On the Value of Networking

It's hard to believe, but Kris and I graduated from Willamette University nearly twenty years ago. We enjoyed our time in college, and remain close to many of our classmates. It's always fun when we get a chance to drive to Salem to re-visit the campus. We did just that tonight.

The university hosted a “You're Doing What With Your Major?” alumni career panel to connect current students with former Bearcats who are now working professionals. Kris — who is a chemist — took part in the science panel, and I sat in on the marketing and communications group.

Kris and J.D. at graduation in 1991

 

You're doing what with your major?
This event was meant to show students that a college major doesn't have to dictate your career. There are no degrees in blogging, for example (at least not yet, anyhow); I was a psychology major with a minor in writing. My classmate Marcia is now an education and political consultant; she majored in English and French. One of the other panelists runs a web marketing firm; he majored in religious studies.

As each panelist told her story, I was struck by the role internships played for so many of them. When I was in school, I knew people did internships, but I never understood why. They just seemed like more work. Listening to my colleagues tonight, however, it all made sense. By volunteering for an unpaid internship, these folks developed skills and connections that helped them build amazing careers. Why didn't I understand this 25 years ago?

Near the end of the evening, one student asked a great question: “What do you wish you'd done differently when you were in school?” I had an answer.

“I wish I'd paid more attention to networking,” I said. “Everyone here did a good job of making connections with faculty or through internships. I didn't do that. I didn't bother to get to know people. I didn't think it was important. Now, though, I think it's very important. I've connected with a lot of people since I started my blog, and that's allowed my opportunities and audience to really expand. Networking has a bad rep, but it can be tremendously effective.

I was pleased that my fellow panelists added their support, offering examples of how networking has helped them further their careers.

A few minutes later, another student asked a follow-up question. “How do you feel about students e-mailing you to make contact or ask questions. Do too many people do that?”

Nobody does that,” the woman next to me said, and again we all agreed. “If you're the one who tries to make a connection, that helps you stand out from the crowd. I'd bend over backward to help somebody if they contacted me. And if I couldn't help them, I'd try to find someone who could.”

Perfect examples
After the panel was finished, students had a chance to speak with alumni one-on-one. Most of the students left, but a few stuck around to pick our brains. I spent a while talking with Steven, one of the managers of Willamette's student-run cafe, The Bistro. Steven is a senior now and trying to decide what he wants to do with his life. He thinks he might want to start a restaurant near campus.

“There's no place in Salem that's open late,” Steven told me. “I think there needs to be a place for students and other people to go.” He described his vision and asked if I had any advice. I did.

“First, you need to realize that it's very difficult to make a restaurant succeed. But don't let that stop you. Just be aware of it. Next, one of the best things you can do is talk to others who have done similar things before you. In your case, for example, you should talk to the fellow who started The Bistro in 1986.”

“I just met him a few weeks ago!” Steven said.

“That's great,” I said. “You should use that connection. Drop him a line and ask if he's willing to talk with you about what it's like to start a restaurant or to start a business. And try to find others who have done this, too.”

Kris and I left about half an hour after the career panel had ended. As we did, I noticed there were still two people sitting at one of the tables: an investment manager and a young man taking notes. I smiled to myself and thought, “There's a kid who will go places.”

Missed opportunities
On the drive home, Kris and I talked about the panel. I told her I regretted not being more active in creating my own future when I was younger.

“I remember the summer after our senior year,” I said. “I was working on campus, right? Well, an incoming freshman came around with his parents. He went off someplace with his mother, and I spent about twenty minutes talking with his father. He owned a big business in Portland. I told him how I didn't have a job lined up, and I didn't know what I was going to do in the fall. When it came time for him to go, this guy handed me his business card and told me to call him. He'd set me up. But you know what? I never called him.”

Instead, I ended up working at the worst job I ever had, selling insurance door-to-door in rural Oregon. I sighed. “That's like the one time I had a chance to use networking to my advantage, but I was too dumb to do it.”

“You never were a go-getter back then,” Kris said. “You are now, but that's only because you had to learn to be one to build your blog.”

Five years ago, I scoffed at the idea of networking. I thought it was the domain of smooth-talking hucksters. I know different now. Networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships, about creating connections that help both parties pursue their goals.

