Ask The Headhunter: Take the ickiness out of job networking

We're taught that approaching other people and asking for job advice is icky and uncomfortable. Nick Corcodilos explains how to make those contacts by finding out where the people you want to work with hang out -- without being creepy. Photo by Steve Debenport/E+/Getty Images.

We’re taught that approaching other people and asking for job advice is icky and uncomfortable. Nick Corcodilos explains how to make those contacts by finding out where the people you want to work with hang out — without being creepy. Photo by Steve Debenport/E+/Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Join Nick for a Reddit Ask Me Anything chat Tuesday at 1 p.m.

In a comment on a recent column, “How to get an interview without a resume,” reader “m21498” asked how it’s possible to make the personal contacts that I’m constantly telling you are the best way to land a job. Surveys suggest that anywhere between 40 percent and 70 percent of jobs are found and filled through personal contacts. But making contacts seems like such a far-flung idea — and lots of people find it incredibly difficult to approach people to do it.

I promised to address this in a column, so here we go. The reason I think people find this to be such a difficult idea is brainwashing: We’re all taught that approaching other people is icky and awkward. It’s not nice to bother someone, much less to ask them for something. After all, they don’t even know you!

Some people get angry about the statistics I cited. They believe this is all about them getting cheated out of jobs by insiders, brothers, cousins and friends of insiders. In “Fearless Job Hunting, Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Attention,” there’s a section where I answer the question “Do I have to ‘kiss ass’ to get a job?”:

Being part of your professional community is not icky. Developing professional contacts is crucial to success. If you regard it as icky, then you’ve got the wrong idea entirely. Is it dishonest or immoral to make an effort to meet people who do the work you want to do? Is it ass-kissing when you call people in your field to discuss their business and to learn how you can make a contribution to their industry? Is it unpleasant to take a step into your chosen line of work — or is it just uncomfortable because you don’t know how to do it?

Some hiring is unfair in this regard. But most good hiring is beholden to referrals from people that managers know and trust. And that’s a good thing. Don’t get angry with insiders. Become one of them — but do it legitimately. (See “Meet the right people.”)

The problem is that networking is commonly defined as something to do when you want something. Of course, that’s selfish — if it’s the sole message you’re sending. To make a meaningful, substantive contact with someone else, there must be much, much more — and reader “m21498” is right: Virtually all that passes for networking nowadays is cold, calculated, and maybe even vulgar.

So forget about doing it. Ask yourself, what kind of behavior do you respond to positively? What does another person do that makes you want to talk with them? The answer is obvious to most of us, but it also has basis in psychological research:

  • When people express a genuine interest in us, we tend to respond positively.
  • People love to talk about their work and about themselves.
  • When we believe someone is similar to us, we tend to like them.

    Making legitimate contact with other people can be as simple as that. In “Fearless Job Hunting, Book 3: Get in The Door (way ahead of your competition)” I point out that:

    Meeting new people is the best investment in your career. Listening to them and entering their circle of friends is how to get into the companies you want to work for.

    There’s nothing wrong with having a goal in mind as you do an honest job of addressing the three “triggers” to forming relationships.

    (The “Fearless Job Hunting” PDF books are available in the Ask The Headhunter Bookstore.)

    After all, when we find someone we want to date, we do all those things. Of course, some people are creepy about it, and that’s what you want to avoid.

    My personal rule is simple: If I feel like I’m going to be creepy in spite of myself, I won’t approach someone. But I find I can almost always avoid this by doing my homework. Taking time to learn about the person I want to meet makes all the difference. It also keeps us honest because we won’t make the effort otherwise.

    When I was in college, I wanted to date a girl in one of my classes. It took me a few weeks to learn about her. I spoke to some mutual friends. I even spoke to our professor. I listened carefully when she spoke in class. Then I walked up to her politely in the cafeteria and commiserated about what we had in common: how difficult our class was, how challenging an upcoming exam would be. I asked her advice about some of the study materials and suggested studying together — and I kept it very simple. I didn’t make anything up. We wound up dating. She never thought I was icky. (I can’t say that for all my attempts at romance!)

    If you know that all you want is a favor from someone you barely know, then stop. Don’t approach them. If you don’t have more of an interest than that, you don’t deserve to be their friend or a contact of any kind. You have to really be interested in the other person and what they do. (Likewise, it’s critical to stay in touch with people with whom you have a good history. See “Tell me who your friends are.”) Otherwise, you are indeed a stalker and an intruder. So please think about that as you read what I say next.

    The ultimate objective here is a job. There’s nothing wrong with that. (My objective was a relationship, but I didn’t let it be what drove me. What drove me was that I wanted to know more about her because I already liked what I saw.) Similarly, first you must identify the specific company and department you’re truly interested in. Then you need to triangulate; you’re not going to get to the manager off the bat.

    Think about who the manager, department or company does business with: customers, vendors, consultants, employees, lawyers, accountants, bankers, anyone. Then figure out where those people hang out — in the real world or virtually. For example, where do employees of your target department take courses, or what events do they attend? (Does this sound like a lot of work already? It is. But it’s the only thing I know that works. The good news is, it’s actually enjoyable if your interest and motivation are genuine.)

    Go where these people hang out. Meet the people they hang out with. Listen. Learn. Share your common interests and concerns. Invest time in all these people. Ask questions, offer comments and useful information. (This is easy on discussion forums or at group events.) Express your genuine interest in them and what they do. Make friends and be a friend. This must be 100 percent honest, or don’t do it.

    Getting a job is not about applying and waiting for someone to make a decision. It’s about mixing it up with insiders until you become one of them because it’s the insiders that usually get hired — for good reasons.

    Dear readers: Do you find all this icky? How do you cultivate your professional circle and get referred for good jobs by people who know and trust you? Share your thoughts in the comments and join me for a Reddit Ask Me Anything chat Tuesday at 1 p.m.

    Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

    Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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