It was the first week of spring, and a large group of well-dressed media professionals stood in clumps in the packed top floor of The Spoke Club in Toronto to engage in a networking evening organized by Mediabistro (www.mediabistro.com).
At the beginning, most people were clutching their drinks, while awkwardly trying to make eye contact with any friendly face, but soon the event’s host called the audience to order: “No wallflowers tonight; let’s mingle and make some meaningful connections; shame on you if you didn’t bring your business cards!”
With a convinced “Let’s work the room, and see how many cards I get,” Candice A., an interactive media producer, started shaking hands, and asking people “What do you do? What brings you here?” Meanwhile a lively former speed dating facilitator was reciting from her own beginner’s guide to successful networking: “Everybody is here for the same reason, and they feel as awkward as you do, so just walk up to someone and say ‘hello’, they’ll be thrilled you did it first.”
Hundreds of events like this one are held around the country every month, for all industries. The reason is simple: networking is crucial in a country where about 80% of job openings are not publicized. “Your network can help provide introductions to opportunities that would otherwise be unknown to you. The majority of those un-posted jobs are filled based on recommendations. The old saying ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ lives true today,” observes Kiersten Anas, Director of Programs and Operations at the Women’s Executive Network (WXN, www.wxnetwork.com).
According to Anas, no networking is bad networking, and every contact can be useful, but with so many possibilities it is important to be strategic about it. If a job seeker has a particular professional goal in mind, it is best to narrow the events down to those related to specific fields. WXN events cater to executives with at least six years' experience in a management role in any type of industry, and they are currently developing an initiative for new Canadian female professionals, which they hope to unveil this year. “The intention for this new offering will be to help immigrant professionals as they ascend into more senior positions. This will be done through peer support and knowledge sharing from fellow new Canadian WXN members, as well as through access to professionals who can provide insights into Canadian corporate culture,” Anas explains.
These types of programs are designed to address the unique concerns and challenges immigrants face when trying to build a professional network. “If you are Canadian you have initial contacts to build your network, but when you are new to Canada you don’t always know who to talk to first,” says Manjeet Dhiman, Senior Director of Services and Business Development at ACCES Employment (www.accestrain.com). She adds, “It’s important to get newcomers to understand that this is a common approach in the North American business world, and giving them the tools and the venues makes them more comfortable in networking and soliciting information.”
Many sector-specific events take the form of dinners or luncheons that require payment, but considering that for most emerging professionals money is tight, Dhiman advises to do a good research before making that kind of investment. “I wouldn’t encourage anybody to spend money on an event unless they knew a lot about it. Generally, people don’t need to pay to build the right networks,” she notes.
A traditional strategy to expand an up-and-comer’s networking relationships is mentoring, but mentors willing to commit a lot of their time are scarce. For this reason, Acces offers the speed mentoring series, with an average of thirty events per year, where professionals from different industries volunteer a few hours to share useful information with job seekers. Participants are prescreened to guarantee good matches, and they attend an orientation on how to get the best out of the event. Each mentee can meet with a minimum of seven mentors for about ten minutes, which in most cases is enough to make a connection.
So I Have Twenty Cards In My Pocket… Now What? By the end of the night at the Mediabistro event, someone approached Candice A., and in a rush, asked for her card. She told him she didn’t bring any, “shame on me”, she laughed, but the truth was she simply didn’t think this was a right connection. “You should only hand your card to people you have a real conversation with. This guy won’t remember me tomorrow,” she remarked.
Ivan Guisao agrees. He is finishing his MBA at York’s Schulich School of Business, and already has two job offers thanks to a couple of connections he made at networking events. “It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality,” he says, and adds, “If I go to an event with fifty people, I much rather meet three or four, but have ten or fifteen minutes with each, so that when I write to them they’ll know who I am, and I’ll have something to talk to them about, because we had a chance to find common interests.”
Subtlety is key when approaching a new connection after an event, however “It would be overwhelming to the other person if the first thing you did was to call or email them asking for help. So it’s about opening up a dialogue, and a “thank you” email can be really effective for that. The sooner you send it the better, so within a day or two is perfectly appropriate,” advises Dhiman.
Carol Mayberry, Information Specialist at PCPI (www.pcpi.ca) proposes to take full advantage of digital communication by sending articles of interest, invitations to other events, or asking them to connect through social media websites such as LinkedIn.
Guisao is an active member of the Latin American MBA Alumni Network (LAMBA, www.lambanet.ca), whose objective is to integrate and provide networking opportunities among MBA students, graduates and the Canadian business community, and he has been participating in their gatherings since it’s launch in 2010. “I attended their first event, and made a connection with an MBA who was already working. Afterwards, that person introduced me to somebody else, who eventually offered me a job. For me is the best example of how powerful networking can be”.
Consuelo is a journalist, screenwriter and story editor. She has worked as field producer for CNN, and reporter for The Miami Herald and other international media outlets. She currently works as a correspondent for Terra Networks and is involved in independent film projects.