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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Jon
Jon
6 years ago

Like many other habits that make it easier for us to succeed, I think you will also find that networking by “keeping it warm” will put you in a very exclusive group of people – those who actually take the time and effort to keep their valuable relationships warm. In my experience, the vast majority of people do not do this, despite the amazing array of tools which we have at our disposal today, via the internet. I worked hard over the years to keep key relationships “warm” back in the decades when the only tools we had available were… Read more »

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
6 years ago
Reply to  Jon

You can “keep it warm” with family, as well — depending on how big your family is or how spread out you are, keeping in touch via Facebook or other methods between family gatherings is great!

Alix
Alix
6 years ago

Glad I’m not the only person who doesn’t like to network!

Beth
Beth
6 years ago

I don’t think people are necessarily afraid of advancing their career. If you’re currently working and juggling a family, you might just be trying to keep your head above water and not thinking about a side gig or promotion or even networking events that take you away from family or work time. I find it easier to think of networking as a type community-building rather than “what’s in it for me?” Someone once told me that some people are more comfortable networking when they look at how they can help others rather than seeing themselves as asking for favours. For… Read more »

sarah
sarah
6 years ago

I don’t know about others, but I’m not afraid of networking, I just find it boring and sort of distasteful. Having watched others I’m also pretty skeptical of its results.

Honey Smith
Honey Smith
6 years ago
Reply to  sarah

I used to feel that way about networking until I developed some strategies that worked for me. I think it’s all about finding an approach that you’re comfortable with, since if you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to be able to put other people at ease, either.

Dee
Dee
6 years ago

I participated in a webinar with Dorie Clark (google her as author for some great articles in HBR and an excellent book on branding, for those seriously interested in growing a career) where she talked about taking someone to lunch once/week in order to stay fresh & learn from others. That idea really resonated with me, so I’ve been doing it for several months now. It doesn’t feel like traditional “networking,” even though it is. It feels like a little bit of a treat–I don’t usually eat out for lunch–and an opportunity to either reconnect with old colleagues or get… Read more »

Aldo@MDN
6 years ago

These are great strategies. I’m not the best at networking, but realize the importance of it. I’m going to try to incorporate some of these tips into my life.

Vanessa
Vanessa
6 years ago

I’ve moved around a lot which makes it hard to keep a network. Or if I’m not moving away, they are.

Carla
Carla
6 years ago

I think it depends on how you’re “networking”. I’ve met some of my best contacts in non-formal settings. Started from when I was still living in the Bay Area and now in Portland, I’ve been a member of several Meetup groups that were not business related. These were culinary and wine groups, activity groups, book clubs, etc. The people I’ve inadvertently met have been more helpful in terms of ideas and contacts then going to an event where I’m focused on a particular result. Yes, its hit or miss but I have gotten more results just being around people without… Read more »

Ben Luthi
Ben Luthi
6 years ago

I find what networking has become today deplorable. It unnaturally shifts the focus from those who can provide solid value toward those who can schmooze the best.

But I do like your idea of keeping it warm and using opportunities to actually keep relationships rather than just throwing an elevator pitch and dropping your card.

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
6 years ago

Enjoyable, well-written post. In my gut, I know the importance of networking — like I know the importance of a lot of things, like exercise, maintaining physical/emotional intimacy with my spouse, making regular doctor appointments and cultivating multiple streams of income. However, I heard on an Eventual Millionaire podcast that people have a hard time prioritizing something that is not urgent. The ominous pile of work on my desk is forever looming. The emotional roller coaster of dealing with ‘office politics’ and shifting professional expectations often leave me emotionally deflated by the weekend. The laundry is a necessity for me… Read more »

Marie
Marie
6 years ago

I’ve found it incredibly difficult to remain a member of official groups in my field after being downsized. The two main societies each have membership fees upwards of two hundred dollars per year, which was fine when a large corporation was paying for an entire department to belong. On my own, that’s just not possible.

Plus, when your field is doing poorly, the networking web is so glutted with desperate people that it turns into an overfilled lifeboat.

Matt Kruza
Matt Kruza
6 years ago

Good article. One strategy that I have started doing is when talking to some one for a few minutes I ask, “in a dream world, what is the one connection (person/business etc.) that you would like to be connected with”. Powerful stuff. Often I am not able to do so.. but this does a few things. 1. It shows them that I do care 2. Sometimes I am able to either give them ideas on how to get in touch with them and rarely I know that person or am one layer removed from them. Most people are just pretty… Read more »

Heather
Heather
6 years ago

My “keeping it warm” network is directly attributable to the new role at work I recently took. I found out about this role, through this network, when I wasn’t really looking.

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