When fisherman Jack finally landed a boot, he knew it was the last straw. His spectacular skills, with the perfect fishing gear, which he'd gone to great lengths to polish each day for the past 20 years, were no longer working. Jack was exasperated. He suffered from cold feet, itchy fingers and a hunger for success which drove him to pursue each boot with a vengeance. Jack was out of his element, and as much as he had always admired boots, he realized something that day, which changed his life forever.
Now consider this - new in the country, six months flushed down in hope of finding suitable work and hard earned savings disappearing like quicksilver in the cracks. Add this to throw in a bit of twist - no contacts. Like Jack, I felt like I had hit rock bottom.
So between my episodes of frantic quibbling and blaming anybody I could get hold of, I did the obvious thing anyone would do - I surfed the net. I spent the greater part of each day searching for vacancies in banking, where I knew everything inside out. I just needed to let people see that, and everything would turn out just fine.
Although I knew deep inside that applying for positions online was an unlikely bet anywhere, let alone in the very competitive Toronto job market, I continued mulishly for lack of knowledge of anything better to do. What sparked my egotistic determination was the plethora of advice on relocating to another city or going back to school, or even worse; changing occupation. All advices were targeted to the 'what' question and not to the 'how.'
A few thousand dollars later, someone I ran into at an event told me how smart networking helped one of his friends land a great job. That was of course not the first time my attention had been drawn to this potent alchemy but as all new immigrants like to think, it was something of interest to those few devious job hunters who loved long hauls rather than being forthright in approaching prospective employers directly, which I always thought was the shortest route to success.
Besides, what could be better than sitting in the cushy warmth of my home in the December of Toronto; the coldest in six years; and posting my off-the-shelf resume to one employer after the other. For me, churning out as many applications in as little time was the recipe for success. Targeted marketing was in my view something reserved for the textbooks and impracticable seminar presentations. But quite frankly, I was just hoping to get lucky and hit the jackpot while I stayed in my comfort zone. Quantity over quality was my formula for success.
In hindsight, I'm so glad I visited the event that day. Not only for the motivation which continues to drive me, not for the brief respite from my efforts, but quite simply, for forcing me to come face to face with the bitter truth about my own ways. It was an eye-opener more than anything else - a nudge in the ribs that broke my gasp and compelled me to think. I finally realized that while I liked thinking of myself as persevering, I had been too afraid to fail, and hence to try. Perseverance for me was no longer about being stupid or stubborn. Now it was all about being flexible and adaptable while sticking to my goal. It was the 'how' that changed, not the 'what.'
The little things I have learned about smart networking can easily be summed up in this piece but what can not be expressed in words is the power of positive attitude. Hence, as you read through these no-rocket-science tips from my personal experience viewpoint, keep the underlying code of positive attitude as your guiding principle.
1. Have a Plan
Before I jumped right into it, I jotted down my 'things to do.' My smart networking plan was simply the list of social activities I wanted to engage in so as to create and cultivate my own network, along with an estimate of time and money each activity would require. The idea was to make sure I didn't miss out on the things that might turn out to be most effective later on.
The list included activities like joining a community volunteer program, my neighborhood soccer team, a study group in my local library, connecting with people through social media and regularly visiting my place of worship. I had a balanced plan in that it didn't skew too much toward one or two activities while ignoring others. Once I had listed down my activities, I put them on my calendar with specific dates and hours of day so that it would become my routine. But then, I did not take my timetable to heart. After all, it was about being flexible, right?
2. Join Networking Groups
My plan was to try and get as many memberships as I could afford. I couldn't afford any so I looked around for the free ones or tagged along with others to networking events. For me, it answered an important how question - how to start my smart networking. I didn't have to buy expensive memberships to professional associations; I only went online and joined groups and forums which were interactive and had physical presence too.
I looked for groups that would meet up every so often to exchange ideas and help members connect at a personal level to build rapport. In my search of the common element that creates the bond between two persons, being member of the same group was perhaps the easiest one to have - the low hanging fruit in the tree of smart networking if you will. However, I had a genuine interest in what the groups stood for and I was selective in deciding which ones to join.
3. Attend Networking Events
What worked for me was meeting the same people twice at important events. It cemented my fragile connections into strong bonds that would last a lifetime. For me, it was crucial to be seen and be heard, to speak up and make an impression - a positive one. I knew that face-to-face interactions would either make it or break it for me, but I was not afraid of failing anymore.
For me, the 30 minutes or so of informal networking time before and after the formal event were crucial. I tried and made the most of my time. Every minute counted. As I engaged in small talk with new people, I tried to get a sense of their inclinations. I evaluated them as much as they evaluated me. If I got caught in a meaningless conversation with a less-than-ideal networker, I didn't stick it out. I concluded my conversation politely and moved on to the next person.
I made it a point to exchange business cards at the end of my conversation with everyone and anyone I met. Irrespective of how futile the interaction seemed to me at first, I didn't know what might work. That's the funny thing about networking. And yes, paying a few bucks to register for events is money well spent.
