Networking Is A Two-Way Street

How would you define networking in your own words?

I think networking is all about how you identify people with similar or common interests and find out how you can help each other. It's not “How do I find somebody who can help me get a job?” I think that's the mistake that a lot of people make and where they get really uncomfortable. When you treat it as a transaction that’s all about you, it falls apart in a hurry. If you treat it like, “I'm going to be in Atlanta for the next forty years, probably (or twenty in my case), and I'm probably going to work for higher education. I'm here to help students and companies connect. Who are the people I want to meet that can help make that happen?” Then, networking gets fun because that's a two-way street. So, that to me, is what networking is.

I think people have to get clear about what it is and what it isn't. When it works well, you bring something to the party. A lot of young professionals feel like, “Well what do I have to offer? This person is so senior.” You have to find common interests. Young people talking to mid- or senior career professionals need to talk about not just what you studied, or where you went to school, or what kind of job you're looking for, but you need to talk about what you do on the weekends. What are your interests? What you do with your church group. How do you give back to society? You have to find, hopefully, through that broader conversation, something in common with that person. And then you might slip in the “Well, here's what I'm looking for. Here's what I'm trying to do. What are some things that you're trying to do in life? How might I help you?” You'd be surprised at how you might be able to help each other.

I'll give you an example. My daughter is twenty years old, and she's a rising junior at Georgia Southern. She recently went to an event and met somebody who worked with my brother, her uncle. My brother is going to be in town here in a couple of weeks, and he said “I haven't seen him in forever! When is he coming? Oh, I've lost track of him. What's his email address?” And my daughter put these two in touch. Do you think he's going to be more likely to help her later when she says, “Hey I'm looking for an internship next summer?” You never know!

I think people's nervousness and anxiety can get in the way. The other big thing I wish I could help young people understand is that we were all young once. Most people want to help you or find a way to help you, but you need to be prepared and professional. It's also a numbers game. You talk to ten people. Four of them are just too busy, and they've got things going on in their life. It's not personal. Four of them will react and respond, and if two of those work out to be great contacts, you are winning. And the others are just not even going to respond at all, or respond a little and kind of lead you on. Then nothing happens, and that's as good as it gets.

Do you think that it is essential for undergraduates to begin building a career network before graduation?

Yes, yes, yes! Today, with the tools available through LinkedIn, through all your activities on campus, your faculty, you need to start from the minute you set foot on campus. Most students are building a network without even knowing it. The first six or eight weeks as a freshman is all about meeting new people. The mistake a lot of first-year students make is they don't capture that information. They sort of base their decisions on “Do I like that person? Do they like me?” and not on “We are going to be classmates. We are going to be alums of this institution forever. How can we help each other?” Too often, people show up at Career Service offices as a junior and say “I want to write my resume, and I need to start networking.” My answer to that is “Jeez! I wish you would have come in as a freshman so we could build a resume and help you build your network.” So, think longer-term. Think relational. Think building blocks. Don't think transactional.

Writing a resume is a transactional activity. Building a resume is different. Building a resume is: “I'm going to be a finance major. Let me look at the resumes of successful seniors in finance. That friend of mine, or that person that's a senior, did these six or eight things. I need to get those kinds of activities, internships, student organizations on my resume.” That's building. Running around campus not thinking it through, and then showing up here three weeks before graduation? “Hey, I heard this was the Career Center. Can you help me get a job?” That’s transactional. But, sometimes that's all apart of a person's development.

Can you tell me about a time you intentionally networked?

Yes - probably the six months to a year leading up to getting this job, (which was a long time ago). I was at UGA, and I was sort of the number two person in the career center. I had been there for five years, and I knew it was time to go somewhere else; that was part of my plan when I started there. About four or five months before I left, I updated my resume and my cover letters, and I made a short list of people that were in my network for the last ten years. I was very intentional and strategic about who I reached out to, what schools I was targeting, all those kinds of things. So that's probably the last time I did it towards a job, but you use those same skill sets when you are trying to sell an idea; when you are trying to sell a product or a service. I use that approach daily on things we are doing.

