The last time I had a sales job, I had regular nightmares about failing at achieving ‘targets’. That was almost nine years ago but I still remember the exhausting feeling. I hated networking. I hated going to work and trying to sell insurance to customers. But it was my first job after college while I tried to figure out which career to pursue and the job paid handsomely. Thankfully, I had a good boss who helped me realize that sales was not my calling. So after six grueling months of meeting clients and growing a sales network, I decided that the stress was not worth the money and quit.
After quitting I did some freelance work and then started my professional journey with IJM. In my Business Admin and Human Resources role, most of my responsibilities were office internal. When I was assigned the responsibility of being a recruiter, I enjoyed networking with organization leaders, colleges and individuals. This networking often took less selling skills because most people wanted to work at IJM.
I was getting quite comfortable in my role when one year our Director assigned an additional networking responsibility to me. I was to serve as a liaison to the German Consulate in Kolkata. This would involve staying in touch with some officials and attending social events hosted by the German Consulate. It wasn’t complicated really but I tried to wiggle out of it and failed.
The first social event I went to alone, I felt out of place and awkward at the beginning but I ended up meeting some cool people. Over time I learned to attend social events on my own, which meant that I actually had to meet strangers, start conversations, eliminate awkward silences and get to know people that I had no real interest in getting to know. The exposure was amazing! I grew more confident, comfortable and appeared more extroverted. My favorite part of the events remained unchanged – I loved when it was time to leave 🙂 But I became less apprehensive about intentional networking.
Learning to network is a key skill that leads to opportunities. Networking doesn’t have to be phony and selfish. It can be a great tool in building connections, advancing knowledge and greater success.
When I moved to Atlanta these networking lessons were put to good use. We knew only a couple of people here. While I waited for my US work authorization, I was able to use that tiny Atlanta network to connect with several business leaders. These leaders then introduced me to other business leaders in the city. Not all of them led to substantial outcomes but the city began to feel more familiar as my professional network grew.
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You need to be proactive in making these meetings happen. Don’t hesitate to follow up with your contacts when you are waiting to hear about potential networking opportunities – reminders work wonders. But there is fine line between being proactive and being annoying and that line depends on the kind of contacts that you have. Use the appropriate time of day to reach out, always give people a lot of time to respond and don’t hold grudges when they don’t respond.
Most of the time people were more available to speak over the phone instead of meeting in person. Either way the conversations included introductions, ideas about top things to do in Atlanta and some career advice. I had prepared a brief about myself and a list of questions about the person’s career choices and I would try to keep the pace and sequence as natural as possible. I didn’t ask any of them for a job but simply shared what I was looking for and sought their advice about next steps.
The other networking tool that I used was LinkedIn. I first spent a few hours creating a strong LinkedIn profile. LinkedIn allowed me to find and reach out to company leaders and recruiters in Atlanta. About 75% of those I contacted responded back kindly. The rest didn’t respond at all. I would find the people listed on job boards or leaders listed on company websites and simply reach out via email. It was awkward at first but with every positive response I received, the more natural the approach became.
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Of course not all of the 75% who responded led to substantial outcomes in terms of job searches but each of those conversations helped me improve the next email and conversation. I also enjoyed the exposure that I got to company processes and cultures and that was just priceless. When I emailed someone, irrespective of whether I knew them or not, I would ask them for one favor and that was to allow me to learn about their career trajectory, choices and lessons they had learned along the way as it would help me maneuver my new career path in Atlanta. I am very grateful to those who responded and shared invaluable lessons with me.
The key to this approach was not to get too attached to the opportunities and networks that I was pursuing. This attitude eliminated any feeling of insult when people didn’t respond because quite practically, not everyone has the time or interest to respond to strangers. However, if someone didn’t respond at first, I would send them a follow up email and keep it brief. Most leaders responded to the second email and agreed to schedule a time to connect over the phone and some of them even invited me to meet them at their offices and explore career opportunities with their companies.
Some of these networking sessions led to job opportunities in Atlanta. Some of them led to new friends. I almost enjoy networking meetings now.
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