Networking is vital if you want to find a job, start a business or attract new clients or customers to a small company you've already established. So why do so many of us over 40 neglect to take advantage of this essential tool?
What holds us back is often an undertow of isolationism that develops as we get older. Some gerontologists say that, with age, we become less concerned with the external world and more focused on ourselves.
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But turning inward doesn't have to happen. Those of us over 40 can network effectively by following these eight guidelines:
1. Identify what you have to trade. Networking is built on reciprocity: I help your son land a job at an ad agency, and you help me gain access to a chief executive, which gives me a shot at persuading him to become a client. Everyone has something to trade, even during unemployment or other career shocks.
The advantage of being over 40 is that we’ve got plenty to trade.
We have our skills down. We know large numbers of people. Many of them owe us favors. We've proved that we can survive difficult workplace situations. We understand the corporate cultures of various organizations and what those firms' gatekeepers look for in a resumé.
So before you go out there and network, take stock of what you have to offer. Maybe it's advice on how someone’s child can get a good score on the LSAT. Or tips on where to get high-quality printing at low rates. Or the inside scoop on a small cottage at the beach that can be rented cheaply later this summer. You know what you have to trade; exploit that.
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2. Divide and conquer. Once you determine your goal, select the groups that will give you the best return on your investment of networking time.
One quick example: An article in Inc. magazine about food entrepreneur Fran Lent noted that when Lent started her business, she discovered that a new kind of resource was emerging — networks created specifically for entrepreneurial women. Through the Women's Economic Network, Lent gained access to chief executives in the food industry, which proved to be a huge help for her.
3. Be patient. Networking is about building relationships and that can take a while. Harvey Mackay’s networking book, Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty, says the ideal time to start networking is before you need someone’s help.
Those who aim for fast results tend to network too aggressively, developing a reputation as a pest to be avoided. Playing a long game is more likely to pay off.
Leo Murray, in our firm's media relations department, is a brilliant networker and one key to his success is persistence. Murray gets to know reporters, editors and producers when they first join a newspaper, magazine or television station and finds out how he can help them. When they move on to another job, Murray stays in touch and asks them about their new needs. His crown jewels are those indispensable personal relationships.
4. Remember that context is everything. To network effectively, you need to be aware of all the tools at your disposal — then select them carefully.
For example, snail mail is still a great way to keep in touch through letters of congratulation, sympathy cards and birthday cards.
If you want to contact a specific person, going to a trade association meeting with the hope that he or she will be there might not be the most efficient approach. Instead, do some research on that person then send a note asking for a 10-minute informational interview, where you can demonstrate that you’ve done your homework.
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The telephone can still be a good way to network, but first make some inquiries to establish that the person you want to reach will take your call. I know one vice president at a telecommunications company who insists on being contacted by vendors only through fax, e-mail or snail mail. She will not be interrupted by phone calls.
5. Volunteer somewhere that could help your career. Taking an unpaid job enables you to establish working relationships with others in the organization and might teach you a new skill. In the end, it could help you land a job from volunteering.
When you're over 40, though, be careful about the kinds of tasks you agree to take on. Instead of working on the committee that puts nametags on guests at an event, look for ways to share your expertise. You might offer to speak on how to get a small business through a rough patch or how to make the transition from middle to senior management.
6. Keep up with what’s happening in your field. It always looks bad when you say or do something that shows you're out of touch. That’s the kiss of death for the over-40 set, since hiring managers are often predisposed to think that older people fail to keep current with industry trends and technology.
Networking functions are hotbeds of information. If you attend one and someone hears you say something about your field that’s clearly out of date, you’ll be shunned. Before going to one of these meetings, scan the headlines online to ensure you know what’s happening in your industry.
7. Squeeze the juice from your grapevines. They’re a terrific source of information and contacts, and it helps if you have meaningful gossip to share with others.
I've found that the most effective approach to the grapevine is to have more than one. Smart managers find reasons to connect with employees — in person and by email — in other parts of their organization. When they do this often enough, they pull in useful information.
8. Finally, enjoy the process. People we encounter while networking represent a gold mine of information, leads and contacts. So you ought to be eager and willing to gain access to these treasures.
If you are a bull in the china shop socially, or apprehensive about talking to strangers in a group setting, you might want to hire a business networking coach or sign up for a Dale Carnegie course in communication skills.
The more enthusiastic you are about networking, the more success you’ll have.
Copyright © Robert L. Dilenschneider, author of The Critical 2nd Phase of Your Professional Life: Keys to Success From Age 35 to 50, from which this article was excerpted.