Applying to advertised jobs using a CV and cover letter is like asking a recruiter to play Where’s Wally (American version: Where’s Waldo.) Don’t be Wally. I see this time and again by early career professionals. There’s an opportunity that many are missing: speaking to people.
As a job seeker, at least 50% of your time should be spent making meaningful connections, managing your personal CRM and following up via email. 7 out of 8 jobs in my life came from being known in a network and serendipitous encounters. Admittedly my first proper job through a job advert, but once I’d learnt to network in my mid-20s, I haven’t looked back.
A word of warning first: this isn’t a “get hired quick” scheme. It takes time and patience to cultivate the meaningful relationships that make up a stellar network. But all it takes is one person to be hiring and someone in your network to recommend you, especially if they don’t have the time to keep searching for candidates.
The benefits of speaking to people are numerous:
- You get to understand your industry better because you’re getting advice and tips directly from people on the front lines.
- You may find a job you actually enjoy and stick at, rather than desperately applying to so many jobs you lose count, and wasting time in the process.
- It’s highly likely you’ll get hired for a position before it’s even advertised, which is very appealing to some organisations who need someone fast and don’t have the time to advertise, review applications, and interview people.
- With continuous follow up, you create a long list of allies who don’t mind helping you in your future career, by imparting advice or making connections.
- You find friends and potential future clients, which might be useful if you’re ever attending a conference and have a ready list of people to meet with.
Here’s how you do it:
(NOTE: you’ll see below that you’re never asking for a job. No one has a number of jobs lined up for the first person that asks. It’s quite obvious (or should be!) that you don’t have a job, but you’re demonstrating your curiosity, that you’re a constant learner and you’re someone who takes action. When a job arises, you’ll be the first to know.)
A step-by-step process
a) Do your research
Build a basic map of your industry. You want to have a good basic understanding of the industry so you don’t ask basic questions that can easily be found through a Google search. A logical way to map this out is via segments, roles and big players.
- Segments are a way to break down the industry into smaller parts. How you break it down depends on your industry and there are many ways to do it. I suggest you do whatever seems obvious to begin with, like thinking in terms of size and location. For example, the international development space could be broken down into financing, implementing, monitoring, research and innovation organisations. Or you could slice it up by region, such as South America, Central Asia, Africa, South Asia, etc.
- Roles describe the different types of players in the industry, from individuals up to organisations. In international development, this could be the contractors, NGOs, grass roots organisations or funders. Funders could be broken down by international finance institutions, private foundations, bilateral donors, multilateral donors, etc.
- Players are the significant organisations or people in the industry. In international development again, there’s Bill & Melinda Gates, the current Minister in charge of the UK’s FCDO, the head of various foundations, the head of the World Bank or the Executive Director of UNICEF. Then there’s the big organisations each belonging to their specific segment: Save the Children, Oxfam, PSI, and CARE International in the international NGO segment, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation in the private foundation group, and so on.
b) Start with people who know and want to help you
Reach out to 5 people you have a good relationship with and you know would like to do you a favour. They should be in their mid- to late-career so they can speak from personal experience. Think of people in your extended family, family friends, previous teachers, internship managers, former employers, school career counselors, etc. These are people who will want to help you because they want you to succeed.
The email you want to send to those first 5 people should be short and sweet. I suggest the first paragraph be personal to re-establish a connection, the second paragraph where you make the ask, the third paragraph is the background and context, the fourth paragraph is the sign-off and next steps.
How have you been? It’s been a while since we last spoke. How is the new job going?
I’m new to the Ethiopian WASH sector, so I’m keen to learn all about the different projects that are going on here. Do you have 15 mins for a chat about your current WASH projects and plans?
As a bit more context, I did my masters in WASH at WEDC in the UK. My masters was on the regulatory framework of the UK water sector. Now back in Ethiopia I’m keen to start learning about the current WASH activities in Ethiopia, who are the different players, and the different roles associated with the projects.
My calendar is quite open so if you can spare the time, please suggest a couple of times that could work for you. Many thanks in advance!
c) Be specific
Before getting on the call, think of the one question you could ask in a 15 minute conversation, and 1-2 more in case the conversation goes on longer. Don’t try to “boil the ocean” in one call and cover too many things.
In the example above, it’s to understand the current WASH sector so you can get a better understanding of the different players and who to speak to next.
Other ideas could be:
- “I’d love to learn how you got to where you are in your career.”
- “I’d love to hear what you would do if you were me?”
- “I’d love to bounce some ideas off of you.”
d) Set the context at the beginning of the conversation
At the start of the call, begin with a 2 minute summary of your experience/education and the direction you’re headed. Then ask your question. This is important: you’re forcing them to make their advice relevant to you. For example, say “here’s what I studied, this has been my experience to date, this is what I think I would be good at, what has been your experience with this in the past?“
f) Ask for introductions (if appropriate)
If you want to grow your network, you need to get introductions to new people. This is tricky because you don’t want the other person to seem like they’re just a stepping stone to someone else. It needs to be a natural ask. For example, if they mention an organisation or the premise of making connections, then take it as a natural segue into asking for an introduction. They might not always be willing, but if it feels right, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask. If you get introductions to 3 new people after talking to 5, then you’re doing incredibly well. Try and build a habit of thinking about this in any conversation you have.
You ask for introductions when the meeting is drawing to a close and only if it feels right. You’re simply asking if they know anyone who could help with your learning. They don’t have to be in your specific sector, they could be someone who was in the same position as you several years ago. The more people you speak to, the greater the chance that people will think of you when a job becomes available.
Be sure to update your research with what you’ve learnt. Don’t overthink this. Just a few details so you don’t forget what you want to do further research on later.
g) The 3 Follow Ups
Following up is important. People are busy so you want to do this respectfully and with patience.
1. After the call, send a thank you email, noting two insights you took away from your conversation and thanking them for agreeing to make introductions.
For the first follow up, it’s really two emails. The first is to thank them for helping you out and the second is meant to be forwarded to the person they’re introducing you to. This is called a self-contained forwardable email. It includes your BRIEF background and how you know the person doing the introductions, why you want to talk to them, and plenty of suggestions on when and how you can talk. The goal of the forwardable email is that there’s enough information so they can book a call with you there and then, instead of the countless back and forths via email.
Here’s an example:
I look back on my time working with you on ___ as one that was so valuable. I’m now keen to transition to the international development space and you mentioned __ would be a good person to speak to. I looked him up and am excited about what they do with____.
To give ___ a little more context, I received a Master of International Relations from the University of Wakanda. I currently work as a public sector consultant for Stark Industries where I help solve complex strategy problems for state and federal agencies. I’m Fluent in French, and hoping to get more involved in international development other than writing a few articles on social entrepreneurship for SSIR.
I’m free anytime from 6am to 9pm east africa time.
Thanks in advance!
2. If you haven’t heard from them, send a friendly nudge 3-4 working days later (and sending another friendly nudge 3-4 days after that is still reasonable). People are busy and sometimes emails from people they don’t know aren’t that urgent for them. If they don’t respond after 2-3 emails, forget it.
3. Send an email 3-6 months later with an update on your career and how you’ve applied the advice they gave you. Not following up is rude. Don’t be that person.
h) The Handover
When you receive the introductory email, say thank you to the sender in the first line, move the sender to BCC, a quick hello to the new contact, and say you’re looking forward to speaking, or finalise details for the call. Now you can follow the same process from step (c).
These are the practical steps of building a network. Now onto some of the nuance around being genuine and interesting.
How you interact with people is equally important
As mentioned in step c, you should only be asking one main question with 1-2 backup questions in case they have more time. Be a good listener by playing back what you’ve heard. This means looking for a natural gap in what the other person is saying and paraphrasing what you’ve just heard. This signals to them that you’re a good listener, that they’re being understood, so they’re more likely to continue. Write down keywords and phrases as you go along and trust yourself to remember afterwards. These will act as little reminders of what you talked about when writing notes after the call or when asking follow up questions.
Do not ask questions until they’ve finished what they have to say. When you interrupt with questions, you’re throwing them off course and they’re likely to lose their train of thought. When they’ve stopped talking and are not continuing after you’ve paraphrased, then you can probe with additional questions. Probing means staying on the same key question, but asking for additional details and clarifications. Move on to a completely different question if there’s time.
Don’t forget to show your human side. At the start of the meeting, break the ice with a few easy circumstantial questions. For example, where in the world are you right now? How has lockdown affected your daily life? You can respond by briefly mentioning the funny quirks the city you’re living in is known for. Or how you’re missing your gym and the YouTube workout videos just aren’t cutting it anymore. It shows you’re human and relatable. People are more likely to want to help someone they can relate with rather than someone who is there simply to extract information from you.
Networking on Twitter
50-80% of the top experts in any given field are on Twitter. It’s a great networking tool that rewards people for their ideas and contributions to discussion. If you can provide an intelligent response to an individual you’d like to speak to, you’ll get them to notice you. If you do this 3-4 times, and they start following you, this opens up direct messages. It won’t feel out of place to send them a direct message asking for 15 minutes of their time for a quick chat.
Keep a personal CRM
Use a note taking app or simple reminders tool to keep track of all your contacts and when you should follow up with them again – 3, 6 or 12 months time. I use Roam to keep call notes and basic information on people in my network and my task management app, Things 3, to remind me to follow up. There are many other systems – like this one. Do what works for you.
This is a numbers game which you should continue even when you’re not job hunting. So the more you do, the bigger your network and the more long-term relationships you create. But don’t be disingenuous. Be enthusiastic and sincere in any interaction, and people will remember you that way. People will like you if they feel like you like them. Make them feel respected and appreciated and you’ll build a lasting, long term relationship. And of course, offer to help them with anything, like proof-reading their blog posts 😉
I’m happy to be your first port of call so you can practice before doing it for real. Feel free to drop me a line.
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I’d like to help as many people I can to not be like Wally.
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Big thanks to Sam Alhadeff who proof read this post for me.