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What Is Networking, and Is It Any Different for College Students Than Anyone Else?

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The authors of Networking for Every College Student and Graduate: Starting Your Career Off Right introduce their book, which offers simple advice, rules, steps, and “how to” techniques that'll take you all the way from “breaking the ice” to “acing the interview.”
This chapter is from the book

Ahead he saw his former high school classmate Claire sitting at an outside table of the corner Starbucks. He hadn’t seen her in a month or two. He couldn’t resist. She’d been a top student back then, but she was about to find out how much good being a mousy introvert was going to do her at this stage of the game.

“Hey, Claire.”

She looked up from a long list in her open notebook, brushed a long lock of brown hair away from her forehead. “Hey, back at you, Lawrence. All ready for the big job circus?”

She’d walked right into it. “Yep. I’ve got five interviews. How about you?”

“It depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“How I can narrow down this list. I’ve got twenty-seven interviews, and that’s narrowed down from thirty-five.”

“Twenty seven?” He felt as though he’d just swallowed his gum, and he wasn’t chewing any. “Are you kidding me?”

She saw him wobble on his feet and waved him to a chair across from her. She took a sip from her latte while he lowered to the wrought iron chair.

“The thing was,” she said, “I got thinking about how many of us there would be going after the few really good jobs, so I thought I’d better get a jump on.”

“But you were always so...shy. How did you do it?”

“Yeah, I knew I had some limitations, so that’s why I started early to work around them. I may not always have to be so outgoing in whatever job I land, but I knew I had to do something different from all the other sheep that were just heading down the same old chute hoping for the best.”

“What was it? What’s your secret?”

“Networking.”

“Still, that’s so unlike you.”

“Not really. It’s just like when I knew I had to hone my study skills long ago and developed some best practices to get the most out of my time. There were steps, approaches, and before I knew it, I’m sorting through this pile of interviews.”

Lawrence cleared his throat. “Is this...is this something anyone can learn?” He recognized for the first time a little humble eagerness in his tone.

“Sure,” she said. “If you want to. I’ve got to say the dividends sure pay off.”

Does the word “networking” scare you or, even worse, make you cringe? Are you fearful of what it might imply? Does the word imply that you might have to meet strange or different people or introduce yourself to people who might reject you? Or do you feel that networking is just some form of glad-handing or “sucking up” and that people who network get ahead because of “who they know, not what they know”? By the way, even if the myth “it’s who you know, not what you know, that counts” were true, why would you ignore this pathway to success? Do you believe there is something inherently sinister, bad, or unfair about using contacts to help you get ahead?

Soon you will be given an opportunity to choose whether or not you will have the maximum control over your own pathways to life’s success. You should be clear about one thing: You have not been chosen by some mysterious lottery or picked to appear on a new TV reality show or identified in any way as someone extra special. Although individually you are unique and special, just as everyone else is, everyone will have the same opportunity to make this choice at about the same time. Unfortunately, and this is where you begin to separate yourself, the vast majority of people will not recognize the moment of opportunity to choose and therefore will not get choices that you will. What separates you from them is that you are reading this book and opening your mind to the possibilities that await you.

This is one of the few moments in life when you will have the opportunity to experience near-perfect equality of opportunity for your own future.

Skeptics and doubters, those sheep-like people to whom Claire referred, prefer to live their lives in flocks of others like them, who dress alike, look alike, talk alike, work alike, think alike, act alike, believe alike, and like alike.

Perhaps you have heard the real statistics, seen the evidence, or even seen your friends’ networking turn into opportunity after opportunity for them. Maybe you would like to network but feel that while you are in college, it may not be the “right” time, or maybe you feel that you don’t have the experience, skills, or abilities to network properly. You may even have one of those ornery critters that appear every once in a while to sit on your shoulder (invisible, of course, to everyone but you) and criticize you unmercifully and try to convince you of how unworthy you are. That character will try to dissuade you from ever trying networking because you are not worthy. Now is the perfect time to put your fears and uneasiness to rest, to bury your concerns, to change your beliefs and ban that critter—that is, if you really want the greatest opportunities for success in life.

If you want the greatest chances for success in getting the jobs you desire and deserve; in meeting the people who are ready and willing to assist you in your aspirations; in being considered for the career opportunities you dream about; in getting the opportunity to be positioned for the best promotions; in getting the opportunity to be asked to serve on exciting committees and work with the most prestigious, influential, important people in the fields, industries, professions, and communities of your choice—if you want to have control of these choices, it is in your hands. It’s your choice.

Of course, if you don’t want any of these opportunities, or if you think getting them by having people help you would somehow diminish your character, stop here. There are others who will gladly take the help of people willing to assist them.

A great deal of research and empirical evidence prove something you probably know intuitively: Networking works for those who choose to work networking. It is, by an enormous margin, the single most effective technique for productive job hunting (even during economic recessions), career building, developing personal influence, solidifying leadership roles, strengthening effective management skills, developing personal communication skills, creating and improving organizational skills, learning how to work with individuals with diverse views, developing beliefs and skills, and generally enhancing the quality of your life.

The talent to network is inherent in nearly every individual. Almost anyone can learn how to network. However, the drive, energy, skills, ability, desire, and knowledge by which networking is learned and perfected can be mastered only by those who are willing to devote the belief, time, energy, and resources to doing it properly. Therefore, although most people instinctively know or can eventually figure out that networking “works”—which is why we get the myth “it’s who you know that counts”—only a limited number of devoted individuals manage to reap the huge rewards of successful networking.

A study of UCLA graduates found that nearly 75 percent believed it was the people you knew that counted. What is interesting about this finding is that three-quarters of the graduates believed they knew the secret to success, yet they could not bring themselves to actually do what it took to become networkers. Furthermore, 70 percent of the replacement jobs were handled in the same manner. These jobs were not posted on any Web site, advertised on any classified page, listed with any headhunter or recruiter, or otherwise publicly posted. These jobs were filled by the hiring managers’ use of their social networking. The hiring managers first looked at people they knew and trusted, and if that approach did not turn up the candidate they wanted, they asked their network—their own contacts, the people they knew and trusted (if they knew of any candidates they knew and trusted).

People already in the workforce who have learned to take advantage of the skills and benefits of networking will confirm that they get many more opportunities than their peers who do not network. Many college students are just not aware of the value and benefits of networking and therefore do not practice the skills; consequently, they do not take advantage of the benefits, leaving this enormous opportunity untapped.

In just one area—jobs—networking can mean the difference between jump-starting your career and spending years in unsatisfying, unfulfilling dead-end jobs.

There is some evidence by economists that unemployment will be a societal problem in America for years into the future. Networking could be the difference between being part of the pool of college graduates working in low-level unsatisfying jobs and those who move their careers along regardless of the state of economy.

Knowing how the hiring process really works is just half of the benefit of networking. The other half is knowing in advance what hiring managers really want in new hires. In a number of empirical research studies conducted over the past ten years, senior managers of a wide range of businesses were asked about what they were looking for in recent college graduates. The following is what they said they value most in the order of the most frequently cited skills, characteristics, and talents:

  • Good communications skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Ability to find and fix problems
  • Enthusiasm
  • High energy level
  • Strength of character
  • Self-confidence
  • Motivation
  • Leadership skills
  • Quick adaptability to change and uncertainty
  • Good listening skills
  • Commitment to lifetime learning
  • Commitment to excellence
  • Being a team player
  • Willingness to take some risks
  • Willingness to face self-assessment
  • Ability to lighten up (to not take oneself too seriously)

In a survey conducted online in July 2009, 77 percent of the respondents indicated that they felt “soft” skills were more critical for new college graduates to possess. Of these respondents, 14 percent felt it was best for graduates to have good communications skills, 23 percent thought interpersonal skills (networking) were most important, and 40 percent felt the potential to learn or be taught was most critical. Nearly three-quarters of what respondents felt were the most important things for recent college graduates to have could be shown to employers only through face-to-face meetings or, more importantly, to networking contacts who then relay this information to other contacts.1

In a nationwide study conducted in 1999 by RHI Consulting, which provides information professionals to organizations, 27 percent of Chief Information Officers responding reported that strong interpersonal skills were the single most important quality in job candidates followed by technical skills, as cited by 23 percent of the respondents.2

In December 2006, Peter D. Hart Research Associates conducted a comprehensive study of employers and recent college graduates for the Association for American Colleges and Universities. The study found that a significant majority of respondents cited skills learned and perfected in networking as the most important skills employers look for in new hires. These skills and the percentage of respondents reporting them as the most important skills are shown in Figure 1-1. The skills are teamwork (44%), critical thinking (33%), and oral/written communications (30%).

Figure 1.1

Figure 1-1 The most important skills employers look for in new hires.

In a poll conducted in June 2009, Michael asked business managers, managers, and supervisors what they considered the most important skills or traits for recent college grads.3 Table 1-1 shows how 293 respondents answered.

