The Most Surprising Thing About Your Network

When we think about networking, we usually picture talking to colleagues, classmates or former co-workers. But often, your most valuable “connections” may be people you don’t even know yet: the contacts of contacts of contacts. These distant ties can provide you with intelligence, strategies and opportunities unknown to those people closest to you—and they’re more approachable than you might think.

Sound counterintuitive? It’s not when you think about it. Consider one of networking’s inherent weaknesses: We tend to know people who are a lot like ourselves. Software developers with certain training and experience know developers with similar work histories; department managers are in frequent contact with folks who long ago put themselves on the management track. In many instances, those similarities are what make your network valuable; but in others, they can limit the scope of connections and expertise that’s available to you.

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“It’s the second- or third-tier connections that tend to be more productive,” said Penny Locey, vice president of Keystone Associates, a career management firm in Burlington, Mass. “If people who know you well had a job for you, they would have already spoken up; often, they know a lot of the same people, or came from the same company, the same circle.” When you move beyond your initial list of contacts, Locey added, you’ll find people “who can open up a whole new network.”

A Fresh Set of Eyes

Locey also pointed out that people have a habit of pigeonholing each other: Someone who knew you as a great C++ developer five years ago may not consider that you’ve added a whole host of new skills since he last worked with you. “Sometimes people’s immediate network can be shocked and amazed about what they’ve really done,” she observed. “People a few layers out can look at you more holistically because they haven’t put you in a box.”

In other words, people who don’t know you well are likely to see you in a light that your more established contacts do not. With that fresh perspective comes new ideas about your career path, finding your next job or strategies for advancing in your current position. All of which begs the question: How do you meet people you don’t know?

The Direct Approach

One way is to simply ask people in your network for introductions to contacts they think might be valuable to you. Remember that you shouldn’t only reach out to your network when you’re looking for a job. Networking is about building ongoing relationships and continuing dialogues. “Really think hard about the people who you know and what they can do to help you besides telling you about a job at their company,” Locey said. “Rather than ask for job connections, ask where there are innovative things happening that might put a company on your radar screen. Then ask if they know someone worth talking to there.”

Think beyond potential employers; consider professional or technical organizations that might welcome your involvement. Once you’ve narrowed that field to a few organizations, consider who in your network can connect you to people in each organization; ask for introductions. For those organizations that hold public meetings, make a point of attending and introducing yourself to strangers; if you’re nervous about that idea, remember that the meeting will provide you with lots of common ground for starting a conversation.

If you’re interested in a particular employer, search out possible contacts on the “About Us” section of its corporate website. Follow local business publications, which, as Locey noted publish an “infinite number of articles where people are quoted or shown as being moved into new roles.” Once you’ve identified potential contacts, put out the word that you’re looking to connect. (If you can’t come up with any names, see if anyone in your network can introduce you to someone already working at the company.)

Reaching Out

Once you’ve been introduced, you need to communicate. The key is to be professional and focused.

“There’s a lot of helpful people out there, and you don’t have to be besties to help someone,” said Jason Alba, CEO of JibberJobber.com, a website that aids jobseekers in managing their professional relationships. “If I can see that you’re not going to spam someone or ruin my relationship with someone, I’m going to help you even if I don’t know you very well.”

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Image: Yurii Andreichyn

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