Last week I went to a charity fundraiser for a nonprofit. It was outside. Under an overpass. Because misinformation about vaccines and masking is rampant and it’s still not quite safe to gather in large groups indoors.
There I chatted with a young woman who was
just like her country, young, scrappy, and hungry basically me roughly ten years ago: entrepreneurial, motivated, and trying to launch a career as a freelance editor. (She was also much taller and prettier than I was at 25, but I won’t hold that against her… the floozy.) Lily seemed cool and we had the same taste in charitable causes, so I gave her my card.
This week she sent me an email inviting me to lunch to talk about life and get some career advice. And to complete the time-honored ritual passed down by career strivers over generations… I accepted!
Dear readers… this is called networking. And it’s a critical skill to develop, especially for remote workers. When the stars align, you can form genuine social connections and have actual fun while doing it! But it can also feel fake, tiresome, and painfully awkward. In those cases, you need to bite the bullet, rip the bandage off, mix all the metaphors, and make the best lemonade you can out of these shit-ass lemons. Because if you have to cringe your way through alcohol-free industry mixers and ridiculous team icebreakers, you deserve to walk away with real career growth for your trouble!
Dafuq is networking?
Networking is one of those terms from the corporate lexicon that sounds slightly too intimate and distasteful to actually be acceptable in polite society. It sounds to me like there’s an orifice involved. Even if that orifice is, like, a USB jack and you need R2D2’s little pokey robot phallus to access it.
You’ve probably heard someone tell you, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know!” What they’re referring to there is the power of networking, in all its antidemocratic glory! It basically means that even when armed with talent, training, education, and qualifications, you should still try to make business connections with people who have the power to advance your career goals. Make those connections to get a leg up on all the chumps you’re competing with who don’t have those connections.
For career advancement is competitive. You’re competing against other equally talented and qualified people for specific jobs and opportunities. Not everyone can get the job. So networking is just one way to improve your chances of beating out the competition.
Studies show that self-promotion, authority, and talent have a limited impact on your ability to land a job or get promoted. Ingratiation—working to be liked by others and fit in socially—works a hell of a lot better.
Networking isn’t inherently bad or unfair, despite how I just made it sound. Make no mistake: if you can get ahead in your career by meeting the right people and leveraging the right connections, then I fully support that strategy!
It’s what the children of the aristocracy have been doing for literally millennia. You think Ivanka Trump became a “senior advisor to the president” on the strength of her resume? What qualifications did Cesare Borgia have to be the Pope’s fixer? For that matter, what if Don Draper hadn’t met Roger Sterling in that posh furrier while he was spoiling his mistress? If those privileged motherfuckers can use who they know to get ahead, then by dog SO SHOULD YOU!
Does the thought of asking for favors based on tenuous social connections make you feel queasy? Hot tip: take two Tums and do it anyway.
Getting an informational interview at the PR firm where your aunt works is a far cry from primogeniture. Don’t you dare feel guilty about leveraging that networking connection for your benefit. It’s a foot in the door… and you should absolutely take that foot and use it to widen the gap for yourself as much as possible. That’s the kind of value networking can give to your job search or career aspirations.
Keep your eyes peeled for networking opportunities and be ready to approach them the right way lest you waste them. Or worse—alienate a potential networking connection.
How to Network
Another definition of networking is “meeting the right people at the right time.” Before coronavirus, mostly this just meant… showing up to stuff—company happy hours, industry mixers, conferences, your friend’s boss’s kid’s birthday party.
Things are a little different now that “showing up” is literally synonymous with risking your life. So I’m going to outline methods for networking—first in-person, and then from the safety of a closed room far away from everyone else and their deadly germs.
In person: Accept social invitations
Popular wisdom says that one of the many factors contributing to the gender wage gap is that women aren’t invited to golf courses or strip clubs. In other words: professional men gather in traditionally male spaces to network, and if you’re not invited into those spaces, you miss out on the networking opportunity.
Hopefully you’re not in a professional situation where you have to suffer through the gross indignity of [shudders] golf.
But the lesson here is that when coworkers invite you to stuff, show up! And if you’re not getting those invites… gate crash that shit. Whether it’s a happy hour, a weekend barbecue, karaoke, charity fundraisers, whatever—go to the social events where your professional contacts gather. Use that time to socialize, have fun, and make friends… who could someday help with your career advancement.
If you are highly introverted or socially anxious and all of that sounds terrifying, don’t worry. There’s a cheat code. And it’s even easier than up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A.
