ICDA’s Five Steps of Proactive Development — Step 4

This is the fifth in my series of blog posts on the Five Steps of Proactive Career Development created by the Illinois Career Development Association (ICDA)

Step4. Network in person and via social media throughout your career.

Networking! NETWORKING! N E T W O R K I N G! Enough already, you think to yourself. Are you tired of people telling you that you need to be networking more or afraid to extend yourself to interact with people you don’t know? In either case, it’s important to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings on the subject and even consider examining their source. The idea of having to stretch beyond your comfort zone can produce anxiety. The image of having to “stick your neck out” over and over again, extending your hand—yourself—to people you don’t know can be overwhelming, especially if you’re thinking only about the pain and anxiety of the act itself apart from the benefits and possible positive outcomes that you well ought to have in mind as you actually engage in the process. So, to help allay some of the fears you might have about networking and to supply you with a little fuel to build some fire or passion for networking, let’s spend a few minutes clarifying what networking is and give you a few reasons why you might actually want to network, and even enjoy it.

To begin, let’s confront the elephant in the room. What IS networking, anyway? Well, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “Networking is the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.”

What I like most about this definition is the word “exchange.” Networking is NOT a one way street, at least not from my experience. You never know just how a new connection might benefit either one or both of the parties involved, or even someone else entirely that either of the parties may know. The aim of networking, as the definition suggests, is to develop relationships, and as ICDA suggests, it’s done over time throughout your career. And the ‘throughout’ part suggests, in turn, that networking might look different and take on a different focus, aim, or energy depending on the place you are in your career. So, what would networking mean at a few different stages in your lifework?

Well, students might want to connect with others who can help them work through the decisions they’re making about what to do after high school, research college majors and career options, find internship or volunteer opportunities, feel connected to peers sharing information with each other as they go through the same process for support and shared learning experiences, find others who have attended the training program or college they’re considering attending, or find others who share their same avocational interests or hobbies, eventually learning there are ways to turn those interests into career opportunities.

In the case of someone conducting a job search, the reasons for networking are a bit more obvious, especially since some suggest 60–85 percent of jobs are found through networking. Do you know the saying “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”? That certainly applies when you’re attempting to uncover job opportunities in the “hidden job market.” How better might you gain access to something that’s “hidden” than through someone who has current and substantial knowledge of that market and operates within it daily? Job seekers may also want to network to help them research the fields, industries, and organizations in which they wish to work, not only to make certain these organization are indeed ones in which they would enjoy working but to also be as prepared as possible for any interviews they are actually offered.

And then there are those who, even though they are not looking to change careers or employers, are looking for ways to become increasingly successful in their current positions. For these individuals, networking may be the way to make contacts who will become clients who help them attain their sales or entrepreneurial goals. Additionally, those individuals who want to grow in their professional life and be proactive in their own career development may want to seek out possible mentors, LinkedIn discussion groups where they can share experiences and knowledge, and professional associations where they can develop relationships with peers, have opportunities to give back to their profession, and perhaps develop new skills and competencies by volunteering in areas that are not a part of their current job description. One additional reason to network, even if you are settled in your own work situation, could be to develop a pool of qualified and trusted people to whom you can, in turn, refer family, friends, coworkers, clients or patients and be confident that they will be well-cared for. There truly is a benefit to being known as a well-networked source of information and assistance, to whom people come looking to be connected themselves.

Now, if you’ve observed there might be one or more reasons for networking listed under a particular stage of career development that might apply to another stage, kudos to you. Give yourself a gold star! No matter what your age or stage of career development, know that reaching out to, connecting, and developing a relationship with another person can prove to be beneficial for both known and yet-to-be determined reasons over the passage of time. And yet, to reap these benefits, you must first reach out.

And to be prepared to do this, to share information, there are a few things you need to know. You need to know who YOU are, what you want to know, and what you have to offer, which may, at the moment, be only your gratitude for making an acquaintance and the information you’ve gathered. Remember a well-written and heartfelt thank you note can go a long way in your efforts to cultivate a relationship.

That about does it for this blog’s exploration of networking. I hope this post has left you with a new idea or two about how you might benefit from networking and perhaps ignited some passion for cultivating relationships to benefit your career development. And for now, remember, you can’t expect to scatter a few seeds on the ground, not come back until the end of the growing season, and expect to reap a maximum yield. So, I urge you, with mindfulness and gratitude, to cultivate, cultivate, cultivate. Happy networking everyone!