After a workshop I led, an attendee connected to me via LinkedIn. Shortly thereafter, she asked me for an introduction to a few of my contacts. I recommended that she find connections who might know her work better than I. She then responded with a very good question that I bet is on the minds of many: a lot of the advice out there promotes networking as a way to access those jobs and companies you want, but as you meet more and more people how do you know when it’s okay to ask for referrals?
Kudos to this jobseeker for a number of things:
1) She expands her network. We connected (as it happened via LinkedIn but you can also use email or other social network);2) She stays in touch. Some people stop after one contact;3) She doesn’t stop at No. She didn’t push back on my hesitation for a referral but she did ask for more information (she asked why). So while she didn’t get exactly what she asked for, she got more information and that will help her search.
You can’t expand your network if you always only focus on people you already know. You have to take a chance, like this person did, and reach out to people. Attend social events, go to conferences, take classes, participate in community activities, and then actually reach out to the people you meet.
You also have to follow up because even if you do manage to introduce yourself and get this person in your LinkedIn network or on your email list, if you don’t correspond further, it doesn’t really matter.
But, the follow up stage is a long stage. The best follow up is non-committal.
You focus on the other person – just saying hi or giving an article, a recommendation for a good book, a holiday greeting. Give something that is welcome and doesn’t require a response. This way, you build familiarity and rapport without bothering the person. Then, when you have established familiarity and rapport, you might try asking for something.
A connection/ referral to someone else is a big favor. When you make a referral for a job or even an informational meeting, it is a reflection on you, so you want to make sure that before you refer someone you know them. Likewise, asking someone else to refer you is a risk for them. They need to know that you will reflect on them well, so don’t jump the gun to ask your network for this.
Asking for information is less of a favor, so if you’re not sure where you stand with a contact, ask your connection for information on a company or type of job.
The contact may offer on their own to introduce you to someone they know at the company or to pass on your resume for that type of job. This way, you have put yourself out there, made your aspirations known, but also not imposed too much on the other person.
People have different comfort levels for sharing contacts and referrals. So when you are expanding your network and not quite sure where people stand, be conservative and assume that you need to know the person very well. Then be generous and patient with your network so it becomes connections you know very well.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career coach, writer, speaker, Gen Y expert and co-founder of SixFigureStart (www.sixfigurestart.com), a career coaching firm comprised of former Fortune 500 recruiters. Formerly in corporate HR and retained search, Caroline most recently headed University Relations for Time Inc and has also recruited for Accenture, Citibank, Disney ABC, and others. Caroline is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Professional Development at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs and posts at CNBC Executive Careers and Vault.com.