Find one—just one!—benevolent extrovert at work or in your industry. Tell them “I’m thinking about going, but I’m not sure if I’ll know anyone, uwu, I’m so bad at making new friends…” Self-effacing honestly like this is catnip for extroverts. They will take you by the elbow and steer you around all night, making sure you meet everyone worth meeting. I know shy people struggle to understand this, but you aren’t being a drag at all. It genuinely makes the night more fun for us oldtimers and/or party people.
In person: Attend professional development events
Then there are the more directly applicable networking events: professional development courses, seminars, and conferences.
Don’t view these events as boring weekend-killers outside of normal work hours. I’ve made some of my closest and most valuable networking contacts by shooting the shit with other editors at publishing conferences and evening seminars.
If you work for a good employer, they’ll forward such opportunities to you and encourage you to attend. If not, you may have to research those opportunities for yourself. But you can still probably get them to buy your ticket and give you paid time off to go. Most companies have a budget for employee development and continuing education. Find an event that looks promising, estimate how much it would cost, and ask your boss if you can go.
How much can you ask for? Probably more than you think! On average, employers spend about $1,100 on employee training every year. And it’s actually even higher (about $1,700) for small companies with less than a thousand employees. So don’t let an expensive conference ticket requiring flights and hotel stays scare you. If your boss says “no way José,” counter with a cheaper one within driving distance.
In person: Join the club
Be a joiner! If your office has a book club, a lunchtime walking group, a committee, or any other kind of employee group… join the fuck up and leverage those fuckers to your advantage! (My employer has a Club Sandwich and the cleverness of its name alone makes it the most coveted social invitation in the company.)
Don’t fret too much about whether you’ll be welcome or not. Kitty works for a huge company, and they have employee clubs for every conceivable demographic. She’s gotten the most mileage out of her Black networking club—despite being as white as lightning at dawn—because it’s brought her into contact with a lot of people who share her values. There are lots of supportive men in the women’s group, Boomer mentors in the Gen Z group, straight allies in the queer group, and not disabled people in the disability group. Don’t gatekeep yourself out of an opportunity to meet likeminded folks.
If you’re a student, same goes. College campuses are fertile ground for clubs of all kinds, from Future Swamp Witches of America to the Quidditch Team. Sign up and make lasting connections with your fellow students and the faculty supervisors.
And if your company, school, or neighborhood doesn’t have any kind of group you can join, consider starting your own! Kitty’s mentee loves yoga (let’s try not to hold that against her), and at Kitty’s urging now offers a bimonthly Friday morning yoga class to anyone who wants to join.
Remotely: Use social media
On the internet, everyone can hear you scream… obscenities at those who disagree with you.
There’s also a group for everything, and that includes networking! On social media, you’ll find groups for literally any industry, filled with live humans who want to network with you. You just need to find them. Start by googling some keywords to do with your chosen field along with “Facebook group” and your town or city.
Remember to go where your community is. For example: most of the personal finance blogosphere is on Twitter. So that’s where we go when we want to talk shop with our fellow menny hennies, but not necessarily where we communicate with our audience. And we’ve built a huge network there that has opened us up to opportunities like speaking gigs and interviews.
It doesn’t have to be high-effort. Even just starting a Slack channel for especially cute dog photos or especially dank memes is a solid way to connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise.
Remotely: Virtual coffee dates and happy hours
Reach out to potential networking partners for a virtual coffee date. LinkedIn is great for this, but you can also just find someone’s email address and send an email.
And here’s the thing about a virtual coffee date… it’s way easier than an in-person coffee date. Because you don’t have to put on pants.Just uh, make sure you’re sitting down at your desk before turning that Zoom camera on.
Remember: if you’re bad at this, lead with self-effacing honesty! If you need a template for how to ask, scroll down for more.
Remotely: Attend Ted Talks and webinars
One of the things I’ve missed most during this interminable plague is attending live events. Concerts and theater are a distant memory. Which is why I’ve turned to live-streamed events to scratch that itch!
Professionals in every field from archaeology to modeling participate in TedTalks. And that’s just the tip of the virtual presentation iceberg! Attend these virtual events and use them to network by asking the speakers questions and sending followup emails.
Even if you don’t connect with anyone at these events, it makes great fuel for future industry small talk.
How to reach out to a networking contact
Let’s go back to Lily, the one who approached me at that charity event. Here’s the email she sent me:
It’s Lily! We met at the gala. How are you? It was so amazing meeting you last week. I would LOVE to buy you lunch or coffee sometime to learn more about your career and life! I feel like we have a lot in common and you’re doing tons of things I want to do.
Here’s a list: 1. Freelance editing; 2. Singing at open mics; 3. Co-owning a brewery; 4. Fighting the patriarchy by investing; 5. Literary publishing
ALSO, very happy to pay your consulting fee 🙂 Thank you so much!
