Careers Question: Is It Too Soon To Start Networking?
As a current MBA student, I’ve read a number of management and leadership books. In one example, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the Master Sun says that “every battle is won before it is ever fought.” Well, if that’s true, then perhaps JDs and MBAs need to think more about that today. The economic crisis has made markets more competitive and as a result made it almost impossible to land a top job. And so the person who starts early and orchestrates the whens, wheres, whos, and hows of the battle before it is ever fought will have a better chance at ultimate success. And in my view, that it not only true in on campus recruiting but also includes internal promotions and moving companies after graduation.
I recently received a question from a reader who was thinking about just that. We’ve traded a few emails in the past, and this questions happens to be a follow-up to a previous conversation. He’s a recent graduate from college and he has been working in the finance industry for a little under two years. As a “smart” guy with a few years of experience, he’s hoping do some networking and move his way into a new job role that’s more competitive and perhaps a bit more higher level. The dilemma, though, is that he just moved into a new job due to restructuring at his old company and wants to know, not only if it’s too early to start networking but also if he can network with the intent to get a job as soon as possible.
I responded with a few words, which I’ve shared below. As always, I’ll also note, that the real answer is ‘it depends’ and that my answer only scratches the surface because networking is a big topic, and a topic that I have a lot of ideas on. On the other hand, there are a few rules that I live by and follow deeply when I talk about networking, so I thought I’d share some of those broad ideas. Hopefully this post will be helpful.
THE READER’S QUESTION
Since I asked my last question, I did end up taking the position, and as I anticipated, I am a little unhappy with it (specifically, the level and intensity of work). I have also started to network with alumni from my university.
I have a question though – now that the economy is getting better, companies are hiring left and right (at least compared to 2009), and I think that this is the perfect time to try to network into a junior-level position in trading, investment management, etc. Do you still think that it would be wise for me to show that I want these types of jobs when I’m networking (as opposed to coming off as somewhat passive about it)?
People have told me that it’s best to cultivate these networks over months, or even years, until you want to ‘strike’. But I feel that the time is now (with the influx of hiring), and I don’t want to miss out on any opportunities because I wasn’t being aggressive enough. What do you think?
MY RESPONSE TO THE READER’S QUESTION
Thanks so much for reaching back out. And I’m sorry it’s taken me a few days to reply. Ironically, I’ve just as busy, if not busier after school has ended, so have been doing the best I can not only to stay up with my schedule now but also catch up on some of the things I put to the side while I was in the “battle” of final exams. But I’m almost back above water now and suspect that in a week or so, I’ll be just as caught up as ever. And the good news is that 1L is done!
In regards to your question, a couple of things come to mind. As always, though, most of this depends on context, and the answer is probably best articulated orally, because in that mode, I could give the full context of what I’m thinking without have a post that’s too long. But I’ll do my best to lay out a few ideas here, for now.
1. Sincerity. My first rule of networking is that sincerity is king. By that, I mean that sincere connections are always the best connections, no matter how fast you make them and urgent you might need help. For me, they are the only type of connections I make. And the good news is that if can manage that part of connecting with others, than the timing may not make a difference in the end. On the other hand, the more urgent you need the help, the more likely it is that you may come off as desperate and less sincere. And if that’s the case, I suspect that those characteristics will probably be evident to those you’re speaking to. And so if it is the case that you have greater urgency, than I’d say that be transparent about it. Because that way, you’re still being sincere, and you can still build a relationship based on trust and honesty, and as a result maximize its impact.
2. Find the right people. To that end, it might also make sense to ensure that you connect with the most appropriate people up front in order to maximize your chance to get sincere connections. Because your questions will be related to the things they know best and your interests will be highly correlated with their passions. I’ve read a few books by Keith Ferrazzi [he and I share a uniquely similar background in almost every respect] and one of the main things he emphasizes is that to really connect with people, you have to “find a way to become part of the things that are most interesting to them” or most important. And relating back to point number one, I personally would be careful not to manufacture that process. Because in the end sincere connections – those built on trust and on honesty – are the ones that will last, but conversely those manufactured for personal gain often don’t. And this may be especially important when you’re networking with the “right” crowd because that crowd may be in your target industry and it’s best not to hurt those relationships in the long run.
3. Channel your aggression. To points one and two, there’s nothing at all wrong with being aggressive. Being aggressive in your career journey is important. In fact, critical. Being aggressive at a conference or at a networking session is also important. After all, almost everyone who’s made it to the top has been aggressive at some point. In the end though, you have to balance being aggressive in your career search, which includes networking, along with being respectful, showing class, showing respect for other people’s time, and having a real genuine interest not only in the careers you seek but also in the people you meet, speak to, and who take the time out of their day to help you. Because in the end, many of them are busy and are being generous by helping, so you don’t want to simply take up their time without showing patience and appreciation. So from that angle, I don’t necessarily like the words “passive” or “aggressive” when it comes to networking. I similarly don’t like the word “strike” (I understand you used it as more a symbol than reality but thought I’d bring up here) On the other hand, to be aggressive in your actual search or in your pursuit of knowledge and uncovering of information is the right approach. And this way, your personality – instead of an aggressive person who is self-serving – will truly shine through.
4. Always in context. In context, you have to figure out this balance of timing and aggression depending on your needs. And that includes the need to find a new challenge professionally or the your need to get an opportunity while they are abundant. Similarly, economics are always an important factor in our decision making, and in today’s complex ever-changing society, making moves often hinges on doing things at the right time – sometimes you have to “strike while the iron is hot.” And in the right context, I think quick networking can be okay, though not ideal. If you do go this way, just be sure to maximize your time by doing a few basic things. Be sure to have your resume and cover letter ready. You should also be ready to present yourself to these networking events and most importantly have your story down stone cold. And be ready to convince anyone that you have not only the experience but also the skills that a company seeks. And trust me, that’s easier said than done if you want to be effective.
5. Wrap-Up. In sum, I agree with much of what you’ve heard before. That it’s best to cultivate relationships over time, which takes months, even years. That way, you can build them on a foundation of trust. both of you realize the benefit of the relationship, and according to the Master Sun, both of you will win the battle before you ever step foot on the battle field. On the other hand, context can’t be ignored, and if context is that you have a sense of urgency in getting a new job, because of the economy (that the market is good as it may ever be) and that you have a real shot at landing a role, then it may make sense to consider transitioning. If you decide to go that direction, then from the 30,000 foot view, just be sure of three things. 1. Understand the implications that too many job changes can have on you as a early career professional. 2. Be sure you are up front about your motives and desires to find a new job. 3. Be sure to respect those you’re networking with, by demonstrate that you did your research about them and their industry (don’t want to waste their time) and also to be genuinely interested in connecting with them, perhaps making a real effort to return the help if you can.
Because in the end, the best networkers aren’t those who can walk into a room, meet everyone, pass out their business cards, and walk out with a job. Instead, the best networkers are those who are connectors. And not only do they connect themselves with lots of people and enhance their own professional prospects, but they also bring everyone else together and connect them together. And when they effectively do that, they facilitate the flow of information and usually benefit as a result.
I hope this helps. Good luck!
PS If you don’t know my reference to The Art of War then watch the Investment Banking movie Wall Street – 1987 with Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas.