What Do I Have to Offer? Early Career Professionals and Reciprocal Networking
by Chris Eosco, Advisor, My Next Season
Every day I have conversations with young professionals who are working hard to figure out what their next career move should be. These men and women are incredibly bright, focused, and driven, and they are eager to receive advice on building their professional brand.
But often, when the conversation turns to reciprocal networking, they tend toward discouragement. They quickly ask me . . . What do I have to offer?
It’s a legitimate question. Someone who is only a few years into their career probably doesn’t yet have the traditional networking currency—strategic connections or industry insights, for example, that someone long in their career has. After all, they’ve had a lifetime of hearing . . . “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know!” While tools like LinkedIn make it easier to build a virtual professional network, reaching out to peers and building a horizontal network “professionally” doesn’t always come naturally—and vertical networking relationships—with folks senior to you, whether in age, professional level, or both—can feel awkward.
So how do you push past the discomfort and initiate networking relationships with those more senior, knowing you can’t do for that person what they might be able to do for you? In other words, how do you create a reciprocal networking relationship, and what is your currency?
Approach vertical networking with your full confidence and grace, and with an understanding of the value you bring to these folks. Advice on how to do it?
- Show interest. If you’ve read an article or a book about the industry the person works in, even if you think they’ve already read it, send them the link. This shows that you are approaching your career with intellectual curiosity and a desire to share ideas with others.
- Do research. Find out what the person cares about. Is there a community activity or not-for-profit they are involved with? Are they chairing a fundraiser or fostering dogs in their home? If so, ask them about it. Maybe there’s a common interest or passion that can serve as a conversation starter.
- Ask: “Is there something I can help you with?” You might be surprised by the answer. Maybe this person has a son or niece applying to the same college you went to who would benefit from a conversation with a recent alum. Or perhaps they have a project you could offer to help with, free of charge. More than likely, they won’t need anything from you right now—but your offer will show them that you’re genuinely seeking to give more than you take.
- Be patient. Establishing a rapport and building trust with someone can take more than a 15-minute phone call or one coffee meeting. The networking seeds you plant now might not really bear fruit for several years—and some of them never will. Be prepared to follow up, check in now and then, and continue to extend invitations and keep the conversation going.
Don’t undervalue yourself as you build your professional network. You might not (yet) have the tangible things someone further along in their career would have, but you have intense curiosity and genuine interest—and that is attractive to those at more senior levels. They want to know that you care—and that you’ve done some homework that is relevant to them, the company, the world. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions. Be overt in saying you’d like to learn from them. Engage with them about things they are involved with or interested in; you will learn a lot. Seek ways to give back.
If all goes as it is meant to, and you advance in your relationships and career, someday you will find yourself on the other end of a young professional’s desire to network with you. And you’ll say yes to that twenty-something who invites you to coffee, because you’ll remember how hard it can be to put yourself out there . . . and how powerful doing so can be for your career and future.