Networking: Making Connections that Create Opportunities

This is the time of year when graduates are looking for their first jobs and when professionals who have been working are either looking for new opportunities or are in the process of interviewing for open positions. Networking is an important strategy when a person is contemplating a professional change and there are a number of tactics that are essential when engaging in the process.

Networking involves speaking and meeting with people who can assist in broadening and strengthening professional connections. Although it is only natural to ask “why should so and so meet with me?”, in most cases colleagues are willing to have a conversation with someone who wants to learn about a particular field of practice or about a specific agency or organization.

The first step is identifying the organizations that represent the field of service. For example, if a person looking for employment or considering making a job change is interested in services for the elderly, then it is important to make a list of all the organizations providing services to the elderly in the area where the networker lives or would like to live. Today it is relatively easy to locate this kind of information by doing an internet search. In fact, many service providers have developed websites that share a great deal of information.

Someone looking for a position can now prepare for even initial meetings by reading detailed material. Preparing for these meetings will enable one to acquire background information and to focus the discussion on specific issues or challenges. Understanding the fundamentals about the organization and the services it provides enables the networker to engage with the organization’s staff person. It also gives him an ability to focus the conversation and ask relevant questions.

When arranging a meeting with a professional who is with the organization it is important to explain the reason for the meeting. A number of appropriate comments include: “I have heard about the organization and I would like to learn more about it” or “I am thinking about working with the population you serve and I would like to learn about how you respond to your clients needs.”

It is not recommended to say, “I am looking for a job and I would like to meet with you.” Once an organization’s staff member hears that you are looking for a job and if there is no job available, the response will be, “We do not have any openings so there is no reason to meet.” It is much better to begin by requesting a meeting so you can learn about the organizations and its services. Most of the time professional colleagues will make themselves available for such collegial encounters. Of course, occasionally the response will be, “I am really busy right now, call me back in a week or so and I will be happy to arrange a time for us to get together. It should not be a turn off when someone says they have to put off meeting for a while.

Once the meeting is arranged, it is a good idea to send an e-mail confirming the time and place and thanking your colleague for making the time to meet with you. This small gesture communicates a sense of professionalism as well as common courtesy and it is important not to take a person’s availability for granted. It also expresses appreciation for your colleague in making the time to meet with you. Prior to the meeting it is a good idea to check out the organization’s website and conduct a Google search to learn more about the agency’s activities, involvements, partnerships, contributors, and other data that can be used in the meeting.

The actual meeting has a few purposes; as stated above, it provides the opportunity to learn more about the organization and its services. The engagement with a professional, whether the director/CEO or a staff member, is an opportunity not only gather information about the agency, but it also creates a situation where the agency professional is able to learn about you – the person who requested the meeting. This is the time for the networker to “shine” and to demonstrate his ability to think about issues and to discuss them with his colleague.

Most of these networking meetings take about 45 minutes or an hour and towards the end of the meeting it is a good idea to inquire about possible openings in the near future. If there has been a meaningful exchange, the agency professional might suggest a meeting with a person from the human resources department, in a larger organization, or with the director or assistant director in a smaller organization. It is also the time to ask about other professionals in other agencies who would be appropriate to call upon for similar networking meetings. When the meeting is a success, information about other possible contacts will be given freely and enthusiastically.

It is also a good idea to ask the colleague providing the names to send an e-mail and/or make phone call to each of the people he has suggested; this acts as an endorsement and encourages those contacts to meet with the networker. A day or two days after the meeting, it is essential to send a thank you note to all those who assisted in arranging your meeting and to those who actually met with the networker. The networking process is a way of spreading one’s name and experience while meeting new people and your reputation is the most important thing you have. If you have good relationships, treat others well, and agree to meet with them when they call you to network, you will have more access when you need the same.

When someone decides to engage with others in what is a “learning process” then the networker not only meets new people but also learns about organizations and their successes and challenges. The beauty of this process is that often doors are opened where least expected and at the end of the process the networker meets many new people and makes some wonderful contacts that can only help him in the future.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.