Wednesday, April 9th, 2008...12:38 am

Networking Works

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I’ve had recent conversations with some of my friends who have expressed both their eagerness and frustration to advance their careers. In the current professional environment moving up often means moving on. Unfortunately, most people don’t have jobs that allow them to naturally explore career opportunities within their daily routine. Furthermore, it always seems to be most difficult to find new opportunities when you most desperately are seeking them out. Working on a resume, scanning job boards and making semi-cold calls in your spare time when you are drained from your current “dead end” job just plain sucks.

In this post I’m going to attempt to make some sense of the concept of networking. I first learned about networking as a student at the Michigan B-school. The seminars, speakers and conferences they offered on career planning through the OCD stressed networking to a seemingly nauseating degree. But I began to realize that getting to know the recruiter at your favorite company could be as effective as studying extra hard for your finance exam (and I was always looking for an excuse not to study). I shunned the traditional interview process and networked heavily to find my first job out of college at Official College Sports Network and a few years later used my networks to learn about Sportsvite. I now consider networking to be 15-20% part of my current job and my career. Spend that much time and it becomes second nature. Here are some networking techniques that have worked for me and that you may find valuable.

Craft Your Story
It startles me, and I’m sure my fellow NYCers can attest, how often strangers strike up a conversation by asking “what do you do?” Socially, I’m kind of turned off by this question as the person always seems to be chomping on the bit (what is the bit?) to judge. But professionally this question is a lay-up. It’s your job to make you job sound fascinating (whether it is or not). I can answer this question by saying that I am an entrepreneur or I work for a digital start-up or that I’m helping to create a social network for athletes or that I’m a blogger, or that I have a book club, etc. Occasionally, the person asking the question will relate my answer to another person they know and before anybody even realizes it we are all networking away.

Even if you are a lawyer or an accountant it’s not hard to put a spin on your gig to make it sound interesting or important. Tie it into your personal interests or let it lead into a conversation about what you plan to do next with your career.

My point here is that you should always be networking. Incorporate it into every interaction and everybody you meet and you’ll be astonished by how far that will take you and how easily it will be to connect with others. It also will become second nature to the point where you don’t even realize you are networking.

Figure Out What Your Friend Do
The easiest people to network with is your friends and their friends. One of the keys to networking is to get people to like you so that they will want to help you. You already have a good relationship with friends and should feel comfortable conversing with them so you automatically get to skip the feel each other out process. So probe a bit into their career and brainstorm together how it might tie into your career. I’ve had tremendous success getting hooked up from friends. My big sister works at the NHL and is always generating leads for me. I can even play the sibling card if I need her to go out on a limb for me. Through Ellstein, I’ve talked business with two of his friends from high school, his roommate from Australia and a co-worker. There is a dude from Michigan who I have known socially for years but never all that well. A few months ago we realized we work in a similar industry and grabbed lunch. Last week he made two incredible valuable introductions for me without me even asking. Rob’s brother is going to intern at Sportsvite this summer. Rob is super appreciative but I’m pumped up as his bro has been great on the phone and following up and seems like a perfect fit.

I have a very keen sense of what most of my friends do and I’m always trying to figure out how we can help each other. In the last few years I’ve “networked” with Rich, Ellstein, Hillman, Rosen, Anand, Hal, Abelson, Wolk, Bersin, Krasman, Colby, Parsa, Ross, Zablow, Cohen, Gaffney and Charo and others. Those are many of my closet friends and on the surface it might seem like our careers have very little in common.

Aggressive Doesn’t Mean Annoying
While networking is very important it often gets lost in the shuffle in your day to day routine. This can get frustrating when you are waiting on a contact to help you out or get back to you. If a person doesn’t return your call it often means they are just too busy or need a small nudge. Tastefully, shoot people reminders. Be patient. Understand that their world doesn’t revolve around you. I’m great at blowing off college students who are seeking interns at Sportsvite. I don’t respond to their emails as quickly as other emails. I’ll sometimes miss calls with them if my day is hectic. I guess I realize I don’t have to handle these relationships as preciously since the relationships is tilted so far in my favor. The potential interns that are pushy in following up or sending reminders instantly win my favor and I’ll usually end up being more responsive to them.

The few times that I haven’t been aggressive in following up I usually end up feeling sheepish months later when I now need to contact somebody but don’t have as good a relationship as if I had connected with them earlier.

Do be smart about how you engage people. Try to share information with them that they might find useful. Don’t make them feel like they have to do anything for you. Rather, make them feel important and helpful regardless of how effective they may be. Ask them questions about their career…people always like to talk about themselves or about things that they know well.