Table 1-1

Skill/Trait

Respondents (%)

Potential to learn/be trained

40

Interpersonal/team skills

23

Communication skills

13

Proven achievement/experience

12

Technical/technology knowledge

9

This poll reaffirms employers’ high regard for the soft skills and talents—that is, ability to learn, ability to get along, and communication skills.

So, if the idea of networking scares you or puts you off, or if for some reason you think that because you are a student or you are young, networking isn’t for you, you need to know something important:

  • You are not alone. Believing you are alone may be a reason you have shied away from the very skill that can help you professionally and personally.
  • You don’t have to wait and try to learn the benefits and value of networking as you mature. Many college students felt that way before they learned the benefits and value of networking while in school.

The earlier you start, the sooner you will be proficient and the sooner you will start gaining the benefits of networking. This is the skill that can begin helping you right now while you are in school. You are never too young to begin networking.

Why You Need to Know How to Network Effectively

No one can predict or forecast success for every endeavor, but if you learned there is a success rate of nearly 60 to 70 percent for engaging in a particular behavior, wouldn’t you want to learn as much about that behavior as possible? Well, prepare to alter your behavior and probably your beliefs. According to research conducted by Cornell University Career Services, 70–75 percent of all newly created jobs and replacement positions are never posted anywhere.4 This means these jobs are never listed on the Internet; recruiters and headhunters don’t know about them; they don’t appear on Craigslist, MySpace, or Monster.com; and the respective human resources departments may not even be aware in advance. The people who know about the open positions are the hiring managers and their networks.

One of the fundamental credos of both networking and human nature is people are nesters and prefer to be around and work with other people whom they know and like. This is not a mystery of the universe or a great discovery of science; it is simply human nature. Even wolves seek out others like themselves for their small but family-like packs. Given the opportunity, hiring managers will first attempt to hire people they know and like. Think about it, and it will make sense.

A manager spends about eight to ten hours a day with an employee; there are probably hours spent in travel or social time, and the manager wants to know he or she is able to enjoy the time spent with the employee. In addition, the manager wants to be certain he or she can trust the employee.

Trust and reciprocity are traits and talents people bring with them to the job that can’t be taught. Managers can teach new employees the job requirements; they can’t teach new employees to get along with others, to unilaterally find and fix problems, to have good interpersonal skills, to be adaptable to change or uncertainty, or to be willing to take risks. These kinds of traits and talents are found in people whom managers find from their own networks. If hiring managers cannot find someone they know and like, they will extend their personal network of contacts and ask others whom they know and like if they know anyone who could fill the position. People put great stock and trust in their contacts’ networks. If their contacts know and like someone, that candidate has (unbeknownst to him or her) already made a great first impression on the hiring manager.

If hiring managers cannot find candidates whom they know, or a network contact knows, the traditional job hunting approaches and tools are put to work searching for prospects first with “experience,” those who, hopefully, will become people the hiring manager will come to know and like. Lastly, if no one with experience is available, prospects with “potential,” which usually is the code word for recent college graduates or college students about to graduate, are interviewed.

Even if the word “networking” does make you cringe, you should at least be aware that you need to develop this skill to be successful. Don’t buy into the myth that there is something wrong with the expression “It’s not what you know but who you know.” This old saying is truer than ever in today’s competitive world.

Most often, the “who you know” does not necessarily lead you to the next job or the next new client or the funding for your new business or the successful new project in your company or whatever you may be looking for in life, professionally or personally. Rather, it leads to the opportunity to be in the position to be considered for the job, to meet the potential new client, to have a favorable introduction and positive meeting with funders, to be favorably considered above others for a new project, or to have any number of professional or personal opportunities presented to you that others will not get.

Networking is not a tool by which you should expect to be handed gifts that you are not qualified for or given responsibilities you are not capable of handling. “Who you know” is hardly ever enough in itself to get someone anything (unless you have the same last name and DNA of the other person). What you want from networking is the inside track, the most favored treatment, the full and undivided attention of the decision maker or influencer to make your case. This, of course, is something that the other candidates almost never get.

The Gallup organization has done extensive research in what employers look for, and firms repeatedly claim they want four things:

  1. Skills
  2. Knowledge
  3. Experience
  4. Talents

The skills that managers want are the soft skills we already mentioned such as communications skills, interpersonal skills, the ability to find and fix problems, and a work ethic. These skills are developed and reinforced in networking experiences.

