Staying in touch with your network isn’t easy—from finding reasons to drop people a line to finding the time to actually do it, it’s no wonder many of us put it off until it’s essential (i.e., when we’re job hunting).
But really, if you only reach out to people during times of career transition, you’re wasting a valuable resource for your professional development. Read on for five easy ways your contacts can help you excel at your current gig—and how to reach out the right way.
You Need: A Roadmap
You Know: Someone Who’s Been There
My former boss gave an amazing speech on the occasion of leaving our organization, lightened by humorous references to the number of times she Googled how to do something. And while I could (and often do) make use of that option, I also have a better one: her. She’s written budgets and strategic plans and gone toe-to-toe with difficult clients. Meaning, when I’m staring down a new or confusing situation, I know she can advise me from a place of experience. Even though she’s no longer my boss, she’s part of my network—and she’s been willing to help me on numerous occasions.
Of course, there are a few things to keep in mind when approaching a contact for advice. First, be armed with a specific pitch that concisely lays out what you need and how much time it will take: “Would you have an hour in the next week to answer a few questions about writing a budget?” versus “Can you help me with some budget stuff?”
Second, do your prep work before the meeting and try to get as far as you can on your own—the last thing you want is to squander the time with FAQs. Third, this can’t be an every week (or even an every month) thing. Unless this contact is your mentor, you should reach out once a quarter, max. Need more help than that? Reach out to another contact.
You Need: Expertise (in a Hurry)
You Know: Someone in a Different Field
You have a contract that needs looking over, and your friend is a lawyer. Or, you need to brush up on your language skills before an upcoming business trip, and your old colleague moonlights as a language tutor. When you need specialized expertise in a pinch, that’s a perfect reason to reach out to the people in your network. In some ways, that’s exactly what they’re there for.
That said, be careful when you’re asking someone in your network for a favor—especially if it’s to help you more quickly or more cheaply than someone you’d hire. The key here is to remember that networking is a two-way street. One great option is bartering—i.e., in exchange for the language tutor giving you a crash course before your trip, you offer to revamp his homepage. Another option is asking to be pointed in the right direction: If your friend the lawyer can’t help you with the contract because it’ll require sizable revisions, she should still be able to recommend someone who can help you or give you a sense of what hiring a professional may cost. Either way, you’ll have more information than you began with.
You Need: Help With an Event
You Know: Someone Who’s Done it Before
Event planning requires a lot of legwork, not the least of which—from sourcing venues to finding quality vendors—is logistical. Imagine how much time you could save speaking with someone who already knew that this venue has a ton of parking and that venue has issue with its air conditioning; that this bakery is excellent and that caterer is not.
So, if you’re tasked with throwing a conference, event, or even a meeting, reach out both formally and informally to your networks. Tell your friend who coordinates events for her job and your friend the recent bride alike that “other projects as assigned” translates to gala-planning, and you’d love their advice. And don’t be afraid to post a Facebook or LinkedIn status asking your contacts if they know any great, local venues (or caterers, or photographers). You’ll save tons of time on your search and be moving forward with tried and trusted locations and vendors.
You Need: Honest Feedback
You Know: Someone Who You Trust
A young woman I recruited a few years ago recently asked me to beta test me her new site. She was clear in her expectations—she needed honest (brutal, where necessary) feedback before the site was launched—and she knew that friends and family (the people you can hook to beta test because, well, they love you) can be shy when it comes to criticism.
I was particularly enthusiastic about helping because of the way she reached out to me. She wrote me a thoughtful email, briefly filling me in on what brought her to the project and clearly expressing what she was trying to do with the site. Moreover, once I agreed to be a beta tester, she responded to every email I sent promptly, thoroughly, and with gratitude. The way she conducted herself through this process not only convinced me to spend hours scouring the site, but also left me with an even higher opinion of her professionalism. By reaching out, she not only got the help she needed—she deepened her relationship with a contact.
You Need: Nothing—Right Now
You Know: Two People You Can Connect
Have a friend who’s looking to start freelancing—and an old colleague who successfully made the switch years ago? A co-worker who needs to hire a temp and a college buddy who’s a recruiter? Introducing them is more than just good karma—it’s good for your career. Yes, networking is all about making connections that will be valuable for you, but sometimes what’s most impressive is someone who helps and connects others when there’s nothing in it for him or her. And need I mention the fact that when you need an introduction down the road, the people you connected will likely be inclined to return the favor?
In these cases, just make sure to do a double-opt-in intro, asking each party for his or her permission to make the introduction before you actually do. A simple, “Hey, I know you’re looking for an extra set of hands—want me to make an intro to my friend the recruiter?” works perfectly.
Reaching out to your networking is a necessity when you’re looking for a job. But even when you’re not—don’t forget all your connections can do to help you do your job better.