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Katherine Spencer LeeNetwork Your Way to Career Success
by Katherine Spencer Lee
Contributed by RHIConsulting

Read more articles by Katherine Spencer Lee

One of the most important skills you can develop is the ability to network. Even if you aren't actively job hunting, networking will enable you to establish a wide range of contacts who can help you expand your knowledge of the technology industry — and enable you to better manage your career.

The fundamental objective of the networking process is simple: To find people who can aid in your professional development. Whether you're hiring or job seeking, you'll often find that many people are willing to offer assistance — and that the broader your set of contacts, the better off you'll be.

Of course, if you are conducting a career search, networking is critical. In today's employment market, a large percentage of positions that are filled are the result of personal and business connections. Therefore, it makes sense that the more relationships you can establish throughout the business world, the greater your chances of learning about openings before they are advertised (as well as those that may never be openly posted). This gives you a competitive advantage over other job seekers, particularly in a specialized discipline.

Getting Started: The Right Attitude
Networking requires determination. Don't be intimidated by concerns about introducing yourself to strangers. Accept the possibility that some people won't be particularly helpful. And keep in mind one of the key principles of networking: The worst thing that can happen is that someone won't be willing to talk with you. In time, you'll find that persistence pays off. Start out by building a database of people you already know who might help you. Concurrently, think carefully about what you want to learn from these individuals. This can cover anything from insights into technology skills in demand to news of potential openings. There are many ways you can begin developing your contact list. Professional associations, alumnae groups, current and former colleagues, family members, friends and IT user groups are all valuable resources for seeking information and expanding your network. In many instances, you can contact individuals via telephone or e-mail. For others, it might be more appropriate to send a letter of introduction that perhaps mentions a mutual business friend and briefly explains what type of information or assistance you seek. Over time, through phone calls and letters, you'll also want to try to arrange one-on-one meetings.

Try to understand your boss
By observing and asking questions, you can learn a lot about your boss's world. Try to note such things as scope of responsibility, number of direct reports, industry background and history with the company. Even more telling might be your boss's career goals, relationship with his or her boss and any outside pressures. Placing yourself in his shoes can provide insight into the demands he may also be under and help you gain perspective with regard to your own projects. Perhaps he or she is experiencing stress from his own boss and therefore may seem to have less time for you. In this case, offering your assistance can come as welcome news to your manager and allow you to take on increased responsibility.

Communicate effectively
Figure out the best way to communicate with your manager - some managers prefer face-to-face contact throughout the day and others prefer e-mail or voicemail updates or questions. Also, ask if your supervisor prefers a quick overview with bullet points or a detailed report.

Tell your boss what you need
Once you've found the best way to communicate with your manager, be proactive in telling him or him or her what resources you need to get your job done (don't hope your boss will guess). Maybe you need additional computer training to create a presentation, for instance. Let your supervisor know why you need it and how it will help you do your job more effectively.

Make Contacts By Making An Off-Hours Impact
One of the best ways to expand your network is to attend events organized by user groups, community and professional associations. You'll find that people are usually more willing to talk at meetings or social events than in the middle of their workdays.

Before attending these functions, make sure to do your homework. Contact colleagues who are members for their thoughts on emerging issues. Read the organization's newsletter or visit its web site. The more knowledge you have about the group's priorities and its leaders, the more informed you'll be when you start speaking with members. Also be sure to bring plenty of business cards.

If you want to meet a specific person at the meeting, try to find an existing contact who can introduce you to him or her. If this is not possible, wait for an appropriate moment and make the introduction yourself. Then, ask if the person has a moment or two.

Breaking the ice can be daunting, so it's best to start with a safe, friendly topic. This is where the time spent learning about the organization or acquainting yourself with a relevant issue will come in handy. Begin your conversation by discussing a matter related to the organization itself, or the IT industry in general. Transition to your specific needs only if and when appropriate. Once you've completed this brief introductory conversation, you can then ask if it's possible to contact the person at a later time. After the meeting, send a thank you note to the person and follow up with an e-mail one week later.

An even more effective way to simultaneously broaden and deepen your network is to get involved in the organization. Join committees through which you can demonstrate your technology and leadership skills. Write an article for the newsletter on a topic which will allow you to showcase your expertise. Give a presentation to an industry group. Offer yourself as a mentor for younger members seeking insights into the technology field.

As you participate in these groups, remember that the emphasis is less on asking for a specific job or information and more on getting to know people and expanding your base of business contacts. Take time to listen to others discuss their work. When appropriate, talk about what you do.

First-Rate Follow-Through
In addition to making yourself visible, networking requires a disciplined approach to keeping in touch -- not just on the phone, but also in writing. Whether it's thanking someone for speaking with you, sending a relevant article or congratulating a colleague on a recent achievement, the time you spend personally communicating with others will ensure that your contact base is constantly active. This way, should you decide to start looking for a new job, others will keep your name top-of-mind when they hear of a position.

It's also critical to be responsive when others request your time or assistance. If one of your contacts refers someone to you, return his or her call or e-mail promptly and consider making time for a face-to-face meeting. Your objective here is to demonstrate the same spirit of helpfulness you'd like others to extend when you're seeking career advice or information about specific positions.

More than anything else, networking is a process. You need to take a methodical approach, carefully building your database, clarifying your goals, meeting new people, helping others and strategically focusing on both immediate and long-term career objectives. Treat networking with the same thoroughness you bring to your daily work, and over time you'll yield significant benefits.

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Katherine Spencer Lee is the executive director of RHI Consulting, a division of Robert Half International and the industry’s leading provider of project and full-time technical talent for the Internet economy.

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