The knowledge component consists of a job applicant’s intelligence. The experience issue is not a critical matter if the hiring manager is already sold on the applicant’s intelligence and skill level. An intelligent applicant can be taught most jobs.

The real issue is talents. Most firms are not good at assessing an individual’s talents—an applicant’s recurring patterns of thought, feelings, actions, and behaviors that naturally equip the individual to excel in a job. Therefore, the applicant, using networking and communications skills, has to take charge and be able to demonstrate his or her talents and how he or she will benefit the employer.5

What do applicants have to do?

  • Demonstrate they will reduce the cost of the hire, lower the employee turnover rate, and improve interpersonal relationships with other employees.
  • Demonstrate they are easy to manage, are quick to learn roles, adapt quickly to change, and therefore have a shorter learning curve.
  • Demonstrate they will be more productive, more precise, and more consistent; will miss less work; will produce higher-quality work; will make fewer mistakes; will reduce management anxiety and stress; and will exceed expectations.
  • Demonstrate they will produce greater customer satisfaction, greater customer retention, and higher profits.

To do all of this, you need time and the undivided attention of the decision maker. You need for the decision maker to start with a favorable opinion of you and allow you to build your case from there.

Andrea has a friend who is a great photographer. Her pictures really give true meaning to the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” She captures the essence of her subject in each photograph. Yet she puts off starting her own photography business. As she says, “I don’t feel ready yet.” Andrea believes her photographer friend is fearful of getting out there and building the relationships that will help her grow her business. In other words, she is scared of networking.

Andrea’s friend the photographer knows all this. She is a well-educated, competent, professional woman. She has many contacts from her previous career as a marketing manager and knows the value of marketing oneself. Like many of us in the wake of current events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she wants very badly to achieve goals that have become even more important to her. She knows she has to overcome her resistance to networking, yet she can come up with a million and one excuses not to network.

In one of Michael’s courses at DeVry University, he spends a great deal of time on the networking issue and has the students make a list of 25 people they know by first name.

From this list, the students pick a half-dozen contacts and make calls from the classroom, write letters, and seek to set up networking meetings with two to three contacts. In this step-by-step approach, Michael attempts to show that networking isn’t something to be feared and that it is something everyone can do with a little effort. The experiences of many college students, recent graduates, and the photographer are fairly common. Do any of the following sound familiar to you?

  • “I’m really a shy person.”
  • “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
  • “I am only a college [freshman, sophomore, junior, senior]. Who would be interested in networking with me?”
  • “No one would be interested in me or what I have to say.”
  • “I tried making contacts (networking) once, and after three months, nothing happened, so I gave up.”
  • “I’m uncomfortable starting a conversation with a stranger.”
  • “I don’t know how to keep a conversation going or how to gracefully break away when it’s time to move on.”
  • “I’m embarrassed to ask someone for a favor.”
  • “I’m a private person. When I get on a plain or a train, the last thing I want to do is chat with the person next to me.”
  • “I’m busy. I hardly have enough time in my life for the people and activities I really care about—family, friends, my kids’ soccer games and recitals, or taking a class.”
  • “I don’t care for the type of people who call themselves ‘networkers.’ I think they are only interested in getting something from me.”
  • “I don’t know how to keep track of my contacts. My address book is a mess, and I don’t have a smart phone or the right software on my computer.”
  • “I haven’t followed through with the contacts I’ve managed to make; therefore, when I do need more information or help, I’m reluctant to make the call.”
  • “I’m only a student, and a junior at that. I will have plenty of time to network late in my senior year.”
  • “I am just a student, and students don’t have any opportunities to meet people who count or who are important.”
  • “With the technology degree I am getting, it is such a specialty I won’t need much networking in my field.”
  • “As a student, I don’t have that much work experience to tell people about.”

We can relate to these feelings. We were both students. Networking has become easier the more we have done it, but it wasn’t always easy. We were both very shy. When Andrea first moved to New York City, she knew no one except her grandparents, but today she has a database of more than 2,500 people, and it’s still growing. She will tell you that she found out that networking was the one sure way she could enrich and empower herself early in her career.

Michael grew up painfully shy and self-conscious, using self-deprecating humor and athletics to cover for his low self-esteem. He has a learning disability, which he did not discover until he was an adult and had learned his own successful coping mechanisms through trial and error and facing many, many failures.

Andrea’s basic theory on networking is this: “It is the opposite of not working. In other words, if you are not making connections, and nurturing the relationships you have developed, you are simply ‘not working.’”

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