Do you have any networking pet peeves?

Oh yeah! I don't like when people randomly invite me to connect on LinkedIn with no message or with generic messages on LinkedIn. If you want to be in my network, you need to tell me who you are, why we should connect, how we can help each other. It doesn't need to be a book, but give me a couple of sentences or jog my memory. Let's say I met you two weeks ago at some event: “Hey Jason! It was really great to meet you last Thursday at Bob's Bar, the alumni event. You may recall we talked about jobs in finance. I would love to be a part of your network.” Now, I remember you. I remember where. I remember when. Yes! It's imperative for a young professional to be intentional and clear in their communication. Probably my biggest pet peeve is when people today don't know how to use the tools that they have at their disposal, many of which I could not have dreamed up twenty-five years ago when I got in this business. Some people can be too lax about how they use the tools and just because it can be easy or quick doesn't mean it's effective.

The more I talk to people who are my age and older, I'm not the only one with these pet peeves. I don't mind helping you. But remember this: Everything you do sends me a message. Are you on time? How do you dress? How do you greet me? How do you communicate with me? How quickly do you follow up? Everything people do sends a message. It's the old Golden Rule. How would you want to be approached?

And I think it's hard. I'm not insensitive to the fact that sometimes young people just don't know. To ask questions and ask people “How should I use these tools?” is a path to growth. One of the best things I ever read was: “It's not about how you want to be communicated with, it's about how the person you're trying to sell to or network with wants to be communicated with.” One of the simplest things to do is ask: “Do you prefer email, LinkedIn, text messaging? How would you best like to stay in touch?” If somebody asks me that, it's a relief, Even my own kids who are twenty, seventeen, eighteen, et cetera - they're saying things to me like “I'm over social media! There are eighty-seven channels! It’s ridiculous. I can't keep up.” I heard that this summer from my kids, and I just started laughing. Welcome to my world.

Are you in any professional networks and groups, and do you find them to be rewarding?

Yes, I've been very active in two or three professional associations throughout my career. They're very, very helpful in several ways. That can be just learning the profession, the industry, the people, and seeing my own growth. I volunteered in a number of leadership positions, including being president of our state association. That was a growth experience for me.

I think there's a give-back, also, to the profession. I started a statewide career fair here in Georgia fifteen years ago, and it's still going strong today, and it is the number one revenue source for our state association. There were a lot of people who helped, but it was definitely my idea. The reason I feel great about it is that it was a give-back. The state association was good to me. So I decided to put something in place that helps everybody who is a member for the next fifteen or more years. There have been a couple of others, but that was sort of the big one.

I strongly encourage people, particularly in the first ten years of your career, to get involved, take on leadership roles in your professional associations and networks. It is a wonderful way to grow and develop and grow your network. You can only do so much at work. You can only shine so bright, and sometimes you don't get the promotion as fast as you wanted or you don't click with the boss or the place where you organize. Things may be out of your control. But, over here in a parallel universe, you are the president of your state association, or your region, or whatever. You are showing people what you are capable of. So maybe something doesn't work out the way you want at work, but you have got this whole other group that sees what you're capable of. That opens other doors. That's really what opened the door here in many ways. There was a guy that was in my current job years ago and saw me in the state association, saw what I could do, and when he left, was very supportive.

Typically, by the time you make it to your mid-to-late thirties, life starts to tie you down a little bit. You get into relationships. You get into commitments, often with family or partners. And those are important. Now, you're trying to balance that and your job, and, typically, what I see is all this professional association, personal growth stuff starts to fade. In that first ten years of your career, here's what you have going for you: You have energy, you have the drive galore, you want to meet new people, you want to learn. Do it. Go for it. The more you can learn, the faster you can go. Stretch, stretch, stretch, stretch, stretch!

More about the interviewee:

Jason Aldrich

Assistant Dean for Strategic Partnerships & Career Advancement

J. Mack Robinson College of Business

Georgia State University