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What Is Networking, and Is It Any Different for African Americans Than Anyone Else?

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The authors of Networking for Black Professionals explain what networking is, why networking works, and how it can work for you.
This chapter is from the book

Individually, you are unique and special—just as everyone else is. And everyone has the same choice to makex, at about the same time, about whether and how to network. Unfortunately, and this is where you begin to separate yourself, the vast majority of people won’t recognize the moment of networking opportunity and, therefore, won’t have the same choices that you will. What separates you from them is that you are reading this book and opening your mind to the networking possibilities that await you.

This missed opportunity is so unfortunate for all the others because this is a choice of whether you will have maximum control over your own pathways to life’s success via networking. This is one of the few egalitarian moments in life when you have the opportunity to experience near-perfect equality of opportunity for your own future. This is a moment when you decide on the equality of the outcome of your choices.

By this point in your life, you have probably dealt with a wide range of issues—and you might still be struggling with them, perhaps overcoming obstacles and problems with school and work; dealing with your fears, loneliness, and career aspirations; coping with concerns about job search issues; worrying about how to meet people; managing your fear of public speaking, making new friends, and joining groups; and navigating many, many other life issues.

You don’t have to face most of these issues and problems alone. In fact, you shouldn’t face them alone. Superman, Batman, and plenty of other superheroes had sidekicks to help them—what makes any one of us think we can handle life alone? Don’t be afraid or egotistical enough to think that you don’t need the help of other people. You do. Only a fool believes he or she can succeed alone.

The thing is, you might not currently know the people who can best help you, or hire you, or move you forward. You need to reach out to them. That’s where networking comes in. Networking is the most successful technique and tool used by the most successful individuals in all walks of life, regardless of gender, religion, industry or profession, level of intelligence and education, age, social situation, and geographic area. This isn’t the tool of a secret society. Just about everybody has the opportunity to learn the techniques and tools of networking for success. Whether you reach out and grasp this opportunity is up to you. But—and this is the important thing—you have as good an opportunity as anyone!

Defining Networking

Does the word networking scare you or make you cringe? Are you fearful of what it might imply? Does the word imply that you 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? And 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’s something inherently sinister, bad, or unfair about using contacts to help you get ahead?

Networking pioneer and guru George Fraser is known as the “King of Networking.” He proposed effective networking to the black community in 1994 in his book Success Runs in Our Race. Fraser defined effective networking as follows: “[E]ffective networking is the identification, building and developing of relationships for the purposes of sharing information and resources.” Fraser said that networking is consistent with garnering information and equated it with a source of power: “[A]ny information flows to anyone willing to receive it. It is not racist, or elitist, or exclusive. That is what makes networking so effective.”

Networking is one of the most overused and misunderstood words in common vocabulary today. When you hear the word, what comes to your mind?

  • Getting something from someone else
  • Using others
  • Coercion
  • Manipulation
  • Getting something without using your real abilities
  • Having a “godfather” or mentor who will smooth the way for you even if you’re not capable or qualified
  • Making hundreds of daily short digital contacts on social network sites

Or, do the following descriptions come to mind?

  • Enrichment
  • Empowerment
  • The chance to learn something new
  • The opportunity to meet interesting people
  • The best method to achieve a professional or personal goal
  • The real world—the way most jobs are filled, far more than any other method of job searching

Perhaps you’ve heard the statistics and seen the evidence, or you’ve seen your friends’ networking turn into opportunity after opportunity for them. Maybe you’d like to network but feel that your chances of networking aren’t as great as others’ because you’re a black person, or maybe you feel that you don’t have the experience, skills, or abilities to network properly.

You might even play host to one of those ornery critters who appears every once in a while to sit on your shoulder (invisible, of course, to everyone but you) and criticize you unmercifully, trying to convince you of how unworthy you are because you’re a black person. That character will try to dissuade you from ever trying to network because you’re not worthy. Now is the perfect time to put your fears and uneasiness to rest, bury your concerns, 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; meeting the people who are ready and willing to assist you in your aspirations; being considered for the career opportunities you dream about; positioning yourself for the best promotions; being asked to serve on exciting committees; and working 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, then it’s in your hands. It’s your choice.

As a black individual, you might have faced—and continue to face—many challenges on a daily basis that are not overtly racial. You might feel sure that many silent or behind-the-scenes obstacles prevent you from obtaining certain positions or committee spots.

However, you will learn that networking is a crucial component in career advancement. First, you need to learn the networking game and its rules via observation. It pays to watch the players before entering the game. While watching, develop yourself professionally by obtaining the necessary skill set, certifications, and degrees to be a competitor on the team. No one wants a handout—being qualified gets you in the game. Second, after watching the game, you need exposure. Seek out the invitation to play in the game by attending meetings, seminars, workshops, and work-related functions—after all, you can’t get in the game if you’re not attending opportunities for networking. Lastly, begin building relationships, and perhaps seek out a mentor to help you navigate the process.