This is a perfect example of a networking email. Here’s why.
Anatomy of a perfect networking email
- She’s short, direct, and friendly. No lengthy introductions, stilted professional language, beating around the bush, or “sorry if I’m bothering you, I know you must be so busy” aw-shucks nonsense.
- She reminded me how we met. Some people are bad at names and faces, especially after a conference where they may have met dozens or hundreds of people. Skip the lame “you probably don’t remember me…”
- She made it clear that she values my time. Offering to buy lunch, a coffee, or a drink is the going rate for a networking date. The fact that she went above and beyond by offering to pay my usual consulting fee for my time is, in my opinion, too much, but as a gesture of respect it works very well for me.
- She flattered me. But not too much! You don’t want to shove your whole nose up a new professional contact’s butthole, like some rude golden retriever.
- She made a written request. Putting her request in an email meant I wasn’t blindsided by a phone call at my desk. It meant I had space to determine if I had time to do some mentoring this week. Better yet, it gives me something concrete to forward to other networking contacts if I decide that actually, she should really talk to them instead.
- She set out an agenda for our interaction. I know exactly what she’s expecting of me, and I can accept or reject her invitation based on those expectations.
- She was fast. It’s best to reach out to someone within two days of meeting them, even if it’s just to say “It was nice meeting you, I hope we stay in touch.” That way you run less of a risk of them forgetting all about you.
Basically, Lily hit it out of the park.CHEF’S KISSES ALL AROUND.
If you don’t have their email address, you can reach out on social media or by text. This is literally the entire purpose of LinkedIn (well, that and giving dads something to do).
What you can ask for…
When you reach out to a networking contact, it’s important to know what you want. Here are some suggestions for useful things you can request:
It’s best to reach out with a clear request. But if you meet someone spectacular, and you don’t yet know how you can help each other… don’t hesitate to hit them up anyway. Tell them they made an impression on you! Share an article relevant to their interests! Wish their dog a happy birthday! Genuine friendship is the best kind of networking.
Advice is easy. Any decent networking contact has nothing to lose by dispensing the wisdom of their career experience. Hell, that’s half of what we do here at BGR!
When asking for advice, make sure to come prepared with a handful of specific questions just to get the conversation going. Then don’t be afraid to sit back and take notes while your networking contact warns you and guides you in equal measure.
Referrals and introductions
In researching this article, I found a lot of experts saying that networking is really about meeting people who can introduce you to other, even more relevant people.
For example, if you meet someone ten years older who has the career you want… ask them to introduce you to their mentor! Ask them who you should talk to if you want to get started on their career path. Or ask them to introduce you to potential clients or people who could use your skills.
In Lily’s case, she should definitely ask me for client referrals. As an editor, I’m well-connected and at this point in my career I have more clients than time. I’d love to pass some of them off to a trusted and eager young editor who has the bandwidth to do right by their projects.
Ah, the informational interview. The crème de la crème of successful networking interactions.
I fucking love informational interviews. Here’s why:
- They’re great practice for a real job interview… with none of the stakes!
- You can learn an incredible amount, and not just about a company where you want to work or a job you want to do. It’s a way to observe the professionals you aspire to be in their natural habitat. Take note of their dress code, their company culture, the organization of their office, and emulate them during your next real job interview.
- It’s basically like getting a peek at the final exam the day before you’re tested.
- It’s a little like an audition. If you later apply for a job with the company, the person you did an informational interview with will remember the impression you made… hopefully favorably!
Lastly, you’ll want to maintain a relationship with your favorite networking contacts so that some day, when you need it, you can ask them for a reference.
This goes back to the “who you know” aspect of networking. If it comes down to you and someone with the exact same skills and qualifications… a solid reference from a successful industry professional could make the difference in who wins a competitive job application.
… and what you can’t
Look. We value transparency as much as any glassblower. But please… don’t straight out ask a networking contact for a job.
If networking is dating, starting by asking for a job is like marching up to the hottest dude in the bar and saying “Please give me 3-4 orgasms tonight.” (Note: this might actually be how dating is done these days. If it is, my apologies. I actually have no idea. My married ass hasn’t been single in, well…)
It you are looking for a job or a career opportunity, it’s fine to let networking contacts know! But asking them straight-up to employ you puts them in an awkward position if they don’t have any jobs to give… or if they don’t like you enough to employ you.
Trust that they’ll keep you in mind if an employment opportunity comes up.
An illegal advantage
Using who you know to gain a competitive advantage in the job market is not illegal. But in some industries (government jobs, for example) it is hella illegal to jump ahead of the normal application process.
