Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Network with confidence

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During a recent presentation I gave on career advancement strategies, I emphasized the importance of explaining to networking contacts, mentors and advisers what you would like them to do for you. My rationale: You probably won’t get what you don’t ask for.

An attendee, who described himself as shy and uncomfortable asking others for help, asked: “How can I lose my networking inhibitions?” I explained that most professionals — no matter how successful — would probably enjoy advising him because:

*Mentoring invariably provides opportunities for mentors to talk about their favorite topic — themselves.

*Most professionals feel virtuous helping other worthy people.

*Most professionals enjoy seeing others benefit from their hard-won life lessons.

In addition, I advised my shy audience member to try to increase his networking confidence by using established mentoring programs sponsored by agencies, professional organizations or Federal Executive Boards (www.feb.gov).

Some additional tips for eliciting help:

*Use good timing. Before launching into a plea for help, first ask, “Do you have a few minutes now to talk, or can you suggest a more convenient time for me to call you back?”

*Compliment. Preface each request with an explanation of why your contact’s impressive credentials compelled you to contact him. And as you interact, ask your contact about his own rise to the top.

*Make it easy for your networking contacts to help you. Clearly and concisely identify your goals and explain how each contact could help you — whether, for example, you want him to help you market a product or service, introduce you to other important contacts or give you strategic advice.

Also, give your contacts your resume, business plan and other documents they need to help you. And quickly respond to any requests for additional information.

*Express heartfelt thanks. Take it from someone who has given career advice for free to hundreds of friends, acquaintances and strangers: Most people limit their expressions of gratitude to a quick, superficial “thank you” — no matter how much time and energy has been donated to their cause. So if you express your thanks in deeper, more original ways, you will stand out from the pack and increase your chances of help again in the future.

To this end, consider sending a thank-you card or a thoughtful gift.

Describe how a contact’s advice helped you, and suggest ways that you may be able to help him — even if that only involves referring him to a relevant article.

And please, don’t say, “If your help gets me this job, I will take you out for dinner.” Why not? You should thank anyone who extends themselves for you, even if their labors — through no fault of their own — fail to bear fruit.

If you do promise to take a mentor out to dinner, follow up. If you fail to do so, your insincerity will be long remembered.

*Be the squeaky wheel. If a contact fails to fulfill a pledge of assistance within a reasonable time, gently inquire when he anticipates being able to do whatever he promised. Volunteer to provide any information or do any legwork to get the process rolling. And ask when you should follow up again. That way, you won’t bother him in the future unnecessarily.

*Don’t be stopped by rejections. Harden yourself to any nonobliging contacts. And don’t take someone else’s rudeness personally — their rudeness is a reflection of them, not you. If you are rejected by a contact, as cheerfully as possible, move onto others.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is IGotTheJob.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.