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Derek
Derek
9 years ago

I don’t think there are too many people working in a field that relates to their degree these days. I know I’m not. I would like to, but this economy has made it pretty rough.

I currently work in merchandising, so I am attempting to use my Finance degree on my newly created website!

The latest article: “Could a Homeless Man Have a Higher Net Worth than you?”

http://www.lifeandmyfinances.com

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Neat. Great post, good point. Networking is very important. Lots of people end up working at things unrelated to their college majors.

And don’t get too hung up on sunk costs. You’re doing great now and you’ve learned a lot.

Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin
9 years ago

It’s too bad so many people think of networking as a “dirty” game of favor exchanges. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen how important this is. Jobs you get in the future won’t be based on an interview or a resume you submitted to Monster.com. It’ll be because someone you once worked with/knows you vouched for you.

And that goes a LONG way.

Mike Piper
Mike Piper
9 years ago

Love this post. I have only one thing to add: Make sure that your first contact with somebody isn’t to ask them for a favor. It happens all the time for bloggers–people email us out of the blue to ask for favors. All those emails get routed directly to the spam folder. In contrast, if somebody links to you from their own blog and/or comments on a couple blog posts (both very easy things to do), then emails to ask for a favor, the response is completely different. Same thing goes for offline interactions. It’s fine to ask for help,… Read more »

leslie
leslie
9 years ago

I was terrified of networking when I was younger (you and I are the same age). The whole idea just seemed so salesman-like and I thought that was a skill that I just didn’t have and was too afraid to develop. I was the kid who couldn’t sell Girl Scout cookies! How was I going to network. However, I have learned as I have gotten older that all networking is really is talking to people. I have had opportunities come out of the most unexpected relationships and conversations. It has been one of the most surprising aspects of my career… Read more »

Kristia@Family Balance Sheet
[email protected] Balance Sheet
9 years ago

This is a timely post for me and I have been thinking a lot about networking and how it relates to blogging. I have a tiny little blog that I am proud of and enjoy and I am realizing that to take it to the next level, I need to be better at networking, reaching out to people and making connections.

dotCOMreport
dotCOMreport
9 years ago

This is a great post and one that came from somewhere inside you. You are so right, networking IS about building meaningful relationships – mutually beneficial relationships. It is not about taking advantage of the other person or letting another take advantage of you. Most people do find it difficult to network because they are afraid of seeming pushy or too forward but I think the important thing to keep in mind is that you have something to offer. If you remember that you have something to offer, you will be less intimidated when it comes to networking. Thanks for… Read more »

Sylvia
Sylvia
9 years ago

Networking is intimindating because you have to put yourself out there, just like when you’re at a party and the only person you know is the birthday girl. How do you put yourself out there without looking like some loser. I tend to try and put on a strong face, and I stand by myself hoping that people will come to me (theory being, since I’m alone I’m less intimidating). I did this on Tuesday at chat on Winter cycling. I saw several people I had met briefly in the past and I still couldn’t pluck up the courage to… Read more »

Annemarie
Annemarie
9 years ago

My network has kept me employed, even though I have some significant (and visible) physical limitations. A stranger would see a chronically ill middle-aged woman with a major resume gap due to caring for sick family members. Who would hire this person in this economy?

But my network knows me, knows what I can do, and was willing to take a chance. Networking is vital.

Dink
Dink
9 years ago

I majored in English but I work in IT. How’d I get into the field? A long and healthy interest in computers and contacts/networking. Now granted, I don’t want to stay in this field forever but it’s affording me a pretty great life right now as I build toward my own business ideas, especially important during a recession. And really, it’s the greatest job I’ve had so far. My very first job was in advertising and I got that through my good friend’s dad — networking! He liked me a lot and gave me a shot straight out of college.… Read more »

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

I have a few tips that may be helpful: 1) Know the industry. I’m really surprised to hear that JD’s crowd never gets emails asking for info, etc. I get them all the time, and so do my colleagues. When it’s a busy season for application, I will get 10-15 emails PER DAY. When it gets to that point, I just put together a friendly form email and respond. I don’t say this to discourage you, I say it because it’s true and it should encourage you to know the industry you’re trying to break into. Email people long before… Read more »

Cynthia
Cynthia
9 years ago

What a great article. I’m like you. I never have done much networking. I’m trying to now using LinkedIn, Facebook, my blog(s) and other tools to help me change my future.

