Taking it a Step Further: Networking Plus

hands-462296_1920When people seek out career counseling, they are often looking to choose, change or advance their careers. Networking is key to this, especially with people who are currently employed in their area of interest. However, to succeed in maximizing networking contacts requires something of them—they have to learn to change their approach and search tactics. They must adopt what this career counselor refers to as networking plus.

Clients typically avoid networking if they are not educated about the benefits and the practice of reciprocity. They either come in with an attitude of WIIFM (What’s In It For Me), or resist reaching out because they think they are imposing. Neither approach is effective. One-sided networking eventually turns off the people from whom they are requesting help. Alternatively, sincere or introverted clients fail to contact others and miss out on opportunities. Given that the majority of professional jobs today are filled not through published advertisements, but via personal networking, it’s important to have the right approach.

The right or balanced approach is to practice networking plus, or the “dance of reciprocity,” where you enter into every networking encounter believing it is a two-way exchange. You confidently ask for what you need, and offer what you can in return. This attitude of reciprocity is the “plus” added to networking.

Informational interviewing is the part of the networking process when you meet with networking contacts to glean information, advice, and to be connected to others. You know that when you ask a person for insider company tips or referrals, you are giving that person a chance to share what they enjoy talking about (their profession or company) and they get the energy boost that comes from helping another (you!). With this head’s-up approach, you also remain alert to the other person’s needs and see opportunities for you to provide connections or resources.

Now that you have the mindset, here’s the simple skillset on how to effectively engage in networking plus:

1. Approach. As you are listening and perhaps taking notes in your informational interview, be attuned to perceiving the other person’s needs and seeing opportunities to provide connections or resources.

2. Follow up. Understand the importance of and practice follow up. Good follow up, expressing appreciation and summarizing your takeaways, is the minimum and essential form of reciprocating for what the other person has offered to you. It may also be your opportunity to offer resources or connections in return.

Are you starting to see how practicing networking as a two-way exchange of needs and offerings, an exchange of energy, is a dance that can help you advance your career (and your life)? The person with whom you are conducting the informational interview gives you ideas, leads, and connections. In turn, reciprocity requires that you offer them something in return.

So what do you have to offer? According to The Heart & Art of NetWeaving, the help you provide comes in two forms:

1. Being a strategic connector of other people—helping create “win-win” relationships between two or more other persons, a strategic matchmaker;

2. Being a strategic resource provider for others—helping them find solutions to their needs and problems, as well as ways to help them take advantage of ideas or opportunities they have, but which, without someone else’s help, will never materialize into anything of consequence.

Perhaps you have never thought of yourself as a resource for others, or are unsure of what to offer. How about your current or even rusty skills? Or, what things should you be doing, or doing better, to help you develop those skills? For instance, I have offered my photography skills for weddings, group photos, and headshots, but I am also working to develop my photo editing skills so that I can better answer frequent how-to questions on programs like Photoshop.

Another way to contribute is to think about who is in your resource network. These are people whom you could trust referring to your new informational interview contact. Similar to my photography skill, I also have three photographer referrals that I can give who I know offer LinkedIn headshots of exceptional quality for a reasonable price.

If your network is only a few people wide and deep, put some effort into building your “trusted resource network.” You might start by entering into your contact manager or phone the names of your favorite restaurants, independent auto mechanics, home remodelers, veterinarians, housecleaners, window washers, self-help books, real estate agents, insurance brokers, financial advisors, etc. so you have a ready means to access and share your growing network.

Understand that a complete resource network does not need to be in place before you start networking; you just want to be thinking “how can I help in return?” If nothing jumps out at you to offer during the first meeting or two, you can always ask, “In case I might be able to return the favor, is there anything where you are seeking a solution to a particular need, problem or opportunity?”

More on follow up. Earlier I stressed the importance of follow up to complete the cycle of reciprocity. Here are some details about how to best accomplish that. After meeting, email your appreciation for the informational interview, summarize the key points you discussed, and note any salient takeaways for you. You could also include:

• An article on an interesting topic you discussed (I often send business journal or blog articles), or even some additional points to show you remembered some of the details you discussed.
• The names of people you discovered you knew in common or things or interests you found you had in common.
• The names of people with whom you both agreed you might be able to connect each other.
• A list of resources you could provide each other.
• A personalized request to join one another’s network on LinkedIn.

These follow up to-do’s are all related to helping your new acquaintance and playing your part in the returning cycle of reciprocity.

Reciprocity is a powerful tool that can have wider-reaching effects, too. One author I respect elevates this resource exchange to a form of ‘spiritual practice:’

“When we ask for what we need and offer each other what we can, we become spiritual traders of life’s energy, time, abundance, and interrelatedness.”

In this way, engaging in networking plus changes your perception of the way the world works–and in so doing, giving back to those individuals who inform and advise you takes your career to a whole new level.

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