5 things every student should know about networking!

Last week, my colleagues and I had the privilege of teaching over 1200 students about the importance of networking, how to network and most importantly how to grow and sustain a healthy network. This was the final workshop of their foundational career preparatory module and I consider it to be the most important. Here’s why.

1. Companies rather hire people that their employees can vouch for over unknown general applicants

In businesses today, over a third of hires come through referrals. With resumes having next to zero predictive validity, companies rely actively on incentive driven referral programs to find their best talent. In large MNCs, referring an associate could earn the referror a tidy USD$3000. In humbler Singaporean organisations, the figure can range from $300 – $800. The point is, companies rather pay their staff to refer someone good than rely on the traditional recruiting process. This possibly explains why sources claim that only 30 – 40 percent of all available jobs are posted online.

To make matters worse, when a job does go online, an applicant for a fresh graduate position at a reputable organisation would probably be one in a few hundred. If his or her resume was not optimised to make it through the company’s applicant tracking system (which uses keyword matching and other filters to shortlist candidates), he or she won’t stand a chance. If it’s an old school company with a junior HR staffer flipping through 1000 resumes to shortlist 100 for his/her boss, each resume is only going to get 6 seconds of attention.

So if you want your resume to have more than a 6 second chance, you need someone in the business to tell the HR manager, ‘hey, give Jasbir’s resume a look – he comes recommended.’

2. Networking helps you answer the question, ‘what do I want to do after I graduate?’

Throughout the week, only about 3 students in each class raised their hands when i asked, ‘how many of you know what you want to do when you graduate?’ Networking is a great way to find an answer to that age old question. By talking to people that have been there and done that, you get to learn about different functions and industries, what happens day to day, what’s the working life like, what it takes to get in and what recruiters look for when hiring for such roles. But most importantly, by listening to the stories of other people, you start to notice which stories you lean in to and which ones you zone out off. Repeat this process with enough people and you will soon have clarity on the roles, industries and functions that you are interested in.

3. You already have a network

90% of us do not live some crazy rich Asian lifestyle with friends and family in high places in big banks or advertising firms. But that doesn’t mean we do not have a valuable network.

We all have family and friends who are working. If you have 1 sibling, 3 seniors and 1 parent working, you effectively have 5 people that can tell you all about 5 different roles in 5 different industries that you could possibly consider. On top of that, consider the distant relatives you recently reconnected with over Chinese New Year as part of your network. I’m sure the old Uncle will be flattered to hear you say, ‘uncle, can we chat? I’d love some career advice.’

Outside the personal realm of family and friends, consider your professional realm. As students your professional connections include your professors (many of whom have come from industry), your internship colleagues and bosses and career advisors. That is another great handful of people that are inclined to help you build a nice future for yourself.

Another big group within your network are all the people you meet through your community involvement and the organisations you join as a student. I landed my Heidrick job because someone I volunteered with in the youth development space believed I could be a helpful pair of hands when he needed an intern. We were not particularly close, but we kept in touch, shared the same interest in people development and when he needed an intern, he gave me a call. It was a win-win because it meant he did not need to go through the painful process of writing a job description, advertising, and interviewing.

Whether you volunteer at SPCA or Church, plan activities for your hall or freelance to make some extra pocket money, the people you meet along the way are all part of your network. You just need to keep in touch. Which brings me to my fourth point.

4. Coffee conversations are your best friend – even for introverts!

A simple way to tap on your network is to write to them and say, ‘hey, I’m an undergraduate exploring career options and I’m curious about the industry you are in and the work you do. Do you mind having a chat over coffee so I can ask you a few questions?

That immediately flatters the receiver (wow this university student wants to learn from me!) and he/she will want to respond positively. In the worst case scenario, you see two blue ticks but no reply. You have nothing to lose. So get out there, reach out to your friends, your family, your professors, random strangers in cool businesses and even your grab hitch drivers and ask them for a coffee so you can learn about what they do. It’s called informational interviewing where you are interviewing them to get as much information or knowledge about their field. Here’s a great video that explains it.

If you aren’t a people person or like me you sometimes get the feeling that you will not be able to carry the conversation forward, go in extra prepared with 2 things – your elevator introduction and curious open ended questions.

Your elevator introduction should be short enough for a quick elevator ride

The elevator introduction is a short and coherent 30 seconds that: a) lets you introduce yourself and what you do right now, b) communicates one or two interesting things about you (skills, interest, passions), and c) identifies what you want to get out of the conversation.

The next thing to do is to go in with a beginner’s mind, prepared with is a nice list of curious, open ended questions. Like I wrote in an earlier article, curiosity did not kill the cat, it gave it a job.

For example, instead of a close ended question like ‘do you like your job’, which only gets you one or two word answers, ask ‘what do you like about your job?’ This gets the other person talking fluidly and gives you little nuggets from which you can ask more open ended questions, share things about yourself and turn the entire experience into a fun and engaging two way conversation instead of a weird reincarnation of an awkward first date.

The questions you ask should not just be about work. Instead, take the opportunity to get to know the person personally as well. Seek to find out about their background, hobbies, interest and share about yours along the way. When the conversation is over, thank them and go a step further to let them know what you’ve gained from the session.

Here’s an example. ‘Thanks so much for your time. It was great to learn about your role in the company. I previously did not understand what a relationship manager does, but now I have a better idea.’ A day or two later, send a thank you email with an update about what you have done with the knowledge – perhaps you have researched further or you acted on some of his/her advice.

After which, continue to maintain the relationship.

5. Maintain your network by being in service

Regardless of who is in your network, the best way to maintain your network is to serve your network. It’s not something they would expect, especially since most of them are likely to be senior to you, and that is exactly why they will remember your effort to be in service.

Adam Grant wrote about the 5-minute favour as a great way to be in service. I strongly recommend that approach for it is sincere and it does not take up much time. If you learnt during the coffee conversation that the person you spoke to is into running, and you caught an add for an interesting Netflix show documenting the world’s best running trails, share that add. If you caught wind of a sale for running gear, invite the person along (or just share the deal). If there’s a fun running event, inform them about it or better yet, invite him/her to join you!

Always be on the look out to be in service. My mom always said, if you give one good thing, ten will come back to you! I hope this has been helpful. Feel free drop me a message on my Instagram if you have any questions I can help with.

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