Networking: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

We’ve all known people who seem to glide from job to job. Unlike those who pound the pavement, they effortlessly ease into new positions, prompting envy among their friends. What’s their secret? These professionals typically have one thing in common: They’re good at networking.

Networking often conjures up images of overly zealous extroverts handing out dozens of business cards. Yet savvy self-promoters know that making contacts isn’t a numbers game but a matter of forging long-term relationships. By building a loyal and supportive cadre of contacts, they’re able to get the inside scoop on job leads and obtain referrals that help them make smooth transitions throughout their careers.

Networking: the Good
The good news about networking is you don’t have to be a highly social animal to be successful in your efforts. But you do have to follow through once a new acquaintance is made and keep in touch with old contacts. Staying connected can be as simple as sending a letter or a news article of interest, or congratulating someone on a professional achievement. E-mail is acceptable, but don’t overlook the value of a simple hand written note (particularly one on the striking letterhead you’ve designed). Here are some additional ideas:
• Contact former clients to find out the end results of your projects.
• Send holiday greetings.
• Invite your contacts to attend industry networking functions with you.
• Stage your own networking event by inviting colleagues to a happy hour gathering.
• Arrange informational interviews for unemployed contacts.
• Take photos at industry events and e-mail them to your new acquaintances.
• Send an e-newsletter with information on your latest projects.

Many people think they can’t form a strong network because they don’t have enough contacts. However, nearly everyone has dozens of untapped acquaintances who can serve as the basis of a solid network. Former and present colleagues, clients, classmates, vendors, and professors are good prospects. Also, consider those outside your industry: Your family, neighbors, friends—even your dentist—can be valuable allies. Just be sure your non-creative acquaintances know and understand what you do. Show your contacts examples of your work, and explain your expertise in layman’s terms. Give them copies of your business card as well as work samples they can use to promote you.

Networking: the Bad and the Ugly
When networking is done well, it doesn’t feel awkward or aggressive. It’s simply people helping out other people, which comes naturally most of the time. But some professionals approach the task with a "what-can-my-contacts-do-for-me?" mindset, which leads to bad networking. Many of us have experienced this firsthand: the colleague who asks you for a recommendation and, once it’s given, ceases communication; the person who demands that you help find him a job, even though you only met last week; or the acquaintance who drops your name to others, not bothering to check with you first. These types of networking faux pas quickly damage relationships. And, while calling on someone only when you need a favor is a fairly obvious "no-no," there are more subtle gaffes that can impede your efforts:

• The mass e-mail. It’s increasingly common for people to send a generic e-mail to numerous acquaintances asking for help. While not all people will be offended by this, some will be annoyed at having their e-mail address distributed to a large group of people. Others will be put off by the impersonal nature of the communication. In general, it’s best to request assistance on a one-on-one basis. If you do send a mass e-mail, be sure to blind copy all recipients.

• The non-informational interview. An informational interview is a smart way for job seekers to make new contacts and learn more about a particular industry or agency. But when scheduling these appointments, keep in mind that this is not a job interview and shouldn’t be treated as one. The onus is on you to solicit information and keep the conversation going. Come prepared with a list of thoughtful questions (other than "Can I have a job?") and don’t take up more time than you originally agreed upon.

• The silent treatment. Always write a thank-you note to your contacts when they offer assistance, regardless of the outcome. If someone is particularly helpful, take that person to lunch or give a small gift to show your appreciation.

While overly aggressive networking can get you into trouble, some people have the opposite problem: They’re reluctant to tap their contacts when they need help. They may be embarrassed to admit they could use assistance or worry about inconveniencing others. In these situations, the best course of action is to swallow your pride and let your professional pals know your needs. While you don’t want to come across as demanding, you shouldn’t beat around the bush, either. If, for example, you’re looking for job leads, talk to your acquaintances about the positions that interest you, and what they can specifically do to help. Also, provide your contacts the tools they need to assist you, such as an updated copy of your resume and a mini-portfolio. The more explicit you are, the easier it will be for them to come through.

Creating a Routine
Networking must be consistent to be effective. If you’re the type of person who easily falls out of touch with acquaintances, you need to incorporate outreach activities into your schedule. Block out one hour each week for corresponding with your contacts, and become involved with at least one professional organization. Try out various networking situations—tradeshows, business lunches, industry seminars—and focus on the opportunities that make you the most comfortable. Finding the right activities and engaging in them consistently will make networking a lot less painful and perhaps even entertaining.

Networking isn’t easy for everyone, but the more you do it, the more adept you become. By building and reinforcing professional relationships, you may become that person who—to the outside eye—happens upon one opportunity after another. Only you will know the hard work behind your success.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.