If you have a neighbor whose young adult child has a job in a restaurant, and you have a different neighbor who owns a restaurant, start small and network with the young adult first. Have your child talk to someone closer to their age, whose job experiences have more relevance. Speaking to an older accomplished adult can be very intimidating. Students have to practice before they can talk to an executive level professional. Students – don’t leave this networking up to your parents and their friends: try to maintain connections with students a bit older than you whom you know from school or an activity. Seek out those who seem to be going places – they will likely be great networking sources as you grow and expand your interests in the world of work.
For students and their families who are about to embark on a networking project, I’d like to help you put this into perspective. Imagine you personally (parent or student) might want to run for an elected town board position. Your neighbor says they know the Mayor of the closest large city and suggests you talk to them to learn about local politics (e.g. the Mayor of Boston for instance, or of Phoenix). Picture yourself: your first foray into networking is with that Mayor – intimidating, right? Don’t make this mistake. In networking, we often try to reach out to the most powerful and connected adults we know in the hopes of gaining career insight, or an internship, or a job…fast. And, we adults, with very good intentions, often jump the shark when helping students by introducing them to these high level contacts.
Students, however, need to practice having conversations first. The point of these initial conversations is not just about making rain from the conversations. Remember, this is the era of less and less verbal discourse. So, students don’t come to networking having much practice at formal conversation. Make the entry-point into networking easy. Students need accessible, personable contacts who help encourage them and help them practice the art of formal discussion – teachers, the clergy, self-employed people in your town are all great first starts. And, regardless of whom you are meeting, set yourself up for success. Confirm your appointment the day before, pre-write a draft thank you (so it can be edited quickly with a few personalized details and be sent within a day of the meeting-email thank yous are fine). Foremost, arrive with a list of 5-8 questions you have practiced with a family member. (Examples: how did you get into this line of work; what classes in school helped you; what characteristics make someone good at your kind of job; if you were starting out now, what would you do to get yourself ready; what other things do you do outside of work that you enjoy; is there anyone else you think I should talk to or any websites or books or magazines I should look at?…)
Starting small and in this low-stakes way – much like trying out a bicycle with training wheels or learning to ski on the bunny slope, will reduce anxiety and improve your success. Watch how you blossom as you graduate to more and more complicated conversations with more and more connected individuals over time. Your standard list of questions will begin to trip off your tongue naturally. You will add new questions effortlessly. Your confidence will grow – age appropriately – so that those whom you meet won’t question how you made the contact or why they are speaking with you. You will right-size your ability with your opportunities, and the whole process will be more comfortable and yield better results.