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As much as 85% of jobs are found as a result of networking, according to research by PayScale, proving the old adage, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” But not all networking is the same. Depending on the stage in your career, your actions should change and evolve, says Judy Robinett, author of Crack the Funding Code: How Investors Think and What They Need to Hear to Fund Your Startup.
“From finding your initial job to moving ahead, networking is a huge part of your career path,” she says. “At each stage, your networking needs to be focused differently. What got you that first job might be the ability to keep your head down and work hard, but keeping your head down doesn’t help if you want to get promoted or later become a rainmaker.”
Networking requires a distinct skill set. Here’s how to master the process at different stages of your career.
Getting your first job
At the beginning of your career, it’s important to tell everyone you’re looking for a job, says Robinett. “Use two golden questions: ‘What other ideas do you have for me?’ and ‘Who else might you know that I should talk to?’” she says. “The best part is that jobs [found through networking] have 6% higher pay than those applied for directly.”
Build a network starting with everyone you know, such as family, friends, professors, and managers from previous jobs or internships, suggests Mark Beal, adjunct professor at Rutgers University and author of Decoding Gen Z.
“As a professor, one of my main objectives is to help students get jobs,” he says. “I always bring guests to my classes, and students ask if they should introduce themselves. Yes! But also invite [the guests] to connect on LinkedIn.”
If you’re fresh out of college, use youth to your advantage. “I tell students that 99% of people want to help you; they were in your shoes and they remember who helped them break into business,” says Beal. “Use this time to ask for help, introductions, and advice. Put yourself out there.”
Getting your first promotion
Once you’ve landed your first job, networking can help you gain more visibility as well as build skill sets you’ll need to get promoted, says Robinett.
“Volunteer for committees with diverse employees across the company, making sure you get to know folks with P&L responsibilities who tend to be the decision makers,” she says. “Take advantage of any in-house training and attend outside training to gain key information on compensation, industry knowledge, and key contacts.”
Robinett also suggests attending conferences. “One or two industry experts can change the course of your career,” she says.
If you’re lacking skills you may need in the future, consider volunteering with not-for-profit organizations to acquire them. Robinett volunteered with a local United Way and worked on the finance committee. “I did this so I could learn budgets and add [to my resume] that I controlled a $4 million budget that helped me land my next job,” she says.
As you become more established, position yourself for promotion by determining the influencers in your organization; they aren’t always part of the hierarchy of its org chart, says Robinett.
“Networking allows you to build social capital and improve your emotional IQ, which is often listed as the No. 1 most valuable career skill,” she says.
Leadership and beyond
To move into management positions, strategically networking with people outside of your organization is critical, says Robinett. Get to know outside recruiters as well as people who are influencers in your community.
“Research shows that promotions are faster for those who have a strong network,” she says.
If you want to find a new job in a different industry or even create your own job, networking is crucial. “Seventy-five percent of millennials want to start their own businesses,” says Robinett. “High-end networking skills will give you access to resources-best information, best ideas, funding, and the right people. [Former General Electric CEO] Jack Welch said, ‘Forget an MBA; learn to network!’”
While tactics may change depending on the stage of your career, never stop networking, especially in an age where technology is playing a more important role in hiring. Whether you’re 21 or 45 or 50, you need to get past the organization’s robots when you’re submitting a resume or application online, says Beal.
“If your application doesn’t match enough terms, you probably won’t hear back or get a first interview,” he says. “To bypass the system, you’ve got to go a little old-school, with good, old-fashioned human interaction. It’s HI versus AI, and it’s more powerful. Use your network and make connections. You never know who will be the person who opens a door for you.”
Whether it’s the value of a good mentor, the benefits of self-employment, or guarding against career disruption, a majority of American workers know what’s best for their careers, yet they rarely take their own advice.
A recent survey of 3,000 American workers by Olivet University and Digital Third Coast found that 76% of respondents believe mentors are important for their professional development, yet only 37% have one.