4. Practice Public Speaking
I realized that being good at public speaking would draw my contacts to me rather than I needing to go out to them. But I had always thought of public speaking as a challenge and not as an opportunity. This is where my guiding principle helped me out most. I knew it was unlikely that I would be asked to deliver a speech to an audience impromptu, so I didn't expect that, but I was always on the look out for every opportunity to speak without looking childishly eager to do so. At events, I elegantly volunteered to express my opinions when asked.
This was of course only possible once I was prepared enough to make the right impression. I didn't take the risk when I had no clue what I was going to say on the subject. But then, I had to take the risk in order to practice. So when confronted with the question, what's the best way to practice public speaking, joining forums like Toastmasters was my answer. That was the place where everyone was taking the risk and there was no shame if I did too. The more I practiced, the higher was my risk threshold and confidence level, and hence more the practice I got. It was like a spiral.
Once I had enough confidence to step up to the podium and say a few words at an event, I did it. I did not wait forever to become a master at public speaking. That would have taken me an age. All I needed was only that little amount of confidence to walk up to the podium. My preparation would take it from there.
5. Warm it up with Cold eMails
Before I got my first success at finding a job in Canada, I thought the power of LinkedIn was overrated. It is! LinkedIn might not land you a job per se, but it sure can help you get an abundant supply of information interviews with people who can connect you with prospective employers within their network or outside.
I considered myself lucky to receive a 25% response to my LinkedIn emails, while some 10% called me for a chat over coffee. That was my cue to shine. But before I reached to that point, I organized my effort and had a list of contacts available with valid email addresses. I got a basic paid LinkedIn account to be able to send emails to people outside of my immediate network. I drafted a polite yet assertive email focusing on what was common between me and my prospective contact and had the draft reviewed by friends to get a second opinion.
To personalize my standard email draft, I went through the intended recipient's LinkedIn profile to find out what interested him or her, professionally and personally. If I couldn't find anything better, I would join a group on LinkedIn that my potential contact was already a member of, and start my email with that. Some times it worked, sometimes it didn't. But that was my best bet. While writing to people on LinkedIn, I would always write to offer help rather than to narrate my sob story and I would always remember to close with a strong call to action.
6. Be Responsive, Be Available
Whether it was answering my emails, or receiving voice mails, travelling to meet someone for an information interview or sorting my snail mail, I was well organized. It helped me save my time and that of others. To me, it was not only courteous to respond to every correspondence within reasonable time, it was the moral right of the person I was communicating with. I knew that perhaps this was the only place where my first impression could get overridden by the second.
By the same token, I made sure I arrived at meetings in time. I mostly took public transit, so I purchased a monthly pass rather than carrying jiggling pockets to the station only to find out I was short of change. And arriving 10 minutes early at the venue never hurt. If unavailable to take calls, a nice voice mail greeting recorded on my phone would greet the caller. Also, I made it a point to check my voice messages and get back to the callers within 24 hours, unless it was more urgent than that.
7. See How You Look Online
A senior mentor once told me, "everyone Googles everyone." Weeks later, I was enthralled by how true he was about the strange phenomenon we are now growing accustomed to. It was so funny when I knew that somebody I was meeting apparently for the first time had already been to my Facebook profile. What was funnier was that she was playing it down by pretending that I was someone brand new to her. It was funny because it showed.
But that's not the point. The important thing is that I was weary of this phenomenon and was always on the guard when creating or updating my online presence. Good or bad, I knew my online presence was as much a part of my existence as my physical being; perhaps not so in reality. But then who cares about reality; it is the perception that counts.
8. Have a Networking Toolkit
To make sure the big thing works out for me, I made sure I had the little ones in control. Here's a list of the basic toolkit I used:
Business card - I didn't have to be working at a company to have my business cards. I printed customized cards that mentioned my core professional expertise and had my phone number and email address printed clearly at the bottom. I got help of free online tools for the first batch. My rule was: the simpler the better.
LinkedIn profile - I subscribed to an entry-level paid account at LinkedIn to become more visible to prospective employers. I could see who viewed my profile and send emails to people outside of my immediate network.
Personal website - I am considering having a personal website to establish my brand, something I should have done long ago. My personal brand would help me stand out from everyone else. It would be an expression of what is unique about me. My plan is to ask each of my five closest friends to list five qualities they see in me as the most prominent. The one thing that gets repeated most would be what they commonly identify me as. It will be my brand identity. Unless it is something negative, I will build my personal brand around it and put it out there for the world to see.
Thank you cards - I can't overestimate the power of the thank you card. It worked wonders. How I made others feel was how they were likely to want to make me feel. I made them feel valued, and I was sincere in doing that.
Voice mail greeting - I wanted to sound professional and courteous but not sheepishly polite. I had a brief recording to greet the caller and I remembered to say thanks and that I would get back to him or her soon. And I did get back soon.
