How to help your employees improve their networking skills

Why HR professionals and bosses should encourage - and help - their employees to improve their networking skills.
By: | November 22, 2018
About the Author

Kevin Ryan is an associate trainer at the Management Development & Consultancy, the corporate training arm of MDIS.

“It’s not what you know, but who you know.” This piece of wisdom first appeared almost a century ago; unfortunately, the name of its originator has been lost along the way.

In early days, it was used by tradespeople and shipyard workers in a cynical tone to infer that one’s connections were more important than any qualifications one might have. In today’s world, is this still true?

The answer is yes… and no. In fact, for it to be relevant today, it should be updated to – “It’s what you know AND who you know.”

Today, your qualifications are essential to getting you the right job but unless you have the right connections, you may not even know about the job in the first place!

Some 60% of job vacancies in the United States are not filled by traditional means, but by networking and other informal contacts, or what is known as referral hiring.  Mark S. Granovetter, a Harvard sociologist who authored Getting a job: A Study of Contacts and Careers, claims that ‘informal contacts’ account for almost 75% of all successful job searches.

In a close-knit business environment like Singapore, this figure is likely to be higher.

But why referral hiring?

Referral hiring saves time in the recruitment process and we all know that time is money. It can potentially shorten the time taken to find and hire the right candidate for a job.

Another advantage of referral hiring is that bosses and HR recruiters have a pool of more qualified candidates, since the referral or information on the potential candidate comes from a trusted source.

Read on for a few ways that bosses can help their employees get started.

1. Give them opportunities to network

Identify platforms or events where HR professionals can network with others in different fields across industries. This helps them make contacts and broadens their network to tap on for hiring or even other opportunities.

In addition, while formal networking events can be worthwhile, don’t discount the value of your existing contacts. They know you and trust you and are more likely to refer you to their contacts. Sometimes, it’s just a case of letting them know about you.

Some 12 years ago, when I was starting my own training business, I was struggling to make the right contacts in a new industry. Then, I mentioned my change of career in a chat with some members of my golf club. One lady whom I’d known through the club for years said, “Why didn’t you mention this sooner? I’m a training broker and I’ve been looking for someone who trains in these areas for months!”

Over the next two years, she was my biggest client.

“Don’t discount the value of your existing contacts.”

2. Teach them how to sell themselves (and the company)

Anyone who has been to a networking function has experienced it. You ask the obvious opening questions, “so, what do you do?” Ten minutes later your eyes are glazing over as their answer continues on long after you’ve lost interest.

It’s easy to waffle on about yourself and what you do.

On the other hand, encapsulating what makes you or your company unique, in a short, sharp, and memorable way, is extremely difficult – which is why you should be prepared for whenever anyone does ask you that obvious opening question. Think about how you might answer in a way that does you justice.

If a long answer will risk boring them, then how short should it be? Be guided by the news media. The average ‘sound bite’ (an edited excerpt put to air) that is used by the media today is slightly under eight seconds. This is how long they have determined that it takes to get a message across.

Try creating your own ‘sound bite’ – that’s around twenty words. For example – “I’m a business analyst with a particular interest in green technology – not just to save money, but also to generate income.” or “I have degrees in IT and psychology and I get to use both in high-tech sales in my company.”

“Encapsulating what makes you or your company unique, in a short, sharp, and memorable way, is extremely difficult – which is why you should be prepared for whenever anyone does ask you that obvious opening question. Think about how you might answer in a way that does you justice.”

3. Help them understand the concept of reciprocation

This includes events tagged as networking events and events where networking, while not the primary purpose is encouraged, such as seminars, charity or community events.

With formal networking functions, which generally take place on a regular (for example, weekly or monthly) basis, be prepared to commit to several visits before you assess the value. The regulars will be used to seeing the ‘oncers’ come and go; and you will notice that they are much more inclusive when you show you’ll come back.

Your aim when speaking to people at these functions is to invoke the principal of reciprocity. That is, if I give something to you, then you will feel an obligation to give something in return.

This does not mean giving while looking at what I can get in return – that is trading.

It means giving without looking for a return; knowing that the principle of reciprocity will ensure that there will be one – although it might in ways you never expected.

Master networkers appear incredibly generous with their information, their time, their contacts; but they will all tell you that what they give out is returned many times over. You’ll hear them say:

“I saw a great article I think might interest you. Let me send it to you.”

“I know the manager at that company. Do you want me to put you two in touch?”

“I can recommend a really good supplier for that. I’ll email you their details.”

If you overly self-promote – or, worse still, sell – you will waste your time.

Go armed with a killer ‘sound bite’. If you look for ways to connect with and help others, and aim to walk away with two to three worthwhile new contacts, it will pay dividends.