I can’t be an introvert all the time, and when it comes to doing my job, I’m surprisingly sociable. This is important because talking to people is how you build the relationships that help your scope of knowledge grow. And yes, your network can help you with your career, too.
One reason networking gets a bad rap (and I was very anti-networking well into my 20s) is that it can feel artificial or unearned: “Oh, you got that job because you know Mr. So-and-So.” Well, yeah, maybe, but it’s not (entirely) like that.
How I go about networking
You’re under no obligation to do things this way, but perhaps it will help you to think better and differently about making networking work for you.
My primary motivation for building a network is to obtain the knowledge I need to do my job, which is to write products for my customer. That means politely asking around to find out who knows what. Sometimes that person is a front-line employee, sometimes the only person with the information is in the corner office of the administration floor and I have to make an appointment for five minutes of their time. A key to functioning, especially in a large organization or industry is not to know everything–though that can happen over time–but to know who does know everything about a particular topic.
Speaking of politeness, regardless of the situation, I make sure to introduce myself in a pleasant manner, explain what I need to know and why, obtain and clarify the answer, and then thank the person providing me the information. If they call or email me, I make sure I respond in a timely manner. I don’t just do this when I want something, but every time. These moments of politeness matter because I expect to work with these individuals again. Pleasantness and follow-through have helped me through occasional situations where I “drop the ball.” Other people are more likely to be forgiving if they believe I’ll recover a situation diligently.
Helping others make connections is another important part of my networking process. It’s not just a matter of reaching out to people who have information I need, but sometimes putting those people in touch with each other. Say I know someone who’s really smart about “citizen science.” I remember that information when I meet someone else who’s looking for volunteers to help collect data for a science or engineering project. I don’t go out in search of citizen science projects, necessarily, but what I will do is introduce person A to person B if I think that person B knows something that person A needs: “Oh, you need volunteer data collectors? You should talk with Darlene.” Et cetera.
If there’s a recurring theme to my networking, it’s this: I work with my network to solve problems. I try to learn who knows what and what their interests are so I can call upon those abilities and interests when the time comes. (I can hear a little voice in my head protesting, “You’re just using people!” To which I would politely respond, “I suppose so, but in a work situation, others are welcome to ‘use’ my knowledge and abilities, too.”) Going back to the politeness and follow-up thing, if you’re diligent about those practices, you find that people are more willing to work with you when you ask for help or a favor.
Notice that up to now I haven’t said one thing about using connections to get a job. That comes later, after I’ve demonstrated diligence, politeness, connecting network members to each other, and mutual problem solving.
Personally, I don’t enjoy asking for money or a job on my own behalf. However, I am not shy about asking for work. People aren’t stupid–they know if you’re looking for work it’s because you need the pay–but it’s sometimes more socially acceptable to ask for and focus on the work. I am passionate about the space business, which is where I earn the bulk of my income. If I start talking about the work, I’ll immediately start diving into the details of what’s involved: do you need a report? Who’s the audience? What’s your preferred outcome? How long do you expect it to be? Do you have a graphic designer? These questions help demonstrate that I know what I’m doing and that I’m interested in solving the individual’s problem. Sometimes a person I’m talking to is looking for a skill that, quite frankly, I don’t have. In that case, I refer them to a peer or company that I know has those skills. Again–the network helps. If they want to hire me, the money discussion can come after that.
Really, networking can be done on autopilot if you don’t think of it as work or a chore. You might even have been doing this type of networking without knowing it. Instead, it’s a matter of being nice to people and being a good worker. That way, in the event someone you know really can help you find work, your reputation will speak for itself.