The following is a guest post from Anne Brown & Thom Singer, co-authors of Some Assembly Required: A Networking Guide for Graduates.
Some people only start networking because they need a job. And while finding employment is absolutely one possible outcome of networking, it should never be your sole reason for networking. To simply focus on whether or not someone can get you a job essentially tells them you think they have nothing else of value to offer.
Karyn, who has managed the alumni relations departments for two top-tier international graduate business schools, says, “I can’t even count the number of emails I’ve had forwarded to me over the years from alumni who were offended that students—whom they have never met—wrote to them out of the blue asking for a job. The alumni are stunned. They ask me, ‘Do they really think this approach is going to work?’ I try to explain to the students it’s like proposing marriage on a first date. It’s completely inappropriate.”
Instead of making the effort to build rapport with the alumni and by only focusing on their short-term need (a job), the students in Karyn’s story miss the big picture of what networking is all about. We hope you won’t make the same mistake. A better approach when contacting alumni, or anyone for that matter, is to focus on learning about an industry, gathering information, discovering how to transition into a different field; in short, it’s about asking questions. Use this initial point of contact to start building ground for future interactions.
How You Are Perceived Determines How You Are Received
At the start of your career, you will likely do the majority of reaching out to potential networking contacts. As you gain experience in your field, people will begin to seek you out as well. For the purposes here, however, we’re going to assume that you will be the one initiating contact.
Today, most professionals prefer to be contacted by email initially. It makes sense when you think about it; if someone you had never met called you on the phone unexpectedly and started asking you detailed questions about yourself and your career, how would that make you feel? A phone conversation is more intimate than an email exchange, and, until the relationship has progressed to a more familiar level, stick to email. There are always exceptions to the rule, but why take the chance of offending someone you’re hoping to impress?
Sending an e-mail is less intrusive, and a thoughtfully constructed email can work to your advantage if you compose it properly. Here are a few things to pay attention to when you are sending an e-mail to a potential new contact:
Salutation. This is the first chance you have to make a good impression in an email. Don’t blow it by spelling the person’s name wrong. We’ve both received notes addressed to Tom or Ann. That tells us that whoever took the time to write to us didn’t spend any time learning anything about us.
Tone. Striking the right tone is important when contacting someone you’ve never met. You don’t want to be too casual, nor do you want to sound like a character from a Jane Austen novel either. The tone should be respectful, not demanding. You want to sound assertive, but not aggressive, and ambitious, but not pushy.
Length. Get to the point, quickly. That conveys that you understand the constraints on your contact’s time and do not wish to impose. At the same time, be thorough. Introduce yourself, explain why you felt compelled to contact the person to whom you are writing, and state your desire for a follow-up meeting at their convenience. A length of no more than three paragraphs, consisting of four to five sentences each, should be sufficient to get your message across succinctly. Do not include any attachments, as opening them requires extra work on the receiver’s end. You don’t want to waste anyone’s time. In addition, the person’s company may filter emails from unknown addresses with attachments into a spam or junk folder. Thus, your email may never even reach the person for whom it is intended.
Grammar. Nothing says, “Don’t take me seriously” as loudly as sloppy writing coupled with poor grammar. Avoid icons and abbreviations best suited for text messaging. Double-check your spelling and use of capitalization; aim for textbook-perfect grammar.
Many graduates make the mistake of asking their networking contacts for a job or a lead on a job, the first time they meet. By not doing so, you will stand out and make a good impression simply by not being so presumptuous. The pressure to find the job you need should not supersede the reality that a long-term relationship can be mutually beneficial.
New graduates with an “it’s all about me” mindset miss out on all sorts of opportunities to develop relationships with people who could have a meaningful impact on their careers or lives down the road. During the course of an otherwise insignificant conversation someone might share a story or advice that resonates with you, causing you to alter your approach to a key aspect of your life. People tend to cross our paths for a reason, but it’s up to you to discover why. When you attempt to pre-determine someone’s role in your life by assuming they can only help you obtain a position at their company, for example, you risk eradicating the chance of a bigger and more meaningful relationship.