to follow up on letters he’d sent.
But when he challenged myself, he found that he could survive a phone call. They got a little easier each time, and occasionally put him in contact with wonderful people who were willing to help and encourage him. Sometimes, for whatever reason, he couldn’t bring himself to pick up the phone and follow up. In those instances, nothing happened at all.
Through that experience, he learned that active networking was more than just getting his CV into someone’s hands. It could be the very process by which he overcame his anxiety and prepared himself for a professional life meeting and working with new people.
- Everything counts as networking!
Through accidents of birth, some are just better connected than others. But we’re all just people, and ultimately, we’re all networked if we can find the right connections. If you have professional ambitions, use what you have and get started building connections. Talk to anyone you can who has any connection with the profession or career you are interested in, no matter how tenuous. While you’re at it, talk to anyone else you can about your job search. Give yourself a chance to luck into one of those word-of-mouth situations by letting people know you’re in the market.
Begin with the people you know in your life — professors, relatives, your parent’s friends, and your friends’ parents. Talk to them about what you want to do and hope to achieve. Learn about what they do and ask their advice. Do they know people who might be willing to talk to you, and can they make an introduction or allow you to use their name in approaching contacts directly? Provided you approach acquaintances with courtesy and were not too much of a lout in your youth, most will be flattered to be contacted and will give you referrals if they can.
- Dead ends are part of the game. Recognise them and move along graciously
If you’re talking to a lot of people on your networking journey, many will inevitably be dead ends as far as your job search is concerned. Some new connections will seem promising, but the timing won’t be right. Other contacts will just be wrong.
During his early job search, Henneman says he visited the owner of a dog kennel where he’d worked during the summer after high school. In addition to running his business, his old boss was an active trader who told him that he had contacts at several Wall Street firms and would be happy to make introductions. Furthermore, he was confident he could help him get a job.
He couldn’t believe his good fortune, until he added that, if he helped get him to a job, he expected him to provide inside information in return. It took Henneman a few moments to realise he was not joking, at which point he said, “no thank you,” and took his leave with great disappointment. If you have a similar experience, consider it a networking dead end and move along. No job is worth risking your professional integrity.
- Networking is a two-way street
Successful professionals must carefully guard their time. If someone agrees to meet or speak with you, there must be a reason. Perhaps you have found a genuinely nice person who wants what’s best for you and is willing to sacrifice on your behalf for the satisfaction of seeing you rise. Or perhaps you were referred by someone they wish to do a favour for. Either way, you stand to benefit from the meeting, and a skilled networker will try to see to it that the benefit is mutual.
If someone made a referral to help you get the meeting, make sure you tell them the meeting occurred. This will both acknowledge their assistance to you and ensure that word of the granted favour is properly communicated back to them. When you land the next job, report back to everyone who assisted you and allow them the satisfaction of sharing in your success.
Networking is a two-way street, and if everyone gets something from the networking transaction, the relationship is solidified and might be called upon in the future. If you leave someone’s office and are never heard from again, you are in effect closing the door on a potential relationship you worked hard to establish.
- Your CV looks a lot better with the CEO’s sticky note on it
Consider the motivations of the people working in the organisation you are trying to penetrate; they are also likely ambitious and would like to be noticed and valued by senior people in their firms. The reality is that if your CV comes down to HR from senior executives, it will likely get special treatment. In most cases, this will constitute an extra-courteous rejection letter on finer paper than you might ordinarily expect. But sometimes, extraordinary things happen.
- Your job may be your best networking opportunity, or your worst
As you advance in your career, relationships become ever more important. If you treat people well and build a reputation of professionalism, competence, and trust, your network of potential references will inevitably grow.
Henneman described his five-year stint at Standard & Poor’s remains one of the most valuable networking experiences of his life — not because he was consciously networking, but because he was able to build strong relationships with talented analysts who were later recruited to work at firms all over Wall Street. Work relationships, like any other, require dedication and integrity to cultivate, but if you think about your colleagues as future references or even future employers, you’ll realise that your best opportunity to demonstrate your abilities is when you’re working with them. When you prove your value in an intense work environment, that’s something people remember for a long time.
If you take away one thing from these six networking lessons, it is that, while luck often plays a role, successful careers usually boil down to complex human relationships, which in turn require varying degrees of etiquette, effort, respect, and trust to cultivate and maintain.
And if you can get the company’s president to put a sticky note on your CV, then all the better.