This is part two of our weeklong series on networking. Read the introduction.
We probably can’t overstate the value of networking when it comes to a job search and career development. In the nonprofit sector especially, many employers use informal networks as their main recruitment method, so having influential people in your network can be a huge advantage. Your friends, former co-workers, and family members can all be your allies and your cheerleaders (just as you can be for them). However, if you think of your network as only the people you know well—people you’re sure you can count on in a pinch—then you might be missing out on a lot of opportunities.
A professional network is made up of a small set of strong ties (close family members, friends, co-workers, classmates, etc.) and a much larger set of weak ties (people you know, but aren’t particularly close to). Weak ties are crucial in a job search for two reasons: scope and awareness. First of all, you have many more weak ties than strong ties, so it’s simply a numbers game. Second, those weak ties are often an untapped resource. Their circle of influence is less likely to overlap with your own circle of influence (whereas your close contacts will tend to know many of the same people you already know). They are likely to have leads for you that you wouldn’t otherwise find.
In order to make use of your weak ties, you must first identify those people. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Who have you volunteered with in the past?
- What former co-workers or professional colleagues have you kept in light touch with?
- Do you have any extended family members who might be helpful?
- What about people you’ve met in faith communities?
- How about former athletic teammates or other activity partners?
- What alumni networks do you belong to?
- What about good friends from different times in your life that you’ve fallen out of touch with?
- Who are people you’ve spoken to only a few times over the past year, but have had insightful or interesting conversations with?
- On the other hand, who are the people you’re friendly with and see regularly, but haven’t had the chance to have an in-depth conversation with?
These are your weak ties, and they can open more doors for you than you probably realize. These are the people who know about job opportunities that you aren’t aware of. These are the people who can get you a meeting with someone outside of your professional sphere. These are the people who are willing to put in a good word for you (perhaps more so than your closer contacts, who are more familiar with your weaknesses, and who might feel that they’re risking their own credibility).
If you’d like to grow your network, you should focus on building weak ties. But if you’re anything like me, you might be initially turned off by the superficiality implied by the term. It helps to remember that weak ties can be genuine, reciprocal, and positive. They just don’t require the same level of commitment as your closest allies.
In the next three parts of this series, we’ll offer some strategies for growing and activating your network.