Networking Should Be Part Of Your Daily Job
It’s important to build good relationships with all of the people you are currently working with. Let’s do a little mental exercise. Try to flash forward ten years. Besides being 15 lbs fatter, you probably envision a career path and a position that is far different than your current job. Now think about how much time you spend with the people you work with right now. There is a chance that the 20 people you work with now will be at 20 different companies in the future. Having good relationships with all of those people will create new opportunities….when you need to find new opportunities.

When I worked at CSTV I often initiated conversations with executives by asking them if I could buy them lunch or trying to learn more about what they do. Some blew me off. Most were very impressed and even somewhat flattered that a young kid wanted to learn from them. It was interesting to chat with them when I was at the job. It’s more interesting now as many of those people are at new jobs and I have maintained great relationships with them. There are between 20-25 people I speak to from CSTV and they all have a pretty good understanding of my ability and interests. The first revenue deal we ever did at Sportsvite was with CSTV. The first few advisors I brought on at Sportsvite were former CSTV colleagues. You get the point.

Explicit Networking Groups/Conferences
Sometimes it makes sense to network for the explicit point of networking. I play somewhat of an active role in NextNY, a tech and new media group in the city. Last fall I organized nextSports, a digital sports media conference. I’m planning another event for this summer. Rosen is involved in The Museum of Jewish Heritage. It’s Board members (Marc goes to the meetings) is absolutely unbelievable, some of the most powerful business people in the world. Charities and foundations are also a great way to network. It allows you to meet other successful people and build relationships in a more informal setting.

I have this blog for a variety of reasons but trust me that networking is one of the biggest. When I want to build credibility quickly I’ll send them over some relevant blog posts that give them a quick peek into how I think or how I express myself.

Help Others
It took me awhile to get how this works. Why help other people if they can’t directly help you? I now realize that connecting people helps the person who made the request, hopefully helps the person you are connecting them too and allows you to gain a tad bit of “social capital”. Do this enough and before you know it there will be a whole host of people who you have helped. At some point it comes full circle and they will help you. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll have so much experience networking that you’ll know exactly how to frame your request and connect with the people you want to contact.

My friend Charlie is amazing at connecting people. In fact he’s founded nextNY and has thousands of people reading his blog. He’s now launching a website called Path101 that is all about helping people figure out their career path and discover opportunities.

Charlie was one of the first people I emailed when I got back from my travels and I wanted to enter the start-up world. At the time he was working at a well-known venture capital firm and I had just discovered his blog. He wrote me back almost immediately wanting to know as much about why I would leave CSTV as offering his help or advice. He told me to come to the new networking group that he had just created. I did. A few months later he got me a coveted interview for the exact job that he was leaving (it’s a two year rotation). A few months after that he tipped me off to Vin who was working on a project called Sportsvite.

Charlie never expected anything back from me (except for me to give it 110% in dodgeball) and didn’t even stop long enough to allow me to say thanks. But you better believe I’m always looking for ways to help Charlie out and I’m pretty confident at some point I’ll hook him up. Now realize that Charlie probably has that same relationship with hundreds of other people like me just in NYC alone and you can imagine the advantage he has in starting his new company!

Networking Is Part Of Your Job
You may be reading this post and saying to yourself “yeah, this all makes sense but I need to find my next job like NOW”. Hopefully, you have been networking for years so it’s easy to open new doors. If not, start doing so today. If your network is small figure out how to expand it. Try to meet and have a substantial conversation with one new person a week. Work on your own pitch. Make sure your resume is updated. Figure out what events you need to be at within your industry. Engage people who are successful and ask for “informational interviews” (this takes all the pressure off since you are interviewing them so they get to feel smart). Soon enough you’ll be where you want to be.

There is no secret to networking. It doesn’t always work out exactly how you want either. When I came back from my travels I expected to find a new opportunity within a matter of weeks after one round through all of my contacts from CSTV. It ended up taking me four months to finally land at Sportsvite. But as long as you stay persistent, expand your network, and follow up something has to eventually work out. My buddy John is a great example of this. When he is ready for a new opportunity he makes his rounds again and again until the right opportunity appears. He’s driven, aggressive and persistent and he spends as much time banging down doors as he probably does working at his job (once here realizes he is on his way out). He’s hit a home run three straight times with three great jobs. Yeah, he kind of drives himself crazy as he puts pressure on himself to find the right gig but it inevitable works out. As Coach Schiano likes to say, “keep chopping wood”.

Final Words
I have no final words. Hopefully, this helped. If you want to talk more specifically about tactics that I like to use or tell me more about your situation, please hit me up. I find the topic of career path, networking and understanding other people’s motivations and interests to be great conversation. Also, if you have something to add please write it in the comments section. I’m sure other people will find your advice useful. Good luck!