It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
I remember hearing this a lot when I was about 18 and first getting into college and the professional sphere. And it annoyed the heck out of me. I was a straight-A student, a major nerd, a smartypants. What I knew made me feel good about myself and made me think I had a chance at being hired anywhere I applied.
But of course, ironically, my first job in my intended career field came to me because of who I knew (or rather, who my parents knew – even more embarrassing to my ego). Not every job I’ve had since then has been that way, but I found over and over that no matter how amazing your résumé is, a personal recommendation or connection will almost always give you an edge.
Networking is one of the most powerful, proactive steps you can take for your career, but so many people – especially young, professional women – are reluctant or unsure of how to get started.
This is the kind of thing they really ought to be teaching us in high school to prepare us for the real world. Instead, most women I talk to about networking can list any number of reasons why they don’t:
I’m shy. I get nervous. I feel like I’m bothering people. I don’t know what to say, or who to say it to. I don’t know anyone else in my field.
Networking is definitely a learned skill. It comes more easily to some people than others, but even the most introverted introvert (*raises hand*) can pick up the basics. So based on my experience, here is the advice I’d give intrepid professionals in any field:
1. Practice promoting yourself.
For many people, especially introverts and especially women, this is the hardest part. But it goes at the top of the list because if you can master this step, the rest will come easy.
Imagine you are being interviewed about your job, or your career aspirations, on Good Morning America. What kinds of questions would Robin Roberts ask you that are relevant to your expertise? How would you answer? Even if this seems a far-fetched pipe dream for you, it doesn’t hurt to put yourself in that chair and prepare your professional face.
Practice introducing yourself and making a memorable first impression. Develop what marketing folks call an “elevator pitch” – a summary of who you are and what you have to offer that you can deliver in 30-60 seconds. Practice it in front of the mirror and with others until you can rattle it off without stumbling, fidgeting, or blushing.
Here’s mine as an example: “I’m a writing coach. I provide content and social media guidance to businesses, I work one-on-one with writers on a variety of fiction and non-fiction projects, and I facilitate writing circles for small groups. Essentially, I’m the go-to person for anything involving writing or editing.” I have a few different versions depending who I’m talking to, but they all share the same goal: direct, assertive, and clear.
Basically, you have to learn to be comfortable bragging. It’s going to be painful at first. You will probably feel awkward talking yourself up. You’re going to want to make excuses, draw attention to your weaknesses, or disqualify your qualifications. But the more practice you get showing yourself off, the easier it will come. I promise.
2. Actively seek out others in your field and related fields.
Start with the people you already know. Teachers, classmates, family or friends-of-the-family, roommates and buddies, and current and past coworkers are all within reach and can all make great connections. If your immediate network is limited or you’re trying to break into something new, try online forums and sites like MeetUp.com to find existing groups (digital and real-life) that cater to your professional niche or to adjacent professions.
Last summer, I started attending monthly meetups of the Cincinnati Creative Society, a ragtag bunch of local artists of various disciplines – musicians, designers, jewelry-makers, painters, sculptors, and of course, fellow writers. Even if none of these people leads me directly to a job, it still benefits me to interact with them. Who knows when they might know someone who is working on a book or a blog and looking for help? It works both ways, too – if I have a client who needs an illustrator for their book, I can think of three or four people off the top of my head to recommend. “You scratch my back, I scratch yours” is a great philosophy for buying goodwill that you can later cash in as favors.
If you’re still uneasy about talking about yourself, turn the spotlight on other people – be Robin Roberts. Everyone likes to feel like an expert, so go ahead and grill them on their jobs and how they got where they are. For those more comfortable online, it’s easy as pie to start a forum thread on a professional site like AskAManager.org.
Some great conversation-starters include: What initially interested you in your field? Where and when did you get started? How long have you been at it? How has it changed since you started? And of course, what advice would you give someone starting out? There’s no such thing as a stupid question, and you can never ask too many.
4. Recruit a mentor.
While casting a wide net helps you grow your network quickly, a one-on-one relationship with a mentor can open up many doors, especially higher up the food chain. Someone who has already been there and done that, and made all the related mistakes, can give you very specific guidance on what to do, what to avoid, and what to expect as you advance in your career. Since they’ve been around longer and have had more time to build their own networks, they’re also likely to connect you to other influential people in your industry.
And don’t stop at just one. Almost everyone has something to teach you. Among my mentors, I count college professors who helped me hone my creative writing and believe in my talent, fellow teachers who have played a huge role in shaping my facilitation style, and colleagues and supervisors who passed on the benefit of their experience and encouraged my growth.
5. Maintain and nurture your connections.
Networking goes beyond merely introducing yourself. Once those connections are made, it’s on you to keep them from going stale. Not only do people change jobs and contact info fairly frequently, but the lady you met at a networking event three years ago isn’t likely to remember you when you need her recommendation if that’s the one and only time you spoke.
These days, LinkedIn and Twitter are among the best ways to stay connected. Your LinkedIn profile can act as a résumé and portfolio for your projects, presentations, documents, and awards, while Twitter offers a quick and easy way to keep yourself top-of-mind with important connections even when you can’t reach out to them directly. Consider having a separate professional Twitter profile where you post more about your career and less about your cats – just make sure you stay active on it and don’t just let it sit there collecting dust.
You can also create your own website or blog, but the advantage of sites like LinkedIn is that they already have tools in place to connect you to people you know, people they know, heavy-hitters in your field, and even job openings that don’t get advertised elsewhere.
Pro tip: When I meet someone who could be a good resource to me in the future, I jump a few months ahead in my calendar and set a reminder to invite them to coffee or lunch, or at the very least, drop them an email. It keeps you each current with each other’s doings and whereabouts, and really cements that connection.
Like I said, networking takes practice. It’s not something I really mastered until I pursued self-employment and had to make stuff happen on my own. Nowadays, I’m in networking mode 24/7, ready to talk about myself and my services at the drop of a hat. I’ve even handed out business cards at the dog park!
Not every connection you make will pay off, but it sure beats sitting back and waiting for your dream career to just happen. Take the reins, get yourself out there, and show ‘em what you’re made of, boss lady!
Marisa is a professional writer/editor and creative writing teacher living in southwest Ohio with her mutt. Recently divorced, she is busy enjoying the single life and all the adventures it offers. She believes the sexiest thing you can do is love yourself first, and is a champion of clear communication and listening to your gut as well as your heart. Got a question for Marisa? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org