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Many of us have been there – our job goes away as a result of a reorganization, a downsizing, a pandemic, or some other reason. What do we immediately think of doing? Networking! “Oh wow, it’s time for me to start networking!”

Sadly, that’s just not the way networking works.

We should be “networking” from the moment we take our first professional role. What does this mean? It means, for starters, creating a robust LinkedIn profile – immediately, not when you think you’ll need to connect with people. Connect with the recruiter who was instrumental in your getting your first job if there was one. If, like me, you’re an HR professional, look for other HR professionals, especially those with podcasts, or who post a lot of HR content (LinkedIn’s algorithm will bring those up for you), employment attorneys, and people who are leaders in the field.

From there, start volunteering, whether for your university’s alumni association, your church or synagogue, or a non-profit with a mission you are passionate about. In short, find ways to broaden your circle of acquaintances. You can even connect with any professors you worked well with.

If you’re a professional with years of experience, the same advice applies. Connect on LinkedIn, volunteer for your professional association, or for a non-profit. Look at whom your connections are connected to and invite them to connect with you due to your shared network. Do this *before* you need to connect, not just when you are looking for a new position.

What is also important to remember – and perhaps the most important thing – is that networking is a two-way street. It’s not just you reaching out to others for help, it’s you being available to them when they need help. And “help” doesn’t necessarily mean “help to find a job,” it could mean sharing a document or a link to an article or podcast. It could mean introducing them to someone who has the information they need. It could mean making yourself available for a networking meeting. The reality is that the more you get involved in professional, civic, and non-profit organizations, the easier networking will be.

Allow me to give you some examples of how networking has helped me in both my professional and personal lives:

  • I volunteered to serve on the newly formed Alumni Society at the commonwealth campus of Penn State I attended for my first two years. This led to my being elected as the Society’s first President, which put me on the Alumni Council, the governing body of the entire PSU Alumni Association, which resulted in years of access to more people as well as giving me the ability to point to specific achievements while on Council.
  • I sent an email to the former President of Penn State, telling him that I felt the Master’s in Management curriculum at the Great Valley campus was far too easy and needed to be strengthened (of course, I waited until I graduated!). He forwarded my email to the CEO of the Great Valley campus, and before I knew it I was on the Great Valley alumni society board, and shortly thereafter on the Advisory Board to the campus CEO, giving me tremendous connections with very senior people in the business community. I also was then able to play a major role in getting the new MBA at PSU-Great Valley accredited by the AACSB – the same accrediting body that accredits the Harvard MBA.
  • I was connected with an executive search consultant who had served on the Board of Trustees of the Visiting Nurse Association of Greater Philadelphia. She recommended I serve on the Board as their HR presence when she rolled off the Board. I ultimately became Chair of the Board of Trustees of this $35 million, 350-employee non-profit that provides home health and hospice care to the poorest communities in Philadelphia. What an amazing experience and of course what an addition to my resume!
  • When I was an executive search consultant very early in my career and decided I wanted to go to the client-side in Human Resources. I reached out to one of my clients, who connected me to the SVP of HR for a global pharmaceutical device company, and was hired as their Manager of Staffing. It was my first “real” corporate HR role.
  • By volunteering for my professional association, I have been connected to countless HR professionals, and have been able to help other HR professionals find benefits brokers, compensation consultants, and other people in our profession to help them land new jobs.
  • Recently, I applied for an HR Manager position with a large pharmaceutical services company, and I was at first rejected because I was “overqualified.” I reached out to a former colleague from that first corporate HR job – which I had left over twenty years prior to applying for this job – who was now a Division President at this company – who persuaded the HR VP to interview me and ultimately hire me. Now, that job turned out to be the wrong place for me, but thanks to my network, I quickly found a consulting role with a pharmaceutical company I had worked with over twenty years ago, where I spent six months doing work I enjoyed with a company I loved.
  • When I decided to look for a non-consulting/1099 role, I reached out to a contact I’d had since around 2006 – another HR professional I’d gotten to know because I was always active with our professional association – and low and behold, here I am – that HR professional was Marcia O’Connor.

I have other examples of how networking has benefitted me personally and professionally, but none of it would have happened if I hadn’t approached networking as a two-way street, made myself available for “networking meetings” with other professionals, volunteered in my professional association, and connected my network with others.

I’m a solid introvert, so this isn’t something only extroverts can do. Connect with other professionals you want to get to know and be available to them when they need help – they’re far more likely to be available to you when you need help, whether it’s finding a new position or getting information that you need to do your job.