Likewise, asking for the answers to an entrance exam, or asking a networking contact to waive a particular job requirement or make any kind of exception for you is not only wrong. It could be illegal. There’s a risk to putting unqualified people in certain jobs they haven’t earned. So don’t expect it.
At the end of the day, a networking contact is the cherry on top of the ice cream that is your job qualifications and skills. They can’t stand in for the whole damn sundae.
Don’t ask your networking contacts to lie for you. If you’re not qualified for a particular position, don’t ask them to say you are! If you’ve never held a particular job, don’t ask them to say otherwise! These lies will catch up to you.
Unless, of course, you’re a Patreon donor. We’re working on a new Patreon tier where we’ll give fake glowing references that would make Katharine Hepburn rise from the dead to hand us her Oscars. We owe them this white-glove concierge service because they choose excellent and necessary topics (like this one) for us to write about. If you’ve used our advice to improve your life, you can thank us by gifting as little as $1 a month!
The transactional nature of networking
Networking works best when you both have something to offer each other.
At first blush, my networking interaction with Lily might seem super one-sided. After all, I’m the seasoned professional with all the life experience and advice to offer, right? What could this young whippersnapper possibly have to offer me besides a free lunch?
In truth, I’m highly motivated to create a lasting relationship with Lily for a lot of the same reasons she wants to network with me. She wants access to my contacts in the publishing industry to help build her editing career. And I want to give her those contacts… because I can’t handle them anymore.
My career has advanced to the point where I don’t have the bandwidth to keep up with freelance editing for private clients anymore. But I’ve built up my client list for years and I don’t want to just leave those loyal clients hanging. It’s important to me that I find an awesome younger editor to refer my clients to, someone I can trust to treat them right. Bonus points for someone who is literally learning the ropes at my knee and will conduct business as I have for the last ten years.
So if you feel too young and inexperienced to be able to offer a networking contact more than a scintillating conversation and a free coffee, squash that mindset like the bug it is! Dig deep—chances are you have a ton to offer.
Networking doesn’t end when you get what you need out of a networking contact. Remember to follow through!
Maintaining and rekindling relationships
Don’t just use a networking contact as you would a toilet. You need to keep in touch! I still regularly have interns from years ago hit me up just to say hi. This is because I trained these upwardly mobile little fuckers well, and they know that so long as they maintain annual contact, I’ll write them letters of recommendation long into my Ruth Bader Ginsberg years.
If you’ve fallen out of touch with a networking contact, don’t stress about how awkward it might be to rekindle the relationship. A simple “Hey, what’s new with you?” email will go a long way to paving over any guilt or hard feelings. Here’s an example:
Hey there! I thought of you the other day when I read this article on the cutthroat underworld of bespoke greeting cards. We should catch up sometime soon. I’d love to hear all about what you’re up to these days. Are you free for a Zoom coffee date next week?
We’re all busy. I guarantee no one is sitting around hating you for falling out of touch. Don’t hesitate to rekindle that relationship for fear of awkwardness.
Using who you know to meet who you want to know
If you’re absolutely stumped on how to network with strangers, stick to the people you already know.
If I know anything about older relatives (note: I am a leading expert in Older Relatives), it’s that they love nothing more than talking up their younger relatives to coworkers. Sit next to someone’s white collar dad on an airplane for five minutes and just dare him not to talk about his son at Notre Dame, daughter interning with JP Morgan, and nonbinary poodle studying to take the bar exam in Atlanta.
Here’s a script for how to hit up your nearest and dearest to introduce you to possible networking connections:
Hey Uncle Scooter! As you know, I currently work retail. But I’d really like to get into hospitality. Didn’t you tell me your friend manages the Hilton downtown? Could you introduce me? I’d love to sit down with them for an informational interview sometime when they’re not busy.
Make sure to keep your relatives updated on your career goals and accomplishments. You never know when they’ll brag about you to the right person. Let those sentimental Olds do the networking work for you!
Paying it back and paying it forward
If you walk away with nothing else from this networking tutorial, let it be this: your networking is not done until you pay it back and pay it forward.
If someone in your network has helped you out… help her back!
And if you ever have the opportunity to be someone’s supernetworker… WERK.
I have benefitted so often in my career from people thinking of me at just the right moment. I got my most recent job because two networking contacts remembered me and believed in me. Therefore, I’m practically honor-bound to do my best by people like Lily.
Time for class participation! We want to hear your networking success stories, bitchlings.
But we’re even more interested in hearing how your networking has fallen flat. Did you put your foot firmly in your mouth when confronted with your professional idol? Accidentally blow off some well-connected professional? Spill an entire tray of beer on the guy you were hoping would mentor you? No? Was that last one just me? Sound off in a comment below!