getagrip
getagrip
9 years ago

Networking isn’t just talking to people. It’s more about listening to people. Shooting off another, barely related question, before I’ve finished answering the first one, isn’t networking, its data mining. Being polite with a forced smile for twenty seconds as I answer a lead in question and then asking for a favor isn’t networking. It’s requesting a handout. If you’re going to actually ask for advice, you owe it to yourself to actually listen to what the speaker is providing whether you agree with it or not. When you actually listen, rather than trying to inject your own opinion over… Read more »

cassy
cassy
9 years ago

You reemphasized importance of networking. One doesn’t have to be a salesman-like to get contacts but has to be a better conversationalist. These days just being smart and hard working is not good enough. You have to know and maintain your contacts.

Rob Ward
Rob Ward
9 years ago

Thanks for this post J.D. Being an introvert I’ve always struggled with making connections or even being willing to email people. I’m always worried about “bothering” people. But I really need to take more advantage of it. Thankfully I’m still pretty young!

Katie Schulz
Katie Schulz
9 years ago

I am in the same place as Bob @14. I like people; I can talk to people, but just not in forced situations. I get really, really shy and awkward. Once I start down that shy road, it spirals. But if I can for myself to act confidently, I end up feeling confident and things go well.

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

I have always been a lot more comfortable with people my own age. It has been difficult for me to network with older and more experience people. Now I’m finally a bit more comfortable talking to older folks and there are a lot less opportunities to network. 🙁

Jessica
Jessica
9 years ago

This article couldn’t confirm more my own opinions on this, and how I’ve been thinking about the next few years of my life. I started college for the first time this semester, at age 29, having finally figured out something that I think I truly want to do. And while the degree at the end is a big goal, internships are almost more important to me. I’d like to work in TV or Radio production, and in those fields networking is definitely critical. A degree, in almost any area, will help me since I’ve reached that point where I can’t… Read more »

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates
9 years ago

As an employer, I can tell you that networking is the best way to find a new position, change careers or find a mentor. Most of the people I hire have come to me either through networking or a referral from a trusted source. It is never too early or too late to network. Just think of it as getting to know people and have fun with it.

I recently posted an article on networking from an employer’s perspective on my blog. Here is the link:

http://waynemates.com/2010/09/recruiting-the-best-people-part-1/

Kevin M
Kevin M
9 years ago

I was a mirror image of you in college JD, and even after graduation when I started my career. I realize now at 35 that my options would be wide open had I even put minimal effort into networking. Instead I just put my head down and did my job, not wanting to bother anybody. Now I realize I should have been asking questions about the other person then shut up and listen. Trying to build my client list now is almost like starting over in a sense.

EDIT – Great pic, BTW.

Leah
Leah
9 years ago

I’m about 5 years out of one college working at a job not in my field of study and going back to school for another (without taking loans out this time).
About how long did it take you after graduation to be debt free?
-Leah

Lindsay
Lindsay
9 years ago

For me it depends on whether I actually know someone. If someone, like a student I know from school, contacts me, I will help them. If some stranger contacts me, I will not help them. I’m too busy and they’re too presumptuous.

Erika
Erika
9 years ago

I totally identify and was the same way. I was more “proud” – I thought networking was asking for favors & wanted to do things on my own.

I also see things differently now. Re: regretting it, I hope you can see that it’s a normal young/kid thing to eschew networking, or anything else that people tell you to do!

One thing I learned by accident is that asking questions of mentors is one of the best ways to network. I made some great contacts by asking for help.

Megan
Megan
9 years ago

One new thing available now is networking through Facebook, Linkedin, etc – with these options, there is NO excuse to not form a network. My mother always told me (apart from knowing my finances!) that without a network, I wouldn’t get as far in life and with that philosophy, I’ve always tried to keep people in the back of my head. Case in point, when I wanted to go back to grad school, I had tons of references available right away, even from people I hadn’t actually SEEN in years but they remembered me and were happy to help out.… Read more »

Lincoln
Lincoln
9 years ago

I agree with the post, but I think the pendulum has started to swing in the other direction with an over-emphasis on networking. People often forget that relationships take work and maintenance — give and take.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

Networking sounds corny and a bit insincere – maybe that’s why a lot of people are turned off by it. Call it “meeting people and finding out what they do” and it isn’t so intimidating and doesn’t make you feel like you’re trying to be slick. One great way to network that has paid off for me multiple times is to ask for an “informational interview” with somebody who does something you’re interested in. When I first graduated with my master’s degree, I had several of these informal meetings where I’d go to meet somebody in a role & organization… Read more »

cerb
cerb
9 years ago

Great post about the importance of networking and looking outside your major for a career.

