A good network is a like a garden – it requires constant care and feeding.
In the same way, building and nurturing a good, reliable roster of contacts requires an on-going commitment. That means you have to devote yourself to it regularly. Without careful, mindful tending, your circle will wither.
The internet is full of tips on how to do this, some of them good, some of them… let’s just say, less good.
Part of the problem for those of us on the back nine is that much of that advice is also very much geared to young people, or to those who are just starting out in the careers. There’s very little written specifically for older workers.
That’s a shame. Being an older worker has many advantages, among them, patience, judgment and depth of experience. These should be selling features, not detriments.
The public sector does tend to value these qualities, at least to some extent. One of the advantages of government work is that, in many cases, some degree of mobility is available. Most public-sector organizations are large enough to offer at a few different career options.
There are many different ways, of course, to find these options. There are job ads, internal postings, and of course, word of mouth – a.k.a. networking. When it comes to the latter option, one size absolutely does not fit all. Like your résumé, your approach to networking should reflect who you are.
Here are some specific ideas that have worked for me. Consider them a starting point, or a perhaps a supplement to your own:
- Add new people all the time. Make sure they reflect the breadth of talent and opportunities that your workplace offers. Last year, I had an interview for a job that would have been a major stretch for me. When I did my debrief afterwards, the hiring manager offered me some of the best, most productive and helpful feedback I’ve ever had.
- Don’t be afraid to drop people from your list. Maybe a favorite contact has moved on and no longer has time. Maybe scheduling difficulties make it impossible. Or maybe you’re just finding the experience less rewarding than you’d like. It’s ok. Life is about recognizing and adapting to change.
- It’s not just people above you in the food chain who are worth your time. Keep yourself open to the possibility that the intern you’ve just met, or the policy analyst who’s brand new to government, might have some real value to offer. If you find yourself reacting positively to someone, trust your instincts. Conversely, just because someone is older or more experienced than you are doesn’t mean they always know what’s best for you.
- Distance is not a barrier. A friend of mine found himself, a few years ago, in a highly coveted senior leadership position. The trouble was, it took him away from the major seat of government, and from pretty much everyone he knew. So he began scheduling virtual coffees – setting meetings (through his online calendar, for example) with friends and colleagues, and putting aside 15 minutes to chat by phone during a coffee break.
- Say yes when someone asks to meet you for career advice. You never know how, or when, that person will come back into your life. Plus it’s good karma.
- Keep it light. Not every networking experience has to be a two-hour sit-down. Sometimes all it takes is a quick email or voice message to say, “Hey, I’m thinking about you and hope you’re doing well,” or “I just read this article and thought about the time you said…”
- Stay positive. As I’ve conducted my own job search, I’ve come to see that the universe likes to hold up a mirror and reflect back what I’m putting out. When I lost a long-held job years ago, I made a conscious choice to remain positive. It helped: the people I met during my informational interviews or elsewhere were much more receptive than I suspect they would have been if I’d allowed myself to wallow excessively.
I like to advise my college students, somewhat truthfully, that everyone starts in the mailroom. By the same token, a tree didn’t just spring from the ground; it needs sunshine and nutrients to grow and blossom in its own right.
Older trees have deep roots. They provide coverage to their younger counterparts. And they stay strong as long as they remain connected to the ecosystem.
It’s a good idea to think of networking in much the same way.