Perhaps the most agreed upon concept in the whole world of job searching and career management is that networking is the most effective, far reaching, and long lasting of all approaches. In fact, I know of no one who disagrees.
There is still far less than unanimity, though, when it comes to exactly what constitutes good networking – and what activities and affiliations should be engaged. However, because answering that question would require “many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore” (apologies, dear Edgar), let’s focus on just one aspect of networking: belonging to – and regularly attending meetings of – career networking groups.
Before saying another word, let me point this discussion straight at the Gen-Y crowd, those who were born in 1982 or after, although it’s important for everyone. I’m targeting you Gen-Y-ers because very few of you do this. And all of you should.
You can imagine how many networking events and meetings I’ve attended in the last 17 years as an independent career coach. Five hundred? Maybe More? With my earlier career added in, it’s much more. All things considered, the one thing almost all those meetings have had in common is the notable absence of people in the early stages of their careers, let’s say the first 10 or 12 years or so. At one event or meeting after another, all I see as I scan the room is, for the most part, a large collection of job seekers all of whom, I’ll bet, have AARP membership cards in their wallets.
This is, needless to say, wise on the part of the gray-hairs and unwise on the part of the “Yoots” (Did you say “Yoots”?) who need to know better. Now before any of you seniors congratulate yourselves for being so smart, a great many of you never started going to networking groups and events before you had to (read: started getting desperate). Honestly, right?
OK, you got there anyway. As a result, many of you now know that regular attendance and strong affiliation is a helluva good idea, even when you are in a job. That is what I’d like to get across to the Gen-Y-ers who are reading this or at least getting it forwarded from their parents, a more probable – and much more common – scenario.
So, Mr. or Ms. Y, start identifying relevant networking groups – industry, profession, alumni, or any other affinity – and start making this a regular part of your life. I know this may seem foreign to you, but that’s because much of what happens in careers has not yet happened to you. For instance, you haven’t yet gotten 25 years into your careers and gotten downsized out a job you were performing quite well, thank you very much, with two kids about to go to college, your mortgage due, and unemployment benefits about to run out. That, unfortunately, is when too many gray-hairs first started going to networking events, realizing they should have done that long ago. OK fine, now they know, but at least they know.
As we’ve discussed here before, that’s “defensive networking” – a term I use for starting to react to a situation you should have prevented by being a great networker all along. Great networkers can mobilize a great network because it’s been active all along, and you do that in advance, not in reaction.
Now, lest you think I don’t know what extensive “networkers” you Gen-Y-ers think you are – your activity on social networking sites is legend – let me emphasize something my colleagues and I have hammered home forever (so it seems). Real networking takes place on your feet, not on your keyboard. You can have all the LinkedIn and Facebook connections in the world, but until you shake hands, share a meal or a drink, sit with each other to hear a speaker, trade business cards, get warm and fuzzy – and do that regularly, often, and not just when you’re out of work – you’re not really developing a lasting affinity. People want to help people they care about, and that happens when there is a shared feeling of closeness and understanding, an empathy, based on similar ideas, situations, or interests.
So in what networking group(s) should you become active? The two most obvious are in your industry or within your occupation (marketing, accounting, HR, and so on). But there are two other types which I think are more interesting: alumni associations and general professional networking groups.
As for alumni, especially young alumni groups (10-15 years out, since we’re aiming this at Gen-Y), who doesn’t have a strong feeling for someone wearing the same college sweatshirt? That’s easy to figure, so if you haven’t been an active alum, start now.
Beyond that, though, the general professional networking group, at which you’ll find people from many industries and occupations, is important for another reason; you’ll be exposed to a widely diverse group of people, thoughts, ideas, and – what you’re there for – connections and opportunities.
Commit to this now, dear Y-er, to membership in and regular attendance at these professional networking groups, and your career may look much different from what it would if you wait too long, like many of your gray-haired predecessors…
…if you get my drift.