On a slightly unrelated note… When I was choosing which college to attend, many many years ago, I visited the campus of Willamette University. The first thing I noticed in the office was a big sign stating “It’s Willamette, damn it!” I’ve never mispronounced the name of the city since then 🙂

Gal @ Equally Happy
Gal @ Equally Happy
9 years ago

I hired an intern out of UC Berkley last summer for my day job. She was exceptional. Really smart, motivated and detail oriented. I got a kick ass employee for three months at a really cheap rate and she got a lot of experience and a ton of contacts. Win / Win for everyone. If you’re an employer, I highly recommend interns. They’re good temporary help and they can become excellent full time employees after they graduate. As for prospective interns, the best thing you’ll get out of an internship is the network. If you want to make the most… Read more »

Michael
Michael
9 years ago

Life is about relationships more than any other one thing. Networking is about building relationships and is the single most important thing you can do to be successful. I highly recommend Jeffrey Gitomer’s “Little Black Book of Connections”. One of my favorite quotes from Charlie Jones is “The only difference between where you are right now and where you’ll be next year at this time, is the people you meet and the books you read.” There is a lot of truth to this.

Shalom
Shalom
9 years ago

Great photo of baby JD & Kris! I also have always disliked the idea of networking, at least as it is stereotyped. And I stink at “putting myself out there;” my LinkedIn profile is so underused it must have spiderwebs and dust bunnies all over it. But I think that even if you’re not naturally gregarious and outgoing, you can form a network. It doesn’t have to be about who can hand out the most business cards the fastest. Every job I have had since school save one (and most of the ones I had during school) came from personal… Read more »

Carla
Carla
9 years ago

When I first started out in the working world, even as a non-professional admin, I was told to network. Of course in the late ’90’s and barely out of my teens, I had no clue why. I was still looking for jobs in the newspapers and mailing my resume to potential employers. Being an extremely shy introvert didn’t help my case. Now that jobs are no longer a dime a dozen as it was back then and my potential Portland admin salary doesn’t come close to high five figure Bay Area salary, I’m forced to reevaluate my options and network… Read more »

Timothy Johnson III
Timothy Johnson III
9 years ago

Hi JD, I loved your post! I think it really drives home the point that “networking” or “relationship building” is one of the best ways to develop and advance your career. A lot of people have a huge fear of networking and are afraid that people won’t or can’t help them in their career or job search. That is a misguided fear. The most important thing, when it comes to professional networking, is to Just Ask. Find someone whose doing what you’re doing. Then, Just Ask them to talk with for 30 minutes on the phone or treat them to… Read more »

Brianne
Brianne
9 years ago

I’m not a huge fan of networking, but just being a graduate of my university (USC) definitely helped me get two jobs, including the current one, because the owners went there too. I’m sure if I were looking for a job, I could network like crazy through the university and through my engineering sorority. And I had no idea you went to Willamette. My best friend’s dad is a chemistry professor there (Dr. Goodney) and I worked with a girl for many years that went there as well. I also had a student go check it out but he’s thinking… Read more »

Ely
Ely
9 years ago

Sooooooooo many jobs are about who you know. When I was a senior in college, I had an internship with a business owned by a friend of one of my professors. The friend gave me the names of some people in his industry in LA, where I was headed. I contacted those people and set up interviews, and flew out to meet them. When I returned in 3 months looking for an internship, the one I really wanted remembered me – and accepted me – because I’d sent a thank-you note. NO ONE does that. From that job I moved… Read more »

Scott Miller
Scott Miller
9 years ago

I agree with the writer’s closing point about the negative impression the idea of networking often evokes in young people. I also agree that becoming directly involved in professional networking can help people overcome this impression, and focus on how mutually beneficial these contacts become over time. I would personally take this one step further and advise young people that the trust you build through all of your relationships is the absolute most important asset any member of our society retains. If you haven’t written about this subject before, I highly suggest a post. 🙂

Katy
Katy
9 years ago

I can relate to this. I think I equate networking with being a salesperson and I am totally turned off by sales people. Colin Wright has a a great ebook on networking that made me rethink the concept. I always assumed I would look like I wanted something from someone if I tried to network, and I didn’t like that feeling. But Colin’s book explains how to network without any expectations, just build a larger network with no expectation of there being a return on investing in people. I really like the concept and am trying to put it into… Read more »

Sheila
Sheila
9 years ago

I really enjoyed this article because my daughter is in college right now. She hates it when I send her links to stuff, but I really hope she reads this. I wish blogs were around when I was in college, but few people had heard of computers then much less had one in their home. 🙂

Nick
Nick
9 years ago

that is some of the best advice I’ve heard to date! I’m talking about the networking advice…the earlier you can start to network the better off you will be. solid.

Mark
Mark
9 years ago

I agree with what JD has said in this post. The current job I’m in right now was obtained through networking. That said, I still have trouble making ‘first contact’. This is something I need to work on to broaden my horizons. Anyone have advice on making ‘first contact’?

Carrie
Carrie
9 years ago

This is a really thought-provoking post. My experience with volunteering and internships has been quite opposite: I did a lot of them, and they ended up marking me as someone whose time and experience was not valuable. I gave a lot of free time for over 8 years and ended up leaving that profession for a variety of reasons, one of which was that networking was working against me. It didn’t matter how good my experience was – I could not find a job that paid commensurately with my qualifications. Now that I’m in an adjacent career, networking is fabulous!… Read more »

Tammy
Tammy
9 years ago

Woohoo! I’m a Willamette grad, too 🙂

Sumit Sabharwal
Sumit Sabharwal
9 years ago

Great post!! I just graduated from Willamette with an MBA and hated the mention of the word “Networking” passionately!

But I decided to get out of my comfort zone and made myself attend as many networking events as possible and got my summer internship and job through contacts I had made and not through websites or recruiters!

margot
margot
9 years ago

Great post! 2 comments: For those who care about helping and mentoring youth, pay special attention to women, please. Lots of studies show that they tend to do worse at networking because they feel less entitled than men (on average) and other socialized dynamics. I wasn’t surprised that most of the men who followed through on networking after the panels were male. Second, to those of you in school, WORK and INTERN always. You always have time for it. I have worked since I was 12 years old, and I always had an internship or job through undergrad, my masters… Read more »

Briana @ GBR
Briana @ GBR
9 years ago

I don’t know if it’s a generation thing or what, but I swear for the past 6 years or so, ALL I’ve heard of is the benefits of networking. I’m in the double digits as far as internships, and things like LinkedIn of course help out (especially seeing who your connections are connected with). Like you said, a lot of work comes through referrals and networking. I think this is something that should be emphasized even more, and get people more social with each other, making connections and contacts. It can take you a long way. Just know, it’s never… Read more »

KS
KS
9 years ago

I’m a college professor in an information field and I point out to my students that many of them will end up with jobs that do not exist today. I encourage them to attend career fairs on campus, alumni events, and to talk to their professors. I have connected students with other students, faculty, graduate programs, and in one hilarious case, with the government agency where her parents and my father worked (and they all knew each other! This woman got a full time job with that place). None of this was forced. It was just through conversation. It’s hard… Read more »

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
9 years ago

I was so ignorant when I was in college. I felt like networking was like taking the easy way out. I wanted to EARN what I got instead of it being handed to me by networking…

Valerie
Valerie
9 years ago

Completely unrelated…but have you seen the bacon flavored soda JD?

http://www.uncrate.com/men/culture/drinks/bacon-soda/

David/moneycrashers
David/moneycrashers
9 years ago

I think the biggest obstacle to effective networking is being outgoing and communication skills.

For us “keep to ourselves” types, it can be difficult.

Overcoming it though can open up a world of opportunities

Jaime
Jaime
9 years ago

Awww you and Kris look so cute together 😉

Dana@ Budget Dietitian
[email protected] Budget Dietitian
9 years ago

I couldn’t agree more!!!!

Off to call a number that has been sitting in my wallet!

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