At every stage in your career, networking can play a pivotal role. When you’re thinking about returning to work, networking can inform, inspire and help focus your efforts. When back at work, networking can help you develop, gain visibility and progress.
It’s important, but it can be uncomfortable. Many of us instinctively shy away from networking. It can feel manipulative and demanding. But it needn’t be – at its heart, networking is simply ‘a conversation with a purpose.’ It is about connecting with other people who have a common interest, whether that be work, hobbies, personal circumstances or life stages. The purpose is to share information, and in some cases to support each other. When you’re on a career break, you may have these sorts of conversations all the time – what do you do? have you been to any good events or exhibitions recently? can you recommend a restaurant/book/babysitter/plumber/course? – you just don’t call it networking!
Preparing for networking conversations
It can be really helpful to plot your different networks on paper to capture your key contacts. Create different groups, for example family, friends, former colleagues, student friends, community connections, gym friends and contacts through volunteering. Don’t just include people you know well – think creatively about a broad mix of different people who can help provide ideas and perspectives that you may not have previously considered.
When we’ve been on a long career break, we often forget how we used to introduce ourselves professionally. Start with the headlines that are important to you, that highlight your strengths, key experiences and values now. Reconnecting with your career story, whether you are returning to our old sector, pivoting or changing completely, takes time and practice. Getting out and telling your career story to different people will help you to get clearer on what you want to highlight and will help your listener understand what you have to offer and where they can help. As Herminia Ibarra says in her brilliant book Working Identity, “We discover the true possibilities by doing ….by reworking our story as we tell it to those around us”.
Networking when you’re on the journey back to work
As you start your return to work journey, networking will help you build your knowledge quickly – of current trends, challenges, and opportunities – all great for upcoming interviews. It will also help you to build your understanding of what skills are valued now so that you can focus any upskilling on in-demand areas. And when you’re out and about talking to people, you’re in the right place to hear about unadvertised opportunities – whether jobs or volunteering opportunities to build your experience.
When approaching networking conversations during the career exploration or job search phase, there are 3 broad areas you can look to explore:
Insights – to understand the latest trends, opportunities and challenges for a particular sector. Or to understand the finer detail of a particular role you’re interested in, to see whether you have the skills or experience ?
Ideas – to test the validity of some of your ideas and how they land. Are you being realistic? If not what would you need to do to make your idea more viable? What ideas do they have that you might not have considered- types of roles, or organisations to explore? How do they see your skills and experience transferring across?
Introductions – this comes towards the end of your conversation when the person you’re speaking to has a good feel of what you have to offer, what you’re interested in and how they may be able to help. Are there any people they’d recommend you reach out to or they can connect you to?
With each contact, consider what are they best placed to help you with – insights, ideas or introductions.
Networking when you’re back at work
Once back at work, networking continues to play a key role. If you’re working for a larger employer, they may have internal Networks for Women/Parents’/Carers’/etc – joining one that fits with your circumstances can be a great way to meet new people. More generally, looking for ways to build connections outside of your immediate team can ease your return to work transition and provide valuable connection and peer support.
In the early days, networking can help you find out the key info necessary to help you get your arms around your new job. Talking to colleagues will help you to understand how departments interrelate and help you to quickly get a feel for organisational culture. It can also help you to understand what skills are valued internally to help you focus and prioritise your learning in the early days.
In time, networking can also help you to raise your visibility and profile. Amanda Scott and Zella King’s ‘Personal Boardroom’ model advocates a strategic approach to building your network. It highlights the importance of building relationships with a wide range of people who can each offer different elements to help you progress, including ‘Information’ (subject knowledge, insights and ideas), ‘Power’ (access to people and resources) and ‘Development’ (feedback, challenge, courage and balance).
How to get started
Having thought about the who, the why and the what of networking, don’t forget to plan the how! Networking doesn’t have to be time consuming and by chunking it up into small activities, you can diarise them and weave them into your week/month:
- Spend time plotting your contacts on paper. Leave space to add new names as you get started!
- Reach out on LinkedIn to connect with a contact and take the time to tailor a personal direct message
- Email a friend/former colleague to arrange a coffee to chat through some ideas
- Look into Insight Events run by organisations running returner programmes to see what you can sign up to – there are lots of virtual events you can do from the comfort of your own home to learn more about different opportunities
- Get out and about – meet a contact in person or attend an event in person. It will feel good to get professionally dressed up again and back connecting with your professional self!
Most importantly, choose the networking activity that you feel confident to accomplish, and just get started, little and often, to build your confidence.