Business Networking for Veterans: Why Networking Is So Important to Making a Successful Military Transition
There is a great deal of research and empirical evidence that proves something you probably know intuitively: Networking works for those who choose to network. It is, by an enormous margin, the single most effective technique for effective and productive job hunting (even during an economic downturn).
In 2008, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that more than 70% of all newly created jobs in the past decade were never posted or announced anywhere. Furthermore, more than 60% of replacement jobs were handled in the same manner. These jobs were not posted on any website, advertised on a classified page, or listed with any headhunter or recruiter. These jobs were filled by professional acquaintances in the hiring manager’s network.
We have seen this issue discussed in other research, in other studies, and by other authors. Depending on the study or book one is quoting, the percentage of jobs filled by networking varies from 60% to 85%. The exact number is not the issue. The important issue is simply that an overwhelming number of jobs in America are filled through the process of networking. If you do not use networking skills, you surrender many job, life, and other opportunities to people who do embrace networking. As a post–9/11 veteran, you deserve to gain the benefits of networking, but you have to reach out and take them. No one is going to network for you.
Some economists believe that unemployment will be a societal problem in America for years to come. Networking could be the difference between being part of the pool of military veterans working in low-level, unsatisfying jobs and those who move their careers along regardless of the state of the economy.
Not only is the process of networking the way most people are hired by employers, but interpersonal traits (networking skills) are among the top characteristics sought after by employers. In a number of research studies conducted over the past ten years, senior managers at a wide range of businesses were asked about what they were looking for in recent college graduates.
The following is what these managers said they value most in terms of skills, traits, characteristics, and talents:
- Good communication skills
- Interpersonal skills
- Ability to find and fix problems
- High energy level
- Strength of character
- Leadership skills
- Quick adaptability to change and uncertainty
- 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 2011, the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Labor, surveyed Fortune 500 firms to determine what skills employers want. Here are the responses, displayed in the order of importance to employers.
Still not convinced? 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 to look for in new hires. These skills, and the percentage of respondents reporting them as the most important skills, are shown in Chart 1-1. The skills are teamwork (44%), critical thinking (33%), and oral/written communications (30%).
Chart 1-1 Which two of the above skills or abilities are most important to you?
Hart, P. D. 2007. “How should colleges prepare students to succeed in today’s global economy” Washington, DC: The Association of American Colleges and Universities, p. 5.
There are scores of other studies that have produced similar results. But let’s take a step back and apply some common sense to all these studies. What is it that employers really want in a candidate? The bottom line is that people prefer and want 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. Think about it, and it will make sense. A manager will spend eight to ten hours a day with an employee, and there will probably be hours of time spent in travel or social time. The manager will want to know that she will be able to enjoy this time spent with the employee. In addition, the manager will want to be certain she can trust the employee.
Trust and reciprocity are traits and talents people bring with them to the job—they can’t be taught. Managers can teach employees the job requirements, but 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 the hiring managers cannot find someone they know and like, they will reach out to their personal network of contacts and ask whether they know anyone who could fill the position.
People put great stock and trust in their contacts’ networks. If their contact knows and likes someone, that candidate has (unbeknownst to them) already made a great first impression on the hiring manager. If the hiring managers cannot find candidates whom they know or whom a network contact knows, the traditional job-hunting approaches and tools are put to work to search for prospects with the necessary experience, who will hopefully become someone the hiring manager will come to know and like.
So What is Networking Exactly?
Networking isn’t supposed to be difficult. In fact, it should just occur naturally. Think about how your relationship with your best friend or significant other developed. You met somewhere, discovered that you shared a common interest, exchanged contact information, and then hung out again. It just sort of happened. You didn’t know it, but you were networking. You connected and developed a mutually beneficial relationship with someone. It wasn’t an event that you planned. You didn’t get out of bed and say, “Today I’m going to make a friend.” Networking is something that can happen anywhere. There is no specific time or place. Just like there is no specific time and place to watch your buddy’s back. You are continuously doing it.
But let’s be honest: Networking doesn’t come naturally to many people. At first, you may feel like a phony, as if you’re trying to “suck up” to people. You may not like the thought of meeting people so you can somehow use them to advance your career. Perhaps the words manipulation and coercion come to mind, along with the notion that people who network are people who get ahead because of who they know, not what they know. Could it be that you believe there is something inherently sinister, bad, or unfair about leveraging personal contacts to help you get ahead?
You’ll soon figure out that networking isn’t about finding opportunities for you or “sucking up” to someone to get ahead in life. It’s about finding opportunities to help others. Remember what we said earlier: Find strength in service. And service is the secret to networking. You want to join as many “squads” as possible rather than trying to find people to join yours. Instead of seeking out and just connecting with people who can somehow advance your career, begin looking for people who you are able to help in some way. Helping others is an inherent trait in most veterans. We don’t have to think about it; we just do it. If you think of networking as an opportunity to help others, you will naturally develop a network of people who will also have your back.
Here’s another way of looking at the process of networking: If you’re a guy and see an attractive woman at a bar, you wouldn’t just walk up and ask her to marry you. She’d think you were desperate, and it would immediately turn her off. You’d be much better off playing it cool. You want to walk up to someone with confidence, introduce yourself, and begin a simple conversation to see whether there is any chemistry between the two of you. The goal of the conversation is to get the woman’s number so you can meet up at a later time, when you have her undivided attention, and can begin to build a relationship.
Networking for professional advancement is the same thing. You wouldn’t want to walk right up to someone you didn’t know and ask for a job. Just like in dating, there’s a courting process involved. When you meet a professional acquaintance, the goal is to obtain that person’s contact information, in many cases a business card, so you can follow up at a later date, when you have the person’s undivided attention, and can begin to build a professional relationship.
Networking is simply making friends and building trust. That’s all it is. If you were given a bunch of free tickets to a Yankees game (okay, some of you would flush them down the toilet, so insert your favorite sports team here), you wouldn’t give them away to strangers. You would give them to your friends and family. Why? Because you know that you’d have a good time with them and eventually they’d return the favor. If you gave those tickets to a bunch of strangers, you wouldn’t be able to predict whether you’d have a good time or if they’d ever return the favor.
The same thing occurs with professional opportunities. When a manager at Company ABC needs to hire an account executive, he is first going to see who in his professional network may be interested in the job before telling strangers. Why? It’s because he already knows and trust the people in his network. Thus, he is able to reasonably predict how well someone will perform in the specific position. It reduces the risk and the cost of hiring an incompetent person, just like bringing your friends to a baseball game reduces the risk of having a bad time.
Networking leads to opportunities that most people wouldn’t get. It’s having the inside track and the ability to get the full and undivided attention of decision makers. Networking gets your foot in the door—it gets you a solid look and maybe an interview. But remember that it does not get you a job. Do not expect to be given or handed anything just because you know someone. You will still have to make your case, but you’ve already won half the battle by putting yourself in the position to be considered.