For years, I have had this fantasy/belief that someone I randomly meet in a bar one night would offer me my dream job. It seems ridiculous but strange things like that happen all the time. Networking involves utilizing personal and professional contacts to open up opportunities that you would have been less likely to get on your own. Whether it be a close friend, a family member, a colleague, a social network contact, a student, or simply a fan of your work, people can help you follow your dreams and achieve your goals. Sometimes luck is involved and timing plays a big part in many networking success stories but the common element is the personal link that connects you with what you want. Many times we never see it coming but, upon reflection, see how much of impact those “influencers” had on our lives.
I’m originally from Lexington, Kentucky in the U.S. but I went to high school in a small town where many of the people had known each other from birth. When we moved there it was very obvious that I needed to make friends with some of the popular kids and they could introduce me to everyone else. That was the first time I understood the value of networking.
Spending a year in Denmark as a high school exchange student and studying abroad again in a university in Australia were great experiences and in both countries I relied on locals to help me adjust to the new environments. This helped me recognize that people who knew a lot more about something than I did (in this case, a new location and culture) could help me learn about it much faster and easier than if I tried to accomplish it by myself.
I taught English in South Korea from 1996 to 1998 and then again from 2002 until the end of 2015. During that time I had the opportunity to work with students from all over the world as well as various institutes and government offices around Korea. Now I have a consulting business where I help people and organizations develop their professional skills in English. It wasn’t easy to leave a salaried position with paid vacation for the uncertain life of a freelancer but I was confident that it could work because I had put together strong personal and professional networks and they would help promote me and my new business.
Since I made the career change from professor to freelancer in February 2016, my network has become even more important. I leaned heavily on friends and friends of friends to get some of my first consulting and training jobs. No clients came from my website or social networking sites. Every job I got was the direct result of reaching out to someone I knew and asking them if they needed me or knew anyone who might need me. I sent cold emails to friends’ contacts, dropped their names, and explained what I could do for them. Many people didn’t reply but a few of them did and became regular clients.
Your network contains a wealth of knowledge and experience as well as infinite connections. It’s up to you whether or not you show yourself to be worthy of their advice and assistance and, if you are not too proud, to ask for their assistance when you need it. In return, you will be asked to provide introductions and recommend people you trust for opportunities. Like Newton’s Third Law, every action has an opposite and equal reaction and the universe finds a way to even things out.
University is a key time period for networking that can affect one's future career. Students are so focused on earning good grades in the short term that they don’t think about building relationships that will benefit them over the long term. I was discussing this with a friend and we agreed that grades help you get your first job but your skills, experience, and network help you get promoted or find other opportunities. In other words, your grades have a short shelf life.
I remember one undergraduate student who told me she wanted to be better at networking. She knew that she wasn’t a naturally outgoing person and had already missed a lot of chances but she wanted to start before it wasn’t too late. I applauded her initiative and gave her some tips for expanding her network. Stayed turned for more "Networking Thursday" posts to learn more about becoming better at networking and how networking can help you. It’s never too late to begin but starting earlier and learning to network more naturally can something everyone should strive to do.
It breaks my heart when students finish an entire semester and only get to know one or two people in each class because they sit in the same place with the same people every time. Think of all the people they could have met by moving around and chatting with new classmates every week. You don’t have to be best friends with everyone but by knowing more people and having more people know you, you add on to the list of people you can trade favors with down the road. This is especially true for highly-ranked schools. A friend that I went to university with, who is now a professor at Harvard, told me a secret about the school. “We admit very smart students who go on to do great things. From day one we tell them that they're special and that they will do great things as a result of coming here. They would have done so irrespective of their Harvard degree, but when they do, they attribute their success to their Harvard degrees. It's a bit of a Ponzi scheme.” Top schools receive so many applications every year that they get to pick the cream of the crop. So since your classmates at a top school are very likely to be successful it stands to reason that you would want to have as many of those people as possible in your professional network.
Networking isn’t about just about knowing people who can help you, it’s about having people you can share ideas and opportunities with. The more you give the more you get. Networking done right means having people above your skill and experience level, at your level, and below your level. The key is trust building. You need people in your network that you trust professionally and who trust you. That’s where opportunities come into play. You need to be able to recommend good people and you need to be good enough to be recommended and know the people who can recommend you.
I'm going to try to share one story with you each week. One of the best outcomes of undertaking this project was having the contributors tell me how much it made them reflect on and appreciate the impact that others have had on their accomplishments and success. I can honestly say that the process had been very rewarding as it had put me back in touch with old friends and even opened up some new professional opportunities.
It is my sincere hope that these stories will help you become more aware of the power of professional networking and its effect on your future success. Perhaps you will see the common thread connecting these stories and be able to better identify opportunities to help and be helped by your social and professional networks. The old adage states that “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” These stories should help to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
See you next Thursday!
Here are some short ideas that probably don't deserve to be published but I felt were worth sharing. You can find some of my other musings at profsaboard.com.