If you’ve never attended a networking event or traded business cards with a new acquaintance, the thought of actively networking to further your career can seem scary. Today however, when the economy is improving and seasoned professionals are returning to the job market alongside incoming new grads, networking is becoming increasingly important to beat the competition, make lasting impressions, and further your career and/or job search as a result.
Should you find yourself in the midst of a job search with the realization that your network is lacking, don’t panic: you may have a more extensive network than you thought. Though traditional networking practices are still important, your first step in any job search should be to explore your current network of contacts and reach out to any you may have acquired through more passive, or even unintentional, methods. Here are some such ways you may have been networking without even knowing it:
Chatting at the water cooler
Many people often don’t consider conversing with their coworkers as networking unless they are participating in a team-building exercise or event, but getting to know your colleagues is a great way to add professionals with similar interests and skill sets to your network. Interacting with your coworkers regularly, whether about last night’s game or your latest project, creates meaningful connections that can go much farther than simply exchanging business cards with a new acquaintance. While meeting people at career fairs and other events outside your organization is definitely crucial to building a diverse professional network, there are a number of instances in which having tight-knit colleagues can help you in the future.
Say, for example, a colleague you’ve been close with leaves for an excellent opportunity at a top company. You stay with your employer for some time, but when it comes time to start your job search, you now have an inside connection at a great organization to reach out to. If you had an amiable work relationship, that person is much more likely to vouch for your abilities and keep an ear out for openings than someone who barely knows you—not to mention he or she will have a much better idea of what would be a good fit than someone who hasn’t spent time with you.
Staying in touch with fellow alumni
Reaching out to your alumni network to reconnect with people you haven’t spoken with in years is definitely an active networking strategy, but what about the people you’ve kept in touch with effortlessly simply because you’re friends? If a close friend was in the same program or majored in the same subject in school, that’s another industry insider in your network who knows you personally and may be happy to help with your job search or other career goals.
It’s not common to consider friends or family a part of your network, but the great thing about old classmates is that they aren’t just your friends—they’re fellow alumni. If you’re a fairly new graduate or simply don’t have an extensive history of employers, friends who studied with you could be good references since they’ve been in the same classes, clubs, or student organizations and have seen you in action.
Socializing on your own time
You may think that going out for drinks with childhood friends or other acquaintances can’t possibly be considered networking, but you’d be surprised how quickly something like a birthday or holiday party could lead to meeting another professional in your field. There is also a lot less pressure meeting someone this way than, say, attending a networking event or being in any situation that is solely for the purpose of networking, and many of us have been meeting new people this way our whole lives.
This doesn’t mean you should be whipping out business cards at your friend’s potluck when you start taking a more active approach to networking, but meeting new people on your own time and forging meaningful relationships can greatly impact your career in unexpected ways. Friends often help friends out, and you never know which friend-of-a-friend has the right connections to potentially help you in the future.