Networking Primer

I don’t know what they teach kids in college these days, but it sure isn’t the basic professional survival skill of networking.

The Seattle Times selected Trevor, an out-of-work Millennial, as a “career makeover” candidate for a feature in the NWJobs section of the Sunday paper. And the Seattle Times selected me as a “networking expert” to coach him on networking, and specifically LinkedIn, to develop his career.

The following is an executive summary I prepared for the journalist writing the feature. I’ve started sharing this summary with my job search clients as a networking primer.

Trevor and I started the conversation with the big picture: I asked him to imagine we’re sitting in the same coffee shop a year from now, that it is nearly May of 2014 and the sun is shining and we’re drinking coffee, and in this imagined conversation I ask him to tell me what it is he’s doing professionally.

He could see it clearly: a year from now he is going to be working for a political action group.

His interest in working in politics is a deep-rooted ambition that he can trace from childhood and middle school, when he used to debate politics with the Republican janitor, through college where he majored – and minored! – in political science, and in his professional work where he volunteered to get our president reelected and inaugurated.

So he’s clear on the “where.” We just need to figure out the “how” and get to the “what.”

Prior to our meeting, I had looked at his LinkedIn profile and seen that he only has 42 connections. He’s a social media guy and I was curious about why he had so few connections. I’d expect to see a hundred times that many. He told me that he’d been thinking about LinkedIn like he thinks about Facebook: he’s only included people he’s worked closely with.

I suggested a more expansive way of thinking about LinkedIn. The rule of thumb I tend to follow – and stretch – is to send a person an invitation to connect if they are likely to know my name and to have a positive association with it.  Your professional network can include anyone you’ve ever worked with, gone to school with, volunteered with, played sports with, etc.  Every person we know knows somebody who knows somebody who might be hiring for work we’d love.  The more people we can touch with our “ask,” the more likely we are to run into that hiring manager.

But that invitation to connect – to put yourself out there — can be scary, and Trevor and I ran smack into that fear: he didn’t want to send an invite and have the other person think, “You are not worth my time.”

As a professional coach, I work with many of my clients on that vulnerable, self-sabotaging fear of not being “worth it.” One of the tools I use is to get around that fear is to demand that the client brag to me, so they can hear how capable they are in their own voice, rather than just hearing the whisper of that frightened, self-sabotaging doubt.

I asked Trevor to brag for five minutes – even set a timer! – and took notes on what I heard:

…my peers look up to me… natural leader… people trust me… people come to me with questions… problem solver… I don’t like inefficiency… doesn’t have to be my shift… I see the bigger picture… I want to be helpful… I’m empathetic… emotionally intelligent… I can see the other side, I like to understand things.

“That made me sweat!” he exclaimed. But by the end of the five minutes, Trevor could hear that he is very much worth anyone’s time on LinkedIn.  He committed to adding 10 LinkedIn connections a day and to begin asking for recommendations and endorsements from former colleagues and classmates.

Another coaching tool I use to help my clients to get around the self-sabotaging fear of not being “worth it” is a written personal narrative. This is the story that threads together the jumps and changes in direction that we all make over the course of our lives and careers. It is personally empowering when we can see that our story is coherent, that it makes sense, when often it can feel random and serendipitous, like a pin ball machine that we don’t control.

A version of the personal narrative is also great for the Summary section in the client’s LinkedIn profile, tying the personable, unique person to the more impersonal, dry resume.  Looking at Trevor’s LinkedIn profile, which currently doesn’t have a Summary section, I couldn’t get a sense of who he is as a person: how a poli-sci major who scuba dives and worked for FedEx makes sense.

After listening to him “brag,” the threads that tie it all together are very clear: Trevor is a person who takes the initiative and seeks out responsibility, where as a 19-year-old he was responsible for people’s very lives as he taught them how to scuba dive; where he had 30 direct reports by the time he was 25; and who has deeply educated himself about politics and the political process in order to serve the public good. Once he had connected those threads, Trevor committed to writing out a personal narrative and adding a version to his Summary section on LinkedIn.

The “how” of developing his career was becoming clearer: building out a larger, more expansive LinkedIn network; and expanding his LinkedIn profile with a personable and compelling Summary section, and requesting recommendations.

We now moved to the million-dollar question: the “what.”

“What steps have you taken to find work at a political action organization?” I asked him.

Trevor had gotten stepped on in a couple of interviews and had lost confidence during unemployment, so the answer was not much. I challenged him to identify 10 organizations anywhere in the country where he would like to work and, using LinkedIn, to identify 10 employees within those organizations.

Trevor now has a research project in front of him, one that requires him to talk to enough people to figure out where he might fit in a political action organization, to figure out how he could contribute, and what problems he could solve.

“How are you with picking up the phone?” I asked him.

“I’m not getting a lot of calls now,” he said. “Maybe I need to call them.”

That’s where a fluent and well-rehearsed short version of the personal narrative is also helpful.  Whether Trevor picks up the phone to cold call an organization or is talking to a stranger at a party, he will have a clearly articulated and compelling explanation of who he is, what he has to offer and what he’s looking for.

In the last couple of minutes of our session, we talked through a couple of LinkedIn tactics:

  • His LinkedIn profile photograph.  First impressions matter. Trevor is a commanding, impressive young man; his photo should reflect that.
  • LinkedIn alerts, where he can save a job search and get periodic emails when new postings fit that description.
  • A profile URL so his LinkedIn URL isn’t a jumble of letters and numbers.
  • Adding his LinkedIn URL to his email signature, so that every email he sends is a networking event.

Note: This article was written and published with this client’s express permission