Mention the word ‘networking’ to some people and they will dismiss it as business jargon used by highly paid executive types, but in reality it’s highly likely that you are doing it already, especially if you are approaching a career change…
Most of us reach out to friends, colleagues and acquaintances from time to time, for a whole host of reasons. Put simply, that’s a distilled down version of networking. However, for some, the concept of networking still conjures up images of large groups of people in suits standing around in hotel function suites exchanging business cards. That still happens of course, but platforms such as LinkedIn and online ‘virtual’ careers fairs have expanded the networking field exponentially.
A great way to look at networking is through the prism of three of its main pillars: connection, interaction, and relationship building:
• Make connections with people – either in person or online – with whom you have overlapping areas of interest
• Interact and engage with these people as well as relevant groups or organisations they are connected with
• Build on these connections and develop them into mutually rewarding relationships.
But where and how do you start and why do so many service people struggle with this? Fiona Jackson, Career Consultant with the Officers’ Association, believes that the reticence amongst some military personnel to engage with their networks is born out of a fear of being perceived as needing help or displaying weakness. However, this is unfounded, as Fiona explains:
“My experience is that most people are happy to assist someone with their transition and job search, especially if they are ex-military themselves. Of course, you are not going to immediately ask someone to give you a job, but you should be seeking advice and support.”
Fiona believes that before you start formalising your ask, you should define what your network is and who belongs to it, then you can work out your approach: “At the basic level, your network comprises friends, family, former colleagues and people you went to school or university with. However, this group is finite so look beyond that – your network may be wider than you think. What about the parents of children that your children are friendly with or members of a local club you have joined?”
Much emphasis is placed on the importance of planning and research during resettlement but it can be frustrating if you don’t know what it is you want to do, far less how you go about making it a reality. Lisa Jones, also a Careers Consultant at the Officers’ Association believes that networking is key to overcoming this obstacle:
“Most people leaving the forces have no idea what they want to do – or what they could do – until they start networking. Networking is the most valuable activity in which you can engage and you will find that people will be your most useful asset when it comes to gaining information and improving your knowledge about sectors and organisations. Approaching people for advice and guidance can seem daunting, but do not forget that they were once in your shoes, particularly if they are ex-military themselves.”
When you find an organisation that you consider to be an ‘employer of choice’ your network is your best route in. You can learn a huge amount from existing employees that will help you to understand how the company ticks and this information will also prove invaluable at interview. Networking will also improve your knowledge and understanding of industry terminology so that you can ‘talk the talk’ and ensure that the skills you are highlighting during the application process are the most pertinent. Lisa Jones recommends taking this a step further for maximum impact:
“Networking will help you understand where you might fit into an organisation, what level to aim for, and what kind of salary to expect. People will also be impressed if you can demonstrate a certain level of knowledge. Read blogs, follow organisations on social media, look on their websites and ensure that you prove this knowledge in interview or at a networking meeting, even if you are not asked directly.”
LinkedIn is a valuable source of networking contacts, opportunities, industry insight and more. Getting it right on LinkedIn can act as a springboard into the ‘real’ world, as Fiona Jackson explains:
“Think about how well you know your LinkedIn connections, what they do, who they work for, and what knowledge and experience they have. When you contact them be specific about the advice and support that you want from them. Try to arrange a face to face meeting if you can, if not you could set up a Skype call. Accept that not everyone will get back to you – they may have moved on or be too busy.
“Do not send out a blanket request to too many people – be targeted in your approach. Networking is the best way to get a job but you need to be able to reach the person who makes the hiring decisions. So, when you are networking, always ask the question ‘Who else do I need to speak to?’ until you get to the decision maker. Make a record of who you have contacted and what has been discussed and agreed, then you can keep track of what you are doing.”
Successful, sustainable networking is predicated on reciprocity, or put another way, apply the venerable sales negotiation principle of ‘give to get’ to networking. People will remember you if you engage with your network often, not just when you need something. Offering advice, comment, information and support make you memorable.
There have been many weak analogies made around this topic, from banking (you need to make a deposit before you can make a withdrawal), to farming (you must sow the seeds before you reap the harvest). A much better way to think of it is this: if you want to be in the front of people’s minds when they are hiring, give them positive reasons to remember you.
Clive Lowe served in the Royal Engineers and Gurkha Engineers for 12 years, before establishing a career in property development and management. Clive now works as Deputy Director of Employment for the Officers’ Association and has shared some handy ‘top tips’ for successful networking:
• Connect with people from different aspects of your life – social, university, ex-colleagues, sporting, clients, suppliers
• Ask for a face to face chat, possibly over a coffee
• Know what information you are looking for and always ask for the names of other helpful contacts
• Ask everyone you talk to for advice or support – but never for a job
• Remember that employers are more likely to hire people they know or who have been recommended to them by someone they trust so a good network can give you an edge in securing a job
• Don’t hesitate, just do it and you will be surprised how many people respond favourably when asked for help
• Never forget that ex-service networks are very powerful.
Networking Never Sleeps!
Once you have a job, the networking doesn’t stop. This should now be a lifestyle, not a diet. Networking will help you progress in your career, develop professionally and could directly help you get your next job. Always assume you have something to learn from each new person you meet – you never know when that knowledge or that person might be able to help.
Lisa Jones asserts that the concept of ‘paying it back’ is essential to successful networking and benefits all concerned in either the short or long term:
“When you are settled in a job, this will be your opportunity to give something back and help others in the same way that you were helped. The networking you do now may not help you immediately but may be useful in years to come. The time you have to devote to this activity during resettlement is invaluable. Never again will you have the opportunity to spend so much time openly researching the job market and networking.”
This article originally appeared in Pathfinder, the monthly magazine for Service leavers. The OA provides regular features, articles and insight for Pathfinder.