When you think of how many Facebook friends you’ve accrued over the years, your head probably spins. Many of them are random people you met briefly or never officially met at all. There’s the fiancée of the groom’s cousin you chatted with at that wedding last summer (she’s a lab technician or something, right?). And that friend of a former colleague who added you years ago out of the blue–someone you’ve never been in the same room with but who’s always leaving cheerful comments on your Facebook posts.
These might not seem like the kinds of people who will be remotely helpful in advancing your career, but they actually can be. The secret to developing a great career in marketing, for example, isn’t just to know a ton of well-connected marketers. All you really need is to be introduced to a select few of them, right?
And one of the best ways to make that happen is to start connecting with the people you already know, regardless of their industry or the nature of your connection to them. Here’s how.
Time For An Inventory
It all starts with a very simple step: Do a systematic inventory of everyone you’re connected with on Facebook. Take a few spare hours over the next few afternoons this week and go through everyone–with Facebook open in a browser window and a spreadsheet open in another. As you scroll through your connections, start a running list with a few simple fields:
- where they’re living
- what they’re doing
Spend a moment or two scanning each person’s profile page, but don’t necessarily add everyone to your list–only those who are doing something that interests you, broadly defined. Doesn’t matter whether it’s in your field; doesn’t matter whether or not they’re working at a higher level than you. If it piques your interest, for whatever reason, add them. And if they themselves aren’t doing anything interesting but are evidently connected with somebody who is, add them.
Next, go back and begin to organize your list, not based on who’s doing what’s closest to what you want to be doing, but by your comfort level with each person. How well do you know this individual? Could you send him or her a message on Facebook and readily grab a coffee? Would it be minimally awkward to jump on the phone with this person? Or do you have a personal connection to draw on: a shared alma mater, previous employer, hometown, or favorite sports team?
Then pick the top 10 most interesting and reasonably approachable people on your list–by your own standards–and start “networking” with them. Reach out for a friendly catch-up. Say that their startup or new job or latest travels look awesome and that you want to hear more about it. Ideally, start with people you can meet face-to-face and then progress to short Skype dates once you’ve exhausted the contacts in your own city.
Why You Should Start With People You Know (However Vaguely)
A lot of people will tell you that networking is about having a clear-cut goal or “ask,” then working your relationships in order to get people to deliver on it. Otherwise, you’re just wasting their time. “What do you want from me? I can’t help you!” they’ll supposedly think, throwing their arms up at your haplessness.
But the risk of things going this way is actually really minimal. Networking is simply the practice of connecting with people around you and openly sharing what you’re interested in. The more people who know you and know what you’re all about, the more potential champions you have out there who can help you find your way. That’s why one of the best ways to get started is by “networking” with people you’re already familiar with, however tenuously so.
Presumably, the people you’ve identified in your inventory know you at least marginally better than a random third-degree connection on LinkedIn. So if you casually mention you’re looking for a new marketing gig in New York, they will probably rack their brains thinking of a way to help–even if they don’t know of one right away. Most likely, these friends don’t do exactly what you want to do work-wise, but that’s actually a good thing–for at least three reasons:
- They are still up to something that sparked your interest, so you can learn and grow through that conversation.
- They won’t suspect that the whole reason you want to hang out is to get a job at their company (which it isn’t).
- You never know who knows whom–until they tell you.
Someone who works in international diplomacy may be able to connect you to someone in engineering–and they’ll do it simply because they like you and because you seem qualified (which hopefully you are).
Conventional networking is about learning what others need and finding ways to help them. This strategy lowers that bar considerably. At least initially, it’s simply about learning what other people in your life are doing and sharing what you’re up to, too. It’s about exchanging goals and ideas, not doing unasked-for favors. Because there’s already some social (or social media) pretext for you to be connected in the first place, there’s no need to devise other stratagems to get people to give you the time of day. Instead, your connections expand organically, and you strengthen existing relationships with people you think are interesting.
You Still Have To Lend A Hand
Here’s the most important part, though: You still do need to find ways to help the people you connect or reconnect with–you aren’t off the hook. The conversation might be way easier to strike up when it’s with a Facebook friend than with someone in a pantsuit at a cocktail mixer, but it should still ultimately lead to the same place. So if someone needs a new web designer, pass along the contact of the person who did your site. If a friend is going to Egypt next month and you’ve spent time there, send them a short email with your best travel tips.
You have something to offer to everyone, I promise, so dig into your well of knowledge, experience, ideas, and contacts, and be ready to assist someone else after catching up on what’s new. By getting in the practice of helping others, you put out good karma and people will inevitably reciprocate–maybe not now, but at some point in the future. It also just feels good to look out for the needs and interests of others and find ways to help them along (maybe because it’s an antidote to the competitive mind-set that the job grind seems to encourage).
You can do this in small bites. Move down your list in sets of five or 10 contacts, gradually working your way up to people who you don’t know as well but are doing things you admire. They may even be people who intimidate you, but you’ve already gotten a lot of practice at this point–talking casually about yourself and what you’re doing, asking good questions, listening, learning, and helping wherever you can.