A 2018 study by FreshBooks also found that 27 million Americans aspired to work for themselves by 2020, but a year later, the 2019 edition found that only 2 million had made the leap. Furthermore, multiple studies by Gallup, Quartz, and the Pew Research Center have shown that a majority of Americans believe automation and AI will displace a significant number of jobs, but not their own.
These studies and others demonstrate how we often know what’s best for ourselves and for our careers. So why don’t we take our own advice?
“We don’t do it because it requires changing our habits and routines, and creating uncertainty and disturbance in our lives, and we don’t want that,” suggests Ines Temple, a career transition coach and the best-selling author of You, Incorporated. “It’s like going to the gym; you know it’s good for you, but unless you’re in a habit, it’s hard to keep making the decision to go.”
The biggest threat to a successful career is comfort
According to Temple, comfort with the status quo might be the biggest threat to our career trajectory. She explains that the security of a monthly or biweekly paycheck is often enough to make us take our employment for granted.
“People don’t like to think much about disruption or the new skills they need to be developing themselves, because that forces them to confront a reality they don’t want to face, which is that ‘I may find myself out of a job,’ or ‘I may find myself irrelevant,’ or ‘I may find myself unemployable,’” she says.
Instead, Temple says many only consider these possibilities after they become reality. “We can be reactive and try and do things when we have to, or we can make big shifts in the way we understand our work situation and really become the owner of our own careers,” she says.
Why we’re terrible at planning for the future
The only problem with planning ahead is that humans are naturally really bad at it. In fact, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in 2006 titled, “If Only Gay Sex Caused Global Warming,” to demonstrate how we are wired to effectively respond to short-term problems but remain remarkably poor at planning for the future.
“We have learned to react to things that are urgent, but unless there is something pushing us, we don’t move,” says Temple. “We don’t want to look ahead in time, and that’s why people don’t take mentors.”
Temple explains that finding a mentor can dramatically improve our career resiliency, but it requires an acceptance that there is room for improvement and a willingness to ask for help; two things humans are particularly bad at.
“If you don’t feel a glaring need–like, ‘I really need some advice or some guidance in my career right now‘–but just vaguely know it’s important in general, that might not be enough to compel people to go and pursue it, because it’s harder than the status quo,” explains Andy Kerns, the creative director of Digital Third Coast.
Fear, uncertainty, and doubt
In their study, Digital Third Coast also discovered that only 14% of mentees directly asked their mentor for assistance, while 25% of mentors offered up their services, and the remaining 61% say that the relationship developed naturally.
“Clearly, the working public is timid about asking someone to be their mentor,” says Kerns. “It’s clearly a rarity for someone to take the initiative and ask for that relationship.”
It’s that same fear, uncertainty, and doubt that prevents many from pursuing self-employment, even when they feel it could improve their income and level of career satisfaction. According to the FreshBooks study, only 1 in 5 employees is standing by their current employer out of loyalty. The remainder of those who want to pursue self-employment but haven’t cite fear of income inconsistency and fear of losing benefits as the top reasons why.
“Because of imposter syndrome, we often don’t think we’re as qualified as we might be,” says Mike McDerment, the CEO and cofounder of FreshBooks. The study also found that women tend to be even less confident in their qualifications and expertise.
“Newly self-employed people–and women in particular–have trouble charging what they’re worth, which makes it difficult to be successful,” adds Dave Cosgrave, the director of industry insights and analytics for FreshBooks. “That’s an important manifestation of the psychology of imposter syndrome; you’ve got to get over the fact that you are good enough and you need to charge what you’re worth.”
Start small, but start somewhere
Whether you’re looking to find a mentor, take the leap into freelancing, or pursue additional training that might improve your job security, the hardest step is often the first one.
Kerns suggests searching LinkedIn and other industry-specific sources to help identify and start reaching out to those in your field that are in a position you aspire to. “I don’t think there’s much to lose in seeking a mentor, or at least opening up the conversation,” he says.
McDermott, meanwhile, recommends seeking out those first few freelance gigs and trying it out part-time to help determine whether it’s a viable career option.
“It’s not a zero to one kind of thing,” he says. “You can take a little step and build up to it, which can help with the fear, uncertainty, and doubt.”