Wardrobe and grooming - I invested some money on my wardrobe. I had a few decent business-like outfits in there. They didn't have to be expensive, but had to look good on me and make me feel comfortable and confident. I didn't let my tendency for sartorial experimentation get the better of me, so I didn't take the risk of dressing unconventionally or too casually. I didn't want to stand out for the wrong reason. Lastly, I paid attention to my personal grooming. Details mattered.
9. Have Your Resume Handy
I had my best possible resume ready in case my contact would ask me for a copy. I knew that I would feel more confident to take my real resume out and share it with the person I had already established contact with rather than to send a copy out to a search engine programmed to dump anything short of meeting the keyword criteria. Hoping that it would be a healthy human brain processing the information I put on my resume, I had a better chance of standing out. Besides, now I had the luxury of getting a call back in case my contact needed some clarification on that last role I performed.
10. Remember to...
Update your list of contacts - After each meeting, I would get as much information down on a piece of paper as I could - name, organization, title, interests and hobbies, where I met them and so forth. Yes even the sex was important. I didn't want to end up reminiscing Daryl as the helpful guy I met at Tim Horton's. I also kept my list handy in case I got a call from Daryl and couldn't recall how I know him, sorry her.
Contacts last a lifetime - I had started to focus on quality, not quantity. I connected with only as many people as I could stay in touch with on a positive note. I tried not to forget the people who helped me and the ones who didn't. I was thankful to all and made sure I expressed my gratitude. I meet my contacts once in a while even after I am successful in my immediate goal of finding a job. You never know where it might take you.
Be true to yourself - Saying that perception is bigger than reality did not absolve me of my responsibility to be honest. I was emphatic about my strengths and did not let my weaknesses show, but I never lied. That was the whole idea of building perception that worked for me. While I was busy working on my weaknesses, I was working on being self-aware of my strengths as well. In my interactions with people, I preferred being myself rather than being what I was not. Having said that, I was the best 'me' I possibly could.
Offer help - I was reciprocal in my attitude. No matter what situation I was in, I offered help to people in whatever way I could. In many cases I ended up being the one who got helped. In my emails, I would not write I needed work. If I had to say it, I said I am willing to help in work. It was in the way I said it.
One afternoon on my way back from an information interview, I met a passerby at the bus stop asking for direction. He was visibly new to Canada and needed help. Despite being the last person who could help another newcomer, I offered help and exchanged contact information after our brief introduction. Later that day, I got a call from him saying that he was off to an interview when we met, and since the position in question was not all that relevant to his past experience, he recommended my name for the position. And guess what, I got the call in a couple of days.
For me, social interaction was a transaction, an exchange of value. My willingness to help was like a promissory note I signed to show my commitment to transmit something of value back to the person in future when receiving something of value in the present. And in my whole equation of give and take, give always preceded take.
Be the shameless networker - This required some self-motivation initially. I would often say to myself, "if you are too shy to go out and meet people, don't. But know that there is no shame in initiating a social transaction." I was after all promising to return the value I received at a future date. Once that realization seeped in, I didn't hesitate to approach the speakers for a warm handshake and an expression of thanks after a wonderful conference I attended. I looked for the seemingly senior attendees and tried to meet them whenever I got a chance.
Customize your smart networking plan - I welcomed all the advice I received, but I did only what suited my circumstances best. When preparing my networking plan, I omitted the activities that had very little likelihood of being useful for me. Instead, I filled the list up with more effective means of connecting with people. For me, job fairs didn't work all so well, so I attended them only when I had no better activity on my list and didn't want to keep shooting in the dark by applying online and being at the mercy of not-so-intelligent search engines.
Step out of the comfort zone - I learned that the moment one starts feeling too comfortable, he or she stops growing as a person. I had to be tough if I wanted to get going. It was never too late to put the lid on my laptop and set up my first real meeting. I was pleasantly surprised to see how eager people were to help, or rather; to transact with me.
Stepping out of my comfort zone helped me in ways I least expected to work. Upon someone's insistence, I joined a full-time course at an agency called ACCES Employment. Initially skeptical of how being stuck in a classroom for seven hours a day could help, I soon realized how much I needed to learn to become job-ready in a new country. After a month of training at ACCES Employment, when I finally found myself face-to-face with a prospective employer at a mentoring event arranged by the agency, it all came together for me. I was for once at the right place at the right time, and I made the best use of my five minutes. That prospective employer is now my present employer.
Stand out from the Crowd - I had kept the cliché for the end. Whatever I did, I didn't limit myself to what everyone else was doing. After all, the whole idea of networking was to be noticed as someone better than my competitors.
All tips aside, what worked for me personally was the high expectation I had of myself. Only because I believed I could achieve the end in mind, I applied the right means to achieve it. Self-fulfilling prophesies, it turns out, are just as prevalent when leading yourself as they are when leading others.
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