The secret about networking that nobody ever tells you

The secret about networking that nobody ever tells you

Imagine a "good networker." What do you think of? Is it someone who wears a slick suit and a big smile, deftly juggling a drink and saying stuff like, "Let's circle up" or "I'd love to pick your brain"? 

I once viewed networking as a superficial skill — most commonly unleashed at industry events or over LinkedIn — steeped in inauthenticity. Uncomfortable with the "ick" factor, I have always been terrible at that kind of networking, finding it phony and even kind of nauseating.

And yet it turns out I’ve been networking all along without even realizing it, just by showing up to work each day or dropping by a Friday night happy hour, even when I’m a little tired.

I know that because nearly every job I’ve gotten has come from a colleague I worked with at a previous gig. That’s pretty typical, but career guides don't always make clear just how pervasive this truth is for most workers. "People get jobs through people they know," career expert Alexandra Levit told Mic by phone. "This is the most common and best way to get a new job."

In my first journalism gig as an editorial assistant at a tech magazine, my job consisting primarily of unboxing computers that other people got to review — fun! But eventually I got a shot at writing articles, and an editor on staff started to notice my work. When he jumped ship to run a hot media startup, I was one of his first hires.

My friend Michal Shamli, a registered nurse in New York, shares my feelings about the awkwardness of networking: "I don't feel like I am a good networker," she said. "I'm not super comfortable with it."

Yet Shamli also got a job as a part-time infusionist — to supplement her full-time gig in an emergency room — from her manager at the hospital. "She wanted to help me out," Shamli told me, adding that she landed that job because her then-boss was close friends with the hiring manager at the new place. Crucially, the personal connection meant something: "I wasn’t just a name and a number," she said.

If you're a natural introvert like me, networking with complete strangers can feel totally awkward. And that's ok. Because the most important thing I've discovered about networking your way to your next job is that it begins with the people you see at work every day. Here’s how I've overcome my natural shyness — and what I've learned about authentic networking:

How do you network the natural way?

"It sounds ridiculously simple: Be the best person at your group in your job," Levit said. "Always be the person who is willing to take on challenges." 

Networking on the job is — at its core — just being the best version of yourself, both as an assiduous worker and a decent, friendly person. New to the gig? Take it slow. You don't have to volunteer for a million responsibilities; simply take your first assignment and try to exceed expectations. If you knock it out of the park, people will start to notice, and you'll be asked to do other stuff. Coworkers may ask you for advice and you'll do the same. 

All this will come naturally in time. Don't try to force the connection or get all Dale Carnegie on your colleagues. People can spot that kind of phoniness a mile away. Ask real questions because you want to know the answer. And don't let your ego keep you from accepting help. Thanks to something dubbed the Benjamin Franklin effect, colleagues might feel even warmer toward you after lending a hand. 

Finally, remember that being good at your job isn't just about technical skills. The soft skills you bring to the office — including teamwork, communication and leadership — will also help you prove your mettle, career expert Heather Huhman told Mic by phone. Being a respectful, positive member of your office is arguably as much part of your job as your daily to-do list.

Those things matter when you are up for your next job because, "a lot of people have the hard skills, but if they don’t fit into the company culture that is going to lose you the job every time," Huhman said.

Can you network through LinkedIn?

While I’ve gotten many a job lead from LinkedIn — along with several interviews — I never got a job from it. Your mileage may vary, but regardless of whether LinkedIn leads directly to your next job, it still comes in handy. The interviews I landed through it were great for practicing my interviewing skills, learning the real pay for positions I’m a good fit for and understanding how different companies measure their success.

I’m no longer stumped by smart interview questions like, "What’s your management style?" and "How can you contribute to the diversity here?" I know when a potential employer is low-balling me on salary, and I have a few ways to get them to raise their number — all good to know. 

If you want to use LinkedIn to get in touch with an old coworker or college acquaintance, go ahead. You might have great luck, but don’t "spray and pray."

Kathleen Brady, a career coach and the author of Get a Job! 10 Steps to Career Success, told Mic by phone that it's a huge turnoff "when people send me an invitation to link and I have no idea who they are." Instead, choose the people you reach out to carefully and tailor each message to the recipient. 

Figure out your "fatal flaw" — and fix it

Nobody has perfect social skills but some are more naturally gifted at making connections. Since "likability is your key to success," as Brady said, it's worth your time to self-reflect. What's your biggest weak spot? How can you fix it?

If you tend to get mentally sucked into work, for example, try not to forget basic niceties — like asking someone who's been sick how they're feeling. If you have trouble keeping your cool when something goes wrong, learn to manage your stress, whether through deep breathing and meditation or taking a short walk. "You can't go around like your hair is on fire," notes Brady, or you risk alienating people.

And you can even work on shyness: "Find your comfort zone and stretch two steps out of it," Brady suggested. For extreme introverts, that could mean dropping by a training session or lecture offered by a different department to expand your network beyond your boss and immediate work group.

Feeling bolder? Then drop by happy hour. And by all means, go to your colleagues' parties if you are invited. Getting closer with colleagues won't just help you find your next gig; it will make the day-to-day of your current job more enjoyable — and may even lead to close friendships.

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