Networking is one of the most important things you can do to nurture your career. Whether you love getting out there and selling yourself or dread the task of making small talk, failing to network effectively will leave you spinning your wheels as far as finding a new job or advancing in your current one.
“The reality is that most job openings are never advertised or posted, which means tapping your network is an essential job search resource to uncover hidden opportunities. In fact, 63% of job seekers land new jobs through networking,” said Greg Simpson, Senior Vice President, Career Transition Practice Leader at Lee Hecht Harrison. “Developing a strong network and fruitful relationships takes real work. Individuals must be proactive and devote time to building and nurturing a strong career network of contacts.”
People everywhere struggle with the most basic aspects of networking. What gives us the most trouble? Roughly a third of job seekers said they had trouble picking out who they should try to network with, a 2014 Lee Hecht Harrison survey found. One quarter said they didn’t have a focused networking strategy, and roughly the same number said making initial contact with people over phone and email was their biggest stumbling block.
Once you get over those initial networking hurdles, more trouble awaits. From not being able to effectively exploit your networking to focusing too much on yourself, here are five of the biggest networking mistakes people make.
1. Not asking for help
No one will know that you’re searching for a job if you don’t tell them. Yet too many people seem reluctant to broadcast that they’re looking to make a career change. Forty-two percent of senior managers surveyed by OfficeTeam in 2014 said not asking for help was the biggest networking mistake they saw people make.
“People may not ask those in their networks for help because they’re embarrassed or think they can succeed on their own,” said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam, in a statement. “But whether you’re looking to land a new job or build your visibility, every connection counts.”
2. Not having a pitch
Putting together a canned “elevator speech” can feel a bit cheesy and inauthentic. But if you’re going to network, you need to be able to quickly explain to people who you are, what you do, and what you’re looking for. The key is making your pitch sound natural.
“The problem with most elevator pitches is that they get crafted on paper but not adjusted to sound like how a real person speaks,” wrote communication and behavior expert Deborah Grayson Riegel in an article for Fast Company. Riegel suggests practicing your pitch out loud and using the simplest language possible. You should also be able to tailor your pitch based on who you’re speaking to and be willing to forgo it entirely if working the information into the conversation would be awkward.
3. Only networking online
Online networking is essential these days – 35% of employers surveyed by CareerBuilder in 2015 said they were less likely to interview people who didn’t have an online presence. But for most people, having 500+ LinkedIn connections and hundreds of Twitter or Instagram followers isn’t going to substitute for meeting people in person. Instead, you need to work to make those virtual connections pay off in the real world.
“As networking becomes synonymous with online networking … [people] can neglect the importance of actually meeting up with people for coffee, making a phone call, or showing up at an event. So far online connections have not supplanted these traditional interactions,” James Jeffries, the director of career development at Bard College of Simon’s Rock, told Time magazine.
4. Only talking about work
When networking, don’t restrict yourself to shop talk. Whether you’re attending a business mixer or just happen to bump into a contact at the coffee shop, be prepared to chat about subjects other than your career. People are more likely to help and hire people they like and relate to, and letting your personality shine through will allow you to build real relationships with your contacts.
If you’re attending a networking event where you’ll be meeting people for the first time, “come up with a few questions as ice breakers,” etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore told Inc. magazine. “My typical go-to questions always revolve around food and travel, because everybody loves to eat and most everybody loves to travel.” Whether you’re just getting to know someone or reconnecting with an old colleague, remember that networking is a social activity; keep the conversation professional, but fun.
5. Not offering to help others
Networking is a two-way street, yet too many people go into it with a “What’s in it for me?” attitude. A more effective approach is to focus on what you can offer other people. If someone you meet mentions they need someone to help with their taxes, and you have an accountant you love, recommend her – you’ve made two people happy (and yourself look good) in the process. Let the intern pick your brain when he asks — you never know where he could end up being able to do you a favor. Building goodwill in this way can pay off big later when you need to tap your network for support.
“With any relationship, there is a cycle of giving and receiving,” Selena Soo, the founder of branding consultancy S2 Groupe, told Fast Company. “If you lead with taking, you won’t be successful because it will turn people off. But people who give to their social circles naturally reap benefits.”
Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS