An Unusual Guide To Professional Networking

Unfortunately, the most qualified person in the room doesn’t always get the job. Qualifying for any job means the position has to exist. This implies that a company had to advertise for that position. Applicants apply. Job interviews begin and somebody gets picked. People do get jobs this way, but it’s not the way most jobs get filled because most jobs never get advertised.

The informal job market is made up of all jobs that are not filled through formal advertisements. Usually, a position needs filling, and an employee knows somebody who’s qualified. Other times, a team wants someone specific to join them, and they create a position for that person out of thin air.

CNN, CBS, and NPR estimate over 80% of the jobs in America get filled informally. There is debate over exact numbers but the reality is likely more skewed in countries where application procedures are less formalized.

All things being equal, having academic qualifications will always be an advantage. The problem is things are never equal. Given how pervasive the informal economy is, it would make sense to also develop the skills that allow you to compete for the other 80% of the jobs out there.

These principles apply whether you are freelancing or in search of a steady paycheck. That said, this approach works better in some fields than in others. I do not recommend trying any of this if you want to practice law or medicine. This approach should not be used with fields that require state licensure. On the other hand, it’s fantastic for non-licensed fields like programming, design, PR, marketing, IT, entrepreneurship, consulting, journalism, sales, non-profits, and the arts.

The trick is irritatingly simple…

You must become the kind of person that invests their time and energy into solving other people’s problems. If you actively go out of your way to make other people’s lives better and more enjoyable, then it will only be a matter of time before you find yourself surrounded with interesting and resourceful people who want to be your friends and help you succeed.

That’s it. Helping people is the hack.

That’s all there is to it.

There is nothing esoteric about how this works, this is not karma, it is basic human psychology. I will do my best to explain how this works.

Every industry will have its own gatekeepers. I’m a web developer and I work with founders. So business owners are my gatekeepers.

They know lots of people. They pay a lot of their salaries and transact with other businesses in a community. Most business owners in a community will know each other. In my world, they are a well-connected group of people who have the power to make things happen.

As unfair as it might seem, when I meet someone by way of an introduction from someone I know and trust, that respect is transferred by virtue of association. In this way, getting to know people who run businesses yields exponential returns because it allows you to bypass people’s in-built social screening mechanisms. One sincere personal recommendation from a business owner and I can skip multiple rungs on the social ladder.

I realise this sounds Machevallian, but I’m trying to explain why it works. I am not implying that helping people is a waste of time if they do not own a business. Be aware that when it comes to professional networking some people have more influence than others. These gatekeepers are often business owners but will be different for every industry.

You do not have to pretend to be selfless. If you are going to invest valuable time and energy into your network it would be ludicrous not to expect anything in return. The key is to not expect anything from the specific person you help. You simply trust that if you pour your attention into other people’s lives it will come back to you when you need it.

It’s really easy to get started with this process. Keith Ferrazzi, quoted by Inc. magazine as “The Michael Jordan of Networking”, calls the ideal process of keeping in touch with people ‘Pinging’:

It’s a quick, casual greeting. He [Keith Ferrazzi] makes hundreds of phone calls a day. Most of them are simply quick hellos that he leaves on friends’ voice mail. He sends E-mail constantly. He remembers birthdays and makes a special point of reaching people when they have one.

A hundred phone calls a day is not for me. The point is that it’s just a light tap we’re looking for. A non-intrusive catch-up.

Put together a list of people you respect. Start with meaningful friends, any significant mentors you’ve had in the past and any businesses owners that you know.

The goal is to have a conversation. Find out what they are up to. Understand what they’re struggling with at the moment and figure out if there is anything you can help with. There is no pressure to get all this done in one conversation. Just touch base with them. That’s usually enough. If not then circle back a few weeks later and explain what you are up to.

3 people a week is a good place to start.

Networking by Becris from the Noun Project

There are also some good reasons not to help people.

If you’re desperate

You must always build your network before you need it. This is one of the most important things to understand. If you are being helpful because you want or –even worse- need something in return then it is not going to work. People can smell desperation a mile away. The idea is to help people when you can because you can.

If you can’t

One of the things they taught me in first aid training was to look after myself first. This was counterintuitive for a class on how to help people in emergencies. Their point was that if you injure yourself then you are useless. The same goes for networking. Giving away time you don’t have is a recipe for disaster. Take care of your own business, your own health and your own immediate relationships first. Take the time you leftover and invest that in other people.

So it more like help people when you can because you can, unless you can’t.

If it’s going to be a hassle

The whole point of helping people is to make their lives easier. If your help involves them taking time out of their schedule then you are being a hassle. Help people with things that you are good at and try and make sure helping them involves little or no effort on their part.

If you do decide to start helping people, I recommend being transparent about what you are doing. Tell people what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you tell people what you are up to, it will diffuse any scepticism and justify your sudden interest. They will either understand and get involved or they will tell you they are not interested and you can move on.

Strong relationships are built on the accumulation of little things.

If this approach to networking interests you then you’re going to love the current project I am working on. It’s called Client Tree and it’s a platform to help freelancers find more clients by word of mouth. If this interests you, you can learn more about it here: Client Tree 🌳🌲🌴

“Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”
-Anne Herbert

Resources and further reading

  1. CNN - The hidden job market
  2. CBS- Tapping into the “Hidden” Job Market
  3. NPR -A Successful Job Search: It’s All About Networking
  4. The image is by Becris from the Noun Project

If you’d like to discuss this post, Twitter is the place.


Now read this

Landing Page Fundamentals for Product People

A landing page helps people understand what your product does and why someone should care about it. People of the internet have been building landing pages for a while now and have established a pattern that works. Don’t deviate from... Continue →