Is Your Networking Not Working? Making and Keeping Professional Friends

Is Your Networking Not Working? Making and Keeping Professional Friends

“It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know”

The old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is only partially true in engineering and tech. No one wants to hire a bridge inspector who knows everyone but whose expertise in assessing structural integrity is lacking. In an industry where expertise and acumen are highly prized, what you know does matter. A lot.

That said, there’s still a lot of truth in this phrase. Who you know matters, too.  As someone who’s spent many years on the hiring side of the desk, I have found that referrals from trusted professional friends are always worth following up on.

“I hear you’re hiring a database administrator. Can I tell you about a friend and colleague at my last job? We worked together for several years, and I know him to be sharp and committed. Nice guy, too.”

Then email introductions are made, and the nice, sharp, committed DBA enters the applicant pool as something more than a mere resume or a fragmented list of qualifications that some online recruiting app has mangled.

Networking 101

Whether you’re just getting started in your career and eager to meet anyone who might help you, or you’ve been at it a while and are thinking about making a job change, there’s one networking basic you can’t ignore. And that is this: if you’re interested in other people, they’re more likely to be interested in you. Seek information and guidance from people you clearly respect, and make sure it’s obvious to them that you’re coming to them because you admire what they know and who they are.

It’s ordinary human nature to want to be admired, respected, and sought after. We humans like to give advice and counsel. So when you seek advice and even instruction from people, they’re likely to respond to you, rather than ignore you. Think about it: Don’t you like it when someone asks you for your expert advice? Aren’t you likely to drop what you’re doing and share your sought-after opinion?

But if you remember to check in with professional acquaintances only when you need something, or if your attempts to reach out ring hollow (“Hi-how-are-you-hey-listen-up!”), chances are you won’t get call-backs or replies.

At the Dog Park

A young friend of mine, who’s pursuing post-bac studies in data science, had the good fortune to meet a couple of local tech executives at–of all places–the dog park. While the dogs romped around, the sociable execs asked my data science friend about his studies and shared with him information about their company. By the end of the outing, they were inviting him to stay in touch, and to meet up with them for a beer soon.

When I heard about this lucky encounter, I encouraged him not to wait long to get in touch. One important rule of networking is not to let time go by because that allows interest to wane.

A week later, he contacted me to confess he hadn’t done anything about connecting with them. I took him to task. If they’re as outgoing as he described them, who knows how many new professional friends they’d made since they met him? Their dog park encounter could be a dim memory already.

“I was going to email them but I can’t think of what else to say besides ‘Nice to meet you at the dog park,’” he said.

What do you want out of this email? I asked him. Specifically, think about the answer to this question: If you sent them an email and the very best thing you could imagine were to happen as a result, what would that be?

“We’d meet for that beer they suggested. I could tell them about my studies and my qualifications and learn about their company and–“

“Whoa, hold it,” I interrupted. “That’s the part they’ll be interested in: telling you about their company. Go with that. Ask them to tell you more about their company, how they see their industry. Then after you settle in to the conversation, then perhaps wheedle it back towards how data science may be useful to them, and about your qualifications.”

He looked puzzled.

“You’re not selling yourself.”

“I’m not?”

“No one is going to invite you out for a beer so you can sell yourself to them. They’ll invite you so they can talk about themselves and their business. You’re going to treat them like the experts, which they are, and position yourself as the lucky beneficiary of their expertise. Then they’ll want to meet up with you for that beer. They may even buy.”

Act Now

Don’t wait to get in touch. People forget. By lunchtime, most people have forgotten what they had for breakfast. Are they going to remember you? Not if you wait.

Seize the moment. Email is fast and easy, and not a bad idea. Keep it short and get to the point, which is to remind them of your recent meeting or online encounter, and to thank them for their time and information.

It was nice to talk with you at yesterday’s Business Journal Breakfast event.  I had never thought much about the kind of work your company does, designing and manufacturing display stands for devices. I see them everywhere, Best Buy, the Apple store, everywhere, and now I know more about them. Thanks for that! I hope we meet again.

Never start the follow-up email by introducing yourself. Worse would be starting with “My name is ….” Only kids do that. Instead, dive right in to where you met and what you talked about. If you have the opportunity, offer your assistance.

Thanks very much for telling me about your QA process when we met at QAI Quest. I think you’re right that streamlining leads to compromise, and you need to know when lean is too lean! Perhaps we can keep in touch and compare notes in the future. We have done some analysis that you may find helpful, and I’d be happy to share it with you.

Of course the downside of email is that people get too much of it, which is one reason to keep it short, about 80 words max.

If you really want to get someone’s attention, especially an executive, you could bypass fast and conventional for something a little slower and more unusual. That is, you could send a snail mail note or card. Want to stand out? That’s one way to do it. Same message, different vehicle, and it’ll come as a surprise, not Hohum another email. Yawn.

Just a thought.

Beyond Job Prospecting

Staying in touch with professional friends is a good idea for reasons that go far beyond job hopping. Sharing news about industry trends, or adding to your knowledge about the advantages and limitations of various technologies are just a couple of reasons to stay in touch. Knowing who to turn to when you have a question (“Hmm … who would know about that? I know, that guy who taught the webinar!”) is another. Professional friends aren’t usually close friends, but they’re often helpful.

And should you ever wish to venture off on your own and start your own business, professional friends are essential. Every business needs a vast network and a diverse set of skills and talents, which is why professional friends are must-haves for every entrepreneur.

Sustaining Professional Friendships

I got an email the other day from a colleague I hadn’t heard from in more than a year. The subject line said, “Hey Stranger.” The note asked how I was and what I was doing and suggested meeting for coffee. We’re meeting next week.

That’s how you keep professional friends, by checking in now and then. It may sound obvious, but keeping friends means being friendly with them, interested in what they’re doing, and sending the occasional “Hey Stranger” email for no particular reason.

Or for a reason.

I read this article in IEEE USA Insight and it reminded me of our conversation last time we talked. Here’s the link. Hope you enjoy it.

The next time that friend needs something–some info, some advice, or a hot job candidate–you may indeed be the person he calls, all because you stayed in touch.


Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.


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