When is the best time to plant a tree?
20 years ago.
When is the next best time to plant a tree?
What is true for trees, is true for networks -- build your network before you need it!
It is best to have been building and expanding your strategic personal network for all of your professional life. Unfortunately, most people don't come to that realization until they are let go from their current job.
Most people have small, dense networks composed mostly of their immediate on-the-job colleagues, friends and family. These networks are the first resource of the newly furloughed employee. Asking around, the job-seeker finds that immediate contacts often do not have much more job information than the job searcher has -- they are all in the same network neighborhood where everyone knows what everyone else knows at about the same time.
Once the job seeker exhausts the obvious job openings that s/he and their immediate contacts are aware of, they become stuck. What to do next? The common advice is send out or post resumes on-line, attend job fairs and start "networking". The first two suggestions get the job seeker onto the overcrowded freeway to the HR office. In today's recession, this route is a clogged artery with little or no movement -- time to get out of this traffic jam and try an alternate path.
The next suggestion -- "networking" -- sounds good, but is often approached wrong. Networking is commonly defined as quickly connecting with many people -- focus on quantity over quality -- sometimes mockingly called schmoozing. Building strategic connections is much different than just "networking" -- you build trusted relationships that bring you information and access that you currently don't have in your small circle of friends and colleagues. Quality trusted ties are like the trees planted many years ago. Quality trusted ties develop when people work on something together -- they don't develop over a handshake at a conference, a quick conversation over coffee or a speed interview at a job fair.
Networking may get you many new business cards, but are these people willing and able to introduce you to the hiring manager [the route around the clogged freeway]? If I just met you at a conference, or you called me out of the blue "to network", am I going to risk my professional reputation to introduce you to my boss or trusted colleague? Probably not. Yet, if you are introduced to me by a trusted friend, colleague or peer then I will listen and we will both benefit. Better yet, if we work on a volunteer project together, I see you "in action" and we bond -- I feel confident in recommending you.
Once you exhaust your inner circle of people who can make introductions, what do you do? Two things: 1) re-activate trusted ties from the past that are now dormant and 2) build new trusted ties via volunteering and part-time work.
Everyone has dormant connections that can be re-activated. Many people are now getting on Facebook and LinkedIn and re-connecting with former colleagues and college chums. Do so, but be careful. Do not re-connect with a transaction in your back pocket -- "Hi, nice to to hear from you again, do you know of any jobs?" I have a former colleague who re-connects with me every 5-7 years -- but he does so only when he is in the job market! He expects a connection, but is not eager to offer one of his own. Needless to say, he does not get far. Once you re-connect with one or two trusted ties ask them if they have remained in contact with others from your old social circle. You want to be expanding/re-activating your current network out 1 and 2 steps -- your contacts and hopefully their contacts. This will help you reach people with information about jobs you have not heard of yet.
A friend of mine, a job-seeking HR executive in Chicago, has done an amazing job of building her strategic network in the last year. She has hundreds of new connections with many of them being ties she built in prolonged interactions. She has volunteered on several projects in her field and has also joined several advisory boards. She helped organize several local HR conferences and meetings for the non-profit she works with and therefore has face-to-face work experience with a new cadre of colleagues. They have seen her in action, they like her work, her energy, they trust her, they even give out their personal cell phone numbers to be references for her! Like a tree establishing a root system, it has taken her a while to grow this strategic network, but it is now vibrant and ready to provide her with many opportunities.
In addition to job offers and business opportunities, a wide strategic network also provides other benefits. Health and happiness! When I talked to my HR colleague in Chicago this week, she did not come across as a person that had been out of work for a while. She was very upbeat and full of energy -- which comes across great in an interview! She was very positive because her network was growing and bringing results. She was meeting new people, sharpening her skills and learning new behaviors -- she was very positive about her future. More and more research is pointing to the health benefits of building social networks. Employers like to hire positive, high energy people.
Out of work? Form new ties -- not casual connections, but collaborative caring connections. They will bring you a variety of rewards. Also, when you start your new job, do not stop your network building. Keep expanding your network, make new connections in new places. Keep growing that tree, you planted, with wide-reaching branches.
Live in fragments no longer."
E. M. Forster