By Michael B. Laskoff
Recently, I attended a networking group for job-seekers. Such gatherings have become downright common, but this one was at one of New York's Ivy League-affiliated clubs. All the participants -- a dozen or so -- had the kind of sheepskins that are supposed to make unemployment unthinkable. Moreover, everyone had been out in the real world on successful career paths before the bottom fell out when the dot-com bubble burst.
What made this particular gathering truly noteworthy to me, however, was how sour the group was about networking. The consensus view: There are too many unemployed people trying to tap into the informal networks that used to be the best path to reemployment. In other words, networking no longer works.
WHOLE NEW WORLD.
Is this really the case? Unemployment now stands at 6.2%, representing 9.1 million out-of-work people. Some economists argue that these numbers are artificially low. If you were to add in those who have given up the search for lack of available opportunities and those who work part-time because they've been unable to find any full-time work, the real out-of-work figure would likely be closer to 10%. And if 1 in 10 are really unemployed or underemployed, then perhaps the landscape has changed so substantially that the old techniques no longer function.
I'm not convinced, however. Plenty of people I know have managed to find jobs in the past year, and most of them have done so despite spotty luck with headhunters, job boards, and other listing services. How did they manage it? By using updated, systematized network techniques. Here are five networking rules to live by:
• Limit your time with the unemployed. Obtaining and giving support, search tips, and job leads to other unemployed people can be a fulfilling and important part of the reemployment process. However, many of the unemployed seek out other jobless people for the sole purpose of sharing their misery or railing against the injustice of it all. Such grousing can become a full-time occupation, making a constructive job search more difficult.
Moreover, other job-seekers are far more likely to pass on their "leftovers," or old leads -- if they share at all, that is -- than people who are currently employed. It's better to network with people in the workforce, who often know fresher opportunities.
• No time for false pride. For many people, the biggest impediment to reemployment lies within. Those who are too embarrassed to face up to their current reality or too mortified to ask for help waste valuable time and energy. And while almost everyone passes through this phase initially, the most successful job-seekers quickly come to realize that there isn't much of a stigma to unemployment in this economy. There are simply too many people out of work for that to be the case.
So buck up. There's nothing to stop you from asking their friends, acquaintances, former colleagues, and new contacts for help.
• Start small, think big. When unemployment was 2% to 3% during the 1990s, a few considered words to the right people opened doors. No more. Today, good networking requires not just quality but quantity. Most successful job-seekers speak with more than a hundred people before securing a new position.
That sounds like a daunting number, but even the best-connected individuals don't know all the right people at the start of a search. Instead, they approach those in their personal, professional, and community circles to determine who might be helpful. The process often results in multiple referrals, and eventually, a good job opportunity.
• The race goes to the relentlessly steady. Identifying the best people to advance a job search is one thing. Scheduling meetings with them, preferably in person, is another altogether. Beyond the initial e-mail, phone call, or fax, three or four separate attempts are often required to verify that your request has been received. In many cases, more than a dozen e-mails and phone calls will have been exchanged before a meeting is scheduled and held. Be persistent.
This requires tremendous patience, careful organization, an abundance of courtesy, and an ability to recall that employed people, especially those with some influence, are exceedingly busy. Contrast this with the unemployed who have an immense quantity of time and the potential for frustration becomes apparent. Successful job-seekers, however, find a way to manage their impatience. They may not schedule all the meetings that they would like, but not for lack of tenacity.
• Ask not for what you want. Successful networkers never ask their network contacts for a job because they know that such a request generally doesn't produce the desired result. Most people won't have jobs to dispense at the time of the request and will prefer to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation by refusing to grant a meeting.
That's why smart job-seekers request an appointment with the avowed intention of seeking advice regarding how to advance their search or seeking new contacts. Such requests are much harder to deny. And having gained access to a potentially valuable contact, good networkers can present their background, goals, and demonstrate their potential value through good conversation and intelligent questions. If the person sitting across the table likes what she hears, she'll make a point of mentioning available opportunities with no prompting whatsoever.
So networking isn't dead, it's just more challenging than used to be. It's still the best way to a suitable new job, and that's why smart job seekers will find ways to make it work.
Laskoff is the author of Landing On The Right Side Of Your Ass: A Survival Guide For The Recently Unemployed. A graduate of Harvard Business School, he has worked in the investment banking, consulting, and entertainment industries, as well as a number of e-commerce start-ups. Currently, he operates a Web site at www.askyourass.com.