Of course, if you don’t want any of these opportunities, or if you think that getting them by having people help you would somehow diminish your character, then stop here. Other people will gladly take the help of those who are willing to assist. A great deal of research proves something you probably know intuitively: Networking works for those who choose to work networking.

By an enormous margin, networking is the single most effective technique for finding jobs (even during economic recessions), building a career, 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. Thousands of individuals of every race, culture, and diversity segment can attest to this.

The talent to network is inherent in nearly every individual. Almost anyone can learn how to network. However, only those who have the drive, energy, skills, and knowledge to learn and perfect the network process will be able to use it to their advantage.

Therefore, although most people instinctively know—or can eventually figure out—that networking “works” (which is why we get the myth that 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 who you knew that counted. What’s interesting about this finding is that three-quarters of the graduates believed they knew the secret to success, yet they couldn’t bring themselves to actually do what it took and become networkers.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 80 percent of all the newly created jobs in the last decade were never posted or announced anywhere. Furthermore, 70 percent of the replacement jobs were handled in the same manner. These jobs weren’t posted on any website, 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 didn’t turn up the candidate they wanted, they asked their network—their own contacts, the people they knew and trusted. Current research by Professors Michael Faulkner and Bruce Herniter at DeVry University on the impact of networking has found that personal networking and focused, direct contact with the hiring manager account for more job hunting success by job seekers than all the other methods combined.

The important issue is simply that the overwhelming number of jobs in America are filled through the process of networking. If you don’t use networking skills, you surrender many job, life, and other opportunities to other people. You deserve the benefits of networking, but you have to reach out and take them.

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. Unfortunately, many African Americans aren’t aware of the value of networking and thus don’t practice the skills; consequently, they can’t 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 working unsatisfying, unfulfilling dead-end jobs. In April 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that the national unemployment rate was 9 percent—and the unemployment rate for African Americans was 16.1 percent (versus 8 percent for whites). Some evidence by economists indicates that unemployment will be a societal problem in America for years into the future. Networking could mean the difference between being part of the pool of African Americans working in low-level, unsatisfying jobs and moving your career 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 candidates. The following is what they said they value most, starting with the most frequently cited skills, characteristics, and talents:

  • Good communication 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
  • Ability to work as 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 nationwide study conducted in 1999 by a well-known executive search consulting firm, 27 percent of chief information officers reported that strong interpersonal skills were the single most important quality in job candidates (23 percent listed this as the second-most-important skill).1

A major research study conducted for an association of colleges and universities 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. Specifically, those skills are teamwork (44 percent), critical thinking (33 percent), and oral/written communications (30 percent).

In a poll conducted in June 2009, Michael asked business managers and supervisors about the most important skills and traits for recent college graduates. A total of 293 respondents provided the answers in Table 1-1.

Table 1-1

Skill/Trait

Percent of Respondents

Potential to learn or be trained

40%

Interpersonal/team skills

23%

Communication skills

13%

Proven achievement/experience

12%

Technical/technology knowledge

9%

Michael Faulkner–LinkedIn, 2009

This poll reaffirms employers’ high regard for the soft skills and talents—the ability to learn, the 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 networking isn’t for you because you’re black, there’s something important for you to know:

  • First, you’re not alone. Believing you’re on your own might be a reason you’ve shied away from the very skill that can help you professionally and personally.
  • Second, you don’t have to wait and try to learn the benefits of networking as you mature or advance in your career. The earlier you overcome the fear or obstacle that hinders you, the sooner you will start gaining the benefits of networking. This is the skill that can begin helping you.

Let’s deal with the negative and inaccurate impressions of networking right now. In some of the negative impressions we listed, some people express a dark side of networking. It really isn’t even networking they’re discussing—it’s the dark side of human characteristics. Some individuals abuse networking, so it can be easy to confuse that abuse with networking itself. We’ve said that networking is the most powerful tool individuals can use in their careers and lives. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that some people out there aren’t benevolent, gracious, nice, friendly, kind, fair, and helpful individuals. Sure, you’ll find the occasional malevolent, malicious, spiteful, wicked, nasty, mean, power-hungry, self-centered, egotistical, narcissistic jerk. These bad seeds can just as easily master the understanding of body language and fake networking techniques to fool some people for a short period of time; those rotten apples can use their genes, money, power (not influence), and even evil to get ahead.

Other people advance solely on the coattails of a godfather or mentor. But they’re quickly seen as empty suits and frequently are abandoned or exiled. They eventually fail or wither away in ignominious insignificance. All these examples show how networking gets an inaccurate and even bad name. But these people aren’t networking—they’re power brokering and using power tactics instead of influence.

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