The networking process continues to be one of the most maligned, underappreciated, abused, yet potentially powerful tools in your job search and career development “arsenal.” Suppose that you manage to nail down an appointment with someone to “discuss alternatives,” “seek their feedback,” “bounce ideas back and forth,” etc. Just what does this really mean? How can you assure that you are getting the most out of this process, while treating the networkee with professionalism and respect?
The answers to these questions are not always completely black and white, but I feel that there are some significant keys to effectively using this time to the best advantage of all involved. In considering the questions to be posed during the networking experience, consider focusing your questions around the three key themes of the entire process – Information, Advice and Referral (ideally, in this order as well!).
Let’s use these three areas of focus to consider some of the key questions that you may want to include in your networking:
Each individual has a unique perspective on what is going on, both in their field of endeavor as well as in the more global areas of the region, the nation, the hemisphere, even the world. Solicit their “take” on things, as in the following:
1. How has your industry changed over the years?
2. Who and where are your competitors?
3. Regarding technology, how does it impact the way your business is accomplished?
4. Are there any emerging trends in your field that demand your attention?
5. Is the area in which you are working expanding? Is it a mature market? Is it on the decline?
6. Are there any key alliances or relationships forming that will be necessary to remain competitive?
7. Are you happy in your industry and field? If not, in what way would you change your current situation, if you could?
8. What is your perspective on the economy and opportunities as you look ahead?
Advice can be both precious, almost invaluable, and it can appear to be virtually worthless. Bear in mind that advice typically costs no more than an investment of your time and attention, and the relationships it can forge may be even more valuable than the information itself! That being said, here are some suggestions for questions:
1. If you were me, with my background and experience, what would your next steps be? (I believe this may be THE ULTIMATE NETWORKING QUESTION).
2. What experience or expertise is the most valuable in this field?
3. Are there any specific areas where you feel I may be “at risk” as a candidate, perhaps in relation to age, technical knowledge, salary expectations, etc.?
4. As a career changer or someone looking at a new industry, how can I help a company understand my abilities in an area that is somewhat different from my work history?
5. Regarding my expectations for advancement, employment, salary, job search time frame, opportunity, etc., do you see my expectations as reasonable, or should I adjust my target?
6. Do you have any specific suggestions as to areas for me to investigate? How might I start to make inroads into these areas?
The referral phase of the networking process is designed to expand on the information and advice that you are gathering from this kind individual. Seeking referrals is most often easier than it sounds. Most people, once they determine that you are “safe” – not pumping them for jobs or killer connections, but simply seeking to benefit from their knowledge, will be happy to share other contacts. I do feel, however that you should approach this final topic carefully, perhaps starting with something like the following:
1. I really appreciate your time and the insights you have shared with me. I’m wondering if you can think of anyone else that I should talk to, someone that could provide an additional perspective on these issues?
2. Do you know of anyone in a related field that might have a unique view that I should be aware of?
3. Are there any people in other areas that you would recommend I contact, based upon what you are learning about me and my interests?
4. Thinking “outside of the box” is an important part of my investigating options. Are you aware of anyone else that I should talk to help me look beyond the obvious?
As I noted on the outset, these people are doing you a tremendous favor. Be flexible, appreciative. Ask for about 45 minutes – you will almost always get more! Send a thank-you note right away. Be sure to ask for their permission to check back with them regularly (I’m fond of the two-week time frame as a general rule) with updates on their referrals, more questions, perhaps even a simple “staying in touch.” I will often directly request that they serve as a “sounding board” for me as I work through my career development.
You will be amazed at how many people are ready, willing and able to talk, providing invaluable ideas, insights and suggestions as you move ahead in your career.