In conversations with job seekers lately, I’m continually asked if it’s worth trying to network during a major recession or if it’s insensitive to ask for help right now since many people are overwhelmed and stressed.
While I’ll start with the statement that it’s a complete myth you cannot (or should not) network during a quarantine or economic downturn, networking is an often misunderstood concept, so it’s a point worth exploring further.
What I think this latest myth comes down to is the common misperceptions around networking and what people believe it to be. It’s true, many people are in major transition at the moment and the impact of the pandemic is affecting everyone, albeit in different ways.
But honestly, on a good day: 1) most professionals you’re likely to reach out to are overwhelmed with more on their to-do lists than they can handle, and 2) asking someone who you don’t have a relationship with to invest their social capital in you at any time can come across as potentially tone-deaf.
So in effect, the pandemic has highlighted some of the unsuccessful ways we’ve been approaching networking all along, and it’s also led to many positive (and hopefully lasting) changes in how we can be approaching it going forward.
The activity of networking is usually tied to the job search. While it’s certainly a very effective tool for this purpose, the effective part is essentially the relationship — the trust, shared experiences, or willingness to risk your reputation to assist someone. And the pandemic has offered a unique opportunity to do more long-term relationship-building, untethered from an associated job search (even if that’s a potential secondary goal).
Here’s what I’m noticing:
Different conversations. In my TEDx Talk “You’re Next Job is One Conversation Away,” I stress the importance of sharing your career goals with the people you already know — family, neighbors, close friends or even your regular barber or minister. These individuals already trust, respect and care about you (i.e., you have an established relationship), so it’s likely they would gladly spend their social capital helping you to land your next opportunity IF they knew what you were looking to do. The obstacle is that we rarely talk about our career goals in detail with these individuals, neglecting the facts: 1) they have their own connections and circles, and 2) many opportunities come from 2nd or 3rd level contacts introduced by your primary contacts.
As more people are spending time with family at home, chatting with local neighbors on daily walks or interacting with friends over Zoom happy hours, these conversations are turning toward work in deeper ways, likely due to the economic changes that are happening everywhere. Also, now that many are working virtually, the office is being brought into the living room, inspiring more conversations about work activities.
Many job seekers overlook the people right in their own backyard because they’re not in the industry they are targeting or they don’t believe they can help. However, although they don’t have jobs to hand out — it’s the people they know, or the people those people know who likely do have access to those opportunities.
One of the biggest networking mistakes is believing you need to start with distant strangers while underestimating the people you see everyday. Sometimes it only takes one conversation of sharing your career goal to jog someone’s memory about their cousin who works at that firm or their last client who was just talking about an opening at that company.
Reconnections. One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is people engaging technology to connect with dormant contacts. Dormant contacts are those individuals we once had a relationship with, but may have lost touch with over the years — for example, former colleagues, old classmates, and past neighbors. Personally, I’ve heard from several former colleagues and it’s been fun to learn where they’ve landed, who they’ve kept in touch with, and what they are up to now.
Dormant contacts are a great resource since a relationship had already been established. Bonus — if you’re not particularly comfortable starting conversations with people you don’t know well, re- establishing a connection can feel a lot easier than creating a completely new one. And remember that over the years, you’ve both gone on to do new things, establish new circles and meet new people, so it’s likely you can help one another on the job front, if not now, in a future role. The average tenure in a position is 4.2 years, so you’ll have plenty of chances to support one another throughout your careers. Make an effort to stay in touch.
Lending a hand. The pandemic is a novel, shared experience, and common experiences are a great way to quickly establish or accelerate relationships. Since the impact of Covid-19 is affecting us all differently, I’m also seeing a lot of generous outreach everywhere from local community efforts to deliver food and share resources, to global efforts of large organizations like LinkedIn and Ed Tech companies offering free courses, subscriptions and extras. Challenging situations can bring out the best in communities to rally support, and most everyone I’ve interacted with wants to help. This is truly one of the BEST ways to build relationships and good will.
If you have the time (and honestly, some do not right now because they’re on the front lines or juggling a full-time work schedule with online classes for their children), check in with the people around you and ask what they need. Walking a neighbor’s dog, picking up extra groceries for a friend, trading off childcare supervision, or just being a sounding board for a stressed colleague can truly deepen a relationship in ways you might not realize. And, that’s the true spirit of networking — building mutually beneficial relationships over time. When you only pair networking with a job search, you not only miss the point, but also many opportunities to develop strong connections.
Creativity. The popular saying, “necessity is the mother of invention” is playing out real-time in the world every day. We’ve seen incredibly rapid innovation in everything from technology to supply chains in the last few months and that change train isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. As your own organization or local resources have transitioned to meet the demands of the pandemic, you’ve likely noticed more partnerships across internal departments in an effort to pool resources and inspire creative problem-solving.
Many companies don’t realize how siloed they are until forced to collaborate, so I personally hope this is one of the positive changes that lasts well beyond the current circumstances. Even if there isn’t a pressing reason, this is still a perfect time to explore collaboration points across business units or geographies. Aside from the innovative ideas you may trade regarding your work, you’ll also build visibility and extended relationships, which can be beneficial for the long-term. For example, if your company goes through a re-org or you’re looking to make a functional career change, internal company allies and sponsors will be a huge help in reaching your goals.
Networking has never been an activity that was meant to only be paired with a job search. There isn’t an “on” and “off” switch for cultivating relationships, so while it’s prudent advice to be sensitive in your approach regardless of what’s happening in the world, the pandemic highlights the fact that we can engage this unique time to embrace networking in the spirit in which it has always been intended.