Networking strategies can help you overcome the fear of trying to advance your career

I’ve written about the power of personal networks before. Unfortunately, lots of people find networking intimidating for a variety of reasons. Certainly, I used to! For me, breaking networking down into a system that I can follow helps me overcome nervousness and network effectively. Here are the two main networking strategies that I use.

Networking via “keeping it warm”

What it is: Keeping it warm is a pretty straightforward strategy. It means that you don’t wait until you need something before getting in touch with your professional connections.

I try to meet my grad school friends in the area every so often for lunch or a quick drink. I ask questions about their careers and lives and tell them about mine. If I hear about an opportunity that they’d be perfect for, I am proactive about letting them know.

Challenges with keeping it warm: This strategy assumes that you have the time, energy/health, at least a little bit of discretionary money, skills you are interested to market, and connections other people would find interesting. However, there are ways to get around these challenges. Setting calendar reminders can ensure people don’t drop off your radar. If you’re busy or sick or can’t afford lunch right now, an email may work just as well. This GRS article on job search advice even gives you some email scripts!

Why it works: Putting effort into keeping up with someone’s life and career, even when everything’s going great for you, has a couple of advantages. First, it means that they don’t view you as self-centered. Second, it means that their image of you is of someone competent and in control of their life. This prevents you from being the person who only contacts them when you need help. Regular contact also keeps you on the forefront of their mind if they hear of an opportunity that you’d be perfect for. Additionally, if you can help them first, they will be invested in returning the favor.

Who it works on: The main target for the keeping-it-warm strategy is former colleagues or even supervisors that you were friendly with. These are people who are familiar with your skill set. It’s like my friend said:

I already know you’re an excellent writer, so I don’t have to interview you. I just have to show you the nuts and bolts, and you’ll pick it up fast.

A significant percentage of jobs are either never advertised in the first place or are advertised but the company already has someone in mind for the position. That’s evidence of people out there keeping it warm.

My results: While the freelance work that my friend set me up with did peter out eventually, I earned almost $5,000 before that happened. I’d call that a success! And I’ve been able to send some work his way as well.

Traditional networking via group memberships and websites

What it is: This is what people usually think of when they think of networking. While you may have something in common with these individuals, they’re probably not anyone that you ever worked with directly. This may include people that you know socially but not professionally, or individuals you’ve never met but have something in common with as a result of your group membership (an example might be a college alum club or a professional conference).

Challenges with networking groups and websites: The issue with these sorts of groups is twofold. First, it’s easy to join (or be part of) a group, only to fail to put in the work (whether due to introversion, lack of time, or other factors) and then wonder why it’s not paying off. Second, even if you are putting in the work, it is challenging to come across as genuine when the whole point of the group is to (awkwardly) put people who (allegedly) have something (superficial) in common in the same space, whether physical or virtual.

Why it works: One of the reasons that this strategy can work is that everyone’s on the same page: If someone contacts you and references the group, then you don’t have to wonder what their motive is. Additionally, many people in these groups are ready and willing to help, but due to introversion, lack of time, or other factors, don’t end up reaching out themselves. They may be relieved if you take the initiative! Bonus points if you are friendly and attempt to make a personal connection so the exchange doesn’t feel clinical or self-serving.

Who it works on: People who are members of the group or website, natch. This approach does require a little more work in terms of demonstrating your fit, since the person doesn’t necessarily know who you are. Once a connection has been made, it’s important that you keep it warm. In other words, you want to think about making long-term connections. Since 9-to-5 jobs may be getting harder to come by, these types of connections may become increasingly important.

My results: In 2009, I joined the networking site LinkedIn and connected to everyone in my address book who also had an account. Within weeks, an alumna from my sorority who lived on the opposite side of the country had passed my name along to an editor who hired me to design an online writing course. At the time, my day job was furloughing workers due to the economic meltdown, and I made enough money with that one freelance gig to replace 10 percent of the salary that I’d lost.

More recently, I attended my local sorority alum club’s annual membership brunch. I ended up talking with a woman who used to work in a position very similar to mine before leaving to start her own business in a related industry. I made sure to get her contact information and sent a follow-up email. She’s already responded and we’re setting up a lunch. I’m looking forward to picking her brain about our mutual interests and sharing what I know in return!

Networking can be intimidating — but it doesn’t have to be

I really didn’t feel comfortable networking at first. But I found that, the more I practiced, the less intimidating it became. It didn’t take too long for me to build confidence and overcome my fear. Recently, by engaging in “pre-emptive networking,” I am starting to make connections before I need them. That way by the time I find myself in need, the groundwork has already been laid and all I will need to do is to reach out and ask for help.

Do you network regularly? What strategies did you find to be successful? Did you ever have reservations about networking, and were you able to overcome them? If so, how?

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