Dear Shannon: How can I become a networker extraordinaire?

Dear Shannon

Dear Shannon: How can I become a networker extraordinaire?

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Dear Shannon is a career advice column for sustainability professionals and wanna-be professionals. If you have a question for Shannon, send it to [email protected].

Dear Shannon,

I have been working in marketing at a Silicon Valley technology firm for more than five years and despite the pace of innovation here, I feel a bit stagnated. I want to make a real, lasting difference in society but don't know how to use my marketing skills to help me build a network that will arm me for a career change. Can you give me some networking tips to help me create a more conscious career?

-- Miriam, Palo Alto, CA

Dear Miriam,

Does networking feel like a dirty word? Whenever we as career coaches, recruiters and business developers preach that you should "get out there and network!" we get big sighs and eye rolls from our audiences. However, this process is vital to keeping momentum in your career.

Last week I co-hosted a panel session at the Net Impact Conference in San Francisco with Jaymin Patel, who offers a lot of great tips for anyone wanting to overcome the fear of networking. His book, The MBA Guide to Networking Like a Rock Star, focuses on how developing personal relationships helps you stand out among top-caliber candidates. I couldn't agree more with this simple idea. Success in a job search or career change is all about who you know. So get out there and get know more people.

Don't fear: Building a network doesn't have to be such an ominous process. Once you break it down and begin to understand the importance of each step, it becomes less of a scary chore.

Why networking matters

Here are three reasons networking is important for a conscious career:

1. Internal hiring and the hidden job market

Many open jobs are not even posted externally, so in order to increase your exposure to quality roles you need to know someone on the inside. According to the Wall Street Journal, 50 percent of positions are filled on an informal basis. It is important to make personal contact with someone within the company before applying, as it is common for adverts to be out of date or for the role to have been filled by an internal candidate who was slated for the role from the beginning. Remember, your chances increase by 60 percent if someone walks your resume over to the hiring manager. Also, don't forget about social media: Leverage your second- and third-degree connections on LinkedIn, as well as your first-degree connections, to get in front of people.

Companies often hire from within to fill sustainability jobs because they place a high value on the business and sector expertise that an insider brings. Highlight the sectors you know well to prove that you understand the competitors, stakeholders and product/service. This way it looks like you offer the same value as an internal candidate.

2. Collaboration and partnerships

The sustainability agenda is all about collaborating across sectors and departments to align stakeholders and build strategic partnerships for positive change. Think about networking as doing just that. Give yourself a shove and make it a goal to do one networking-related task daily. Those intimidating people hanging out around the water cooler at a conference are your future stakeholders. More than likely, they are hesitant to network too, so jump in and collaborate. Ask what they are working on and how you can help. Ask them what their pain points are and who they are working with to move their agenda forward.

Building strategic partnerships in a sustainability role is the same as building your network to land a dream job. Think of all of these people as friends, future colleagues and future partners in your mission. They are just people, after all.

3. Disruptive innovation and resilience

Sustainability has become an all-encompassing catchphrase that can mean sustainable business, environmental stewardship, creating shared value, corporate responsibility and CSR. Disruptive innovation and resilience are the latest buzzwords in this sector. They can be applied to how you do your job, as well as to making a career change.

You need to disruptively innovate to set yourself apart, reach more people to improve your chances and take career risks. You need the resilience to work through and learn from rejection when it does happen. The fear of networking is usually founded in fear of rejection. Building awareness of your top skills and unique selling points will help you speak naturally about yourself in both casual and more formal networking conversations. Do your homework and engage in self-reflection before you start. If you face your fears about rejection head-on and find creative and fun ways to reach out to your existing networks, you will see your contact list grow quickly. In turn, you will greatly improve your chances of landing a new role.

Building a networking strategy

Being proactive about creating a conscious career in sustainability is the first step. Once you have decided this is what you want, it is time to devise a networking strategy using these four steps:

1. Who do you aspire to be? Follow people you look up to on LinkedIn and Twitter. Find out how they got to where they are. Do a benchmarking study as an excuse to interview them and learn more about their career journey.

2. What companies do you think are really walking the talk? Follow them as well and reach out to your existing contacts on LinkedIn to find out more about what is happening in terms of that company's talent agenda from the inside. How can you offer something now to help with their current pain points?

3. Map out why networking scares you and what you can do about it. Create a week-by-week plan to call three to four people a week for three months. By setting achievable and motivating goals for yourself and approaching the process step by step, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed.

4. Get your elevator pitch ready. Once you have practiced it 20 times live, you will feel confident in presenting it and will make a more lasting impression. Have both a written and verbal elevator pitch ready to go.

Once you start honing your networking techniques and see how fun it can be, you won't be able to stop. This skill will serve you long after you have landed the job. You will need it in any sustainability role aiming to bring others on board for innovative and lasting change.

Business cards photo by Official GDC via Flickr