Have you ever missed a great career opportunity? In 1997, Fran Maier did just that. She was General Manager of Match.com, a then-small startup that went up for sale that year for under $10 million. Instead of trying to gather investors and make her own bid, Maier left Match.
“If I had reached out to a network of people . . . they would have helped me come to the conclusion that I should have taken [Match] to the next step,” Maier said recently. The site is now worth billions.
Maier’s challenge was large and complex, but her lesson applies to problems big and small. All too often, we think of networking solely as a way to find a job, and we don’t realize our full potential in our present role. Here are five steps on how to use your network to tackle the thorniest problems you face in your day-to-day work.
The scenarios best suited for tapping your network are projects where you have insufficient information to find a great solution. New projects are an ideal fit. For example, you started in a new sales role, and you’d like to hear some advice from a superstar salesperson. You’re helping your firm find a new technology, but you’re not satisfied with the information you’ve found online. Or perhaps your team has taken on a new client in a new industry, and you need to quickly learn the ins and outs of that sector. All are excellent opportunities to tap your network.
Colleagues: People in your organization who work on other teams or in separate departments are the easiest and most relevant to start with. If your challenge relates to a new initiative, figure out if others have tried something similar. Talk to them to learn what they’ve learned; their insight could save you time and stress.
Family, friends, and friends of friends: Do the people closest to you know anyone who can help? How about that woman you met at a party who co-founded a startup? Remember, you have more connections than you think. According to a Pew Internet study, Americans on average have 634 ties across their entire network.
LinkedIn: Use LinkedIn’s search tool, and type in generic keywords. Maybe your company needs a new corporate-culture video, so you enter “video production” and select “People” as the search type. You may already have first-degree connections with relevant experience. If not, look at your second-degree connections, and ask for an introduction. If you have 100 connections, and each of them has 100 connections, then you have 10,000 second-degree connections (100 x 100).
Don’t be too shy to ask for help, and feel free to contact more than one person to get multiple perspectives. You’ll be surprised by how much people enjoy talking about themselves and giving advice. And thanks to research done by thought leaders such as Wharton Professor Adam Grant, more people are learning that the act of giving drives career success.
Once you’ve identified people to contact, draft a short note, and use email best practices. Clearly state the goal of your message in the first one or two sentences. Briefly explain how and why you think the person can help.
Also decide whether an email exchange or a phone call is most appropriate. Email conversations are fine for quick, simple inquiries. But if you have more than a couple of questions or seek general advice, send an email to request a short call. Talking live is more efficient and allows you to develop a closer relationship with the person. Besides, no one likes getting an email with a long list of questions–it’s overwhelming.
Don’t underestimate the importance of good communication, prompt responsiveness, and being accommodating to the other person’s schedule. With every interaction, the person is forming an opinion of you, and the image you project can make the difference between whether or not you get the advice.
Use Google and LinkedIn to do background research on the other person. In the event you’ve set up a call, create a list of questions that he or she can reasonably help with. Spending just 15 minutes on this task will make the conversation smoother and more productive, and your new contact will appreciate the effort.
After the interaction, send a short thank-you note (email is fine). When people provide advice and donate their time, it deserves acknowledgement. And after your given project has ended, write a follow-up email to share the outcome, even if you didn’t take their advice. Your contacts will be curious to hear the end result, may learn something from it, and will get a deeper sense of accomplishment from knowing how it turned out.
And what ever happened to Fran Maier? In 2001, she became executive director of TRUSTe, a nonprofit online privacy organization. She led TRUSTe to steady growth over the next six years, bringing revenue from $1 million to $6 million.
Then a turning point arrived. Frustrated by the limitations of being an under-funded nonprofit, Maier considered leaving TRUSTe. But this time, she thought twice. “This time, I did reach out to people. I did ask for help,” she says.
Armed with advice and confidence, Maier convinced TRUSTe’s skeptical board of directors that it should turn for-profit. She landed funding from prestigious venture capital firm Accel Partners, and led TRUSTe to more than double its revenue over the next three years.
“That was my do-over,” says Maier.
—Jeff Kauflin is a freelance business journalist and the director of talent management at Marketing Evolution, a marketing analytics and software firm.