By Debra Feldman
The holiday season is an excellent time of year for job hunters. Spreading holiday cheer and New Year’s greetings over the phone, via e-mail or with a card is a great excuse to reconnect with people you don’t regularly see or with whom you correspond infrequently. And all the seasonal festivities—whether they be gatherings at your local church or synagogue, cocktail parties at neighbors’ houses or concerts at your kids’ schools—present ample opportunities to network in relaxed, convivial settings. It’s so much easier to make small talk about things like family, holiday plans, shopping and gifts at this time of year, and those universal topics help break awkward silences and warm up conversations that you can eventually direct toward your networking needs. What’s more, holiday time is an ideal chance for job hunters, especially those who find setting up networking meetings difficult, to make a connection with someone they want to get to know by offering them a ride to a party, providing directions or giving them an admission ticket to an event.
Savvy job seekers don’t dread these social events; they embrace them, and you should too. If you feel that your recent job-seeking efforts haven’t been getting you anywhere, taking advantage of all the networking opportunities that the season offers is certain to improve your odds. These positive networking experiences can help you unearth unadvertised positions or leads on companies going through new challenges that could use your help. In fact, many hiring managers are more receptive to job seekers’ offers of pro bono or contract work (as a way to get their feet in the door) at this time of year because the managers are scrambling to meet deadlines right when they and their staffs want to take time off.
Here are some tips on making the most of the holiday season’s ample networking opportunities:
- Be selective about which events you attend. If you have multiple invitations for the same date or just don’t want to spread yourself too thin, decide which events are worth your time based on the networking potential that each provides and/or the amount of fun you think you’ll have.
- Do your homework. Before the event you’re planning to attend, find out who is expected to be there. Politely ask the person organizing the event if they might tell you whom they invited. Then identify the individuals you want to meet. Learn about these people and the companies they work for so you can have an intelligent discussion with them and thus make a positive impression.
- Plan ahead. Consider what you might say to break the ice and keep conversations flowing. People are going to ask you what you do for work, so know how to answer that question: Come up with a succinct explanation or anecdote that illustrates what you do and distinguishes you from the rest of the pack. Also think about what you might offer the people you meet in terms of advice, an introduction or a referral. Planning ahead will help you make the most of the event and increase your confidence going into it.
- Know what you want to accomplish. When you finally get in front of your target contacts, what do you want to get out of the interactions? Do you want their business card, or a referral or permission to contact them afterward to discuss your mutual interests?
- Make a good first impression. In the age of the Internet, a social event is an invaluable opportunity to speak with people face to face. So give the casual attire a break and look smart for the occasion. Also keep breath mints and your business cards handy.
- Have a friend introduce you. If you’re uncomfortable introducing yourself to someone new, find someone who knows one of the individuals you want to meet and ask that person to introduce you. Show your gratitude to your introducer by finding a way to help him or her. Never forget a favor.
- Work the room with someone. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to meet new people when you do so with another person by your side. Find someone with whom you’re socially compatible, who brings out the best in you and vice versa, and introduce yourselves to someone new.
- Stay focused. Just as a job interview over lunch is not about the food, a holiday networking occasion is never about the libations. It’s about expanding your circle of relevant contacts and learning and remembering as much as you can from your conversations. It’s a good idea to take notes—either on the back of business cards or in a small notebook you bring with you—so that you can recall your conversation when you follow up with people. But do it discreetly, such as when you’re in the bathroom, in your car or at home.
- Quality is more important than quantity. It’s better to spend your time having a meaningful conversation with a few carefully chosen contacts than to have a zillion superficial interactions. Don’t break off a productive discussion to start another one, thereby leaving your first partner hanging. By the same token, don’t waste anyone’s time or prevent others from doing the networking they want to do. Be respectful and courteous. Your goal is to be remembered for the right reasons and to get someone to take action on your behalf. You need to be more than a name on a card or resume; you need be a resource they’ll keep on their radar for appropriate referrals and recommendations.
- Know when to hold your tongue. It’s better to remain silent than to put your foot in your mouth, so if you don’t have anything to add, don’t feel obligated to talk. You can’t hurt yourself by being quiet, offering a friendly smile, or nodding to indicate that you are listening appreciatively. It’s better to leave a neutral impression than to damage your reputation by speaking out of turn or making a politically incorrect statement. Plus, you never know what others who are listening could be hearing and then later reporting.
- Be gracious. Write timely thank-you notes for invitations, assistance, introductions, referrals and advice. Not only does this show you have good manners and are courteous, but it also makes someone else feel appreciated and reminds them of your interaction.
- Follow up. To maximize the value of your networking efforts, be sure to follow up on the contacts you made in December early in the new year. Make keeping in touch regularly with your network your new year’s resolution. You don’t want to be “out of touch; out of mind.” Persistence is a guaranteed advantage in the job market.
Happy holidays and happy networking!
Debra Feldman designs and personally implements swift, strategic and customized senior-level executive job search campaigns. Contact her through www.jobwhiz.com.
For more on networking, see the Career Boost column Working the Crowd.