By Jenny Foss
How in the heck are you supposed to “network” when everyone is scrambling to relearn and teach their kids geometry, find a gosh-darned package of toilet paper within county limits, and get through a conference call before the dog starts barking (again) at every stupid thing outside?
I mean, reaching out to your professional network (no less, reaching out to strangers) can feel overwhelming under the best of circumstances. Pile a global pandemic on top of that and, well, shoot. That’s some next-level madness.
If you’ve been struggling with this, you’re not alone.
This topic is front and center among so many job seekers right now. In fact, I’ve had several conversations on it since the proverbial bottom dropped out.
The two main questions seem to be:
- Am I even allowed to network right now, or would it — you know — be insensitive?
- If I decide to network, what am I supposed to say?
These are both very good questions, especially considering the fragility of, well, everything right now.
Here are my answers:
1. Yes, you are allowed to network right now. In fact, it’s going to be more important than ever if you want to edge out the competition through this period of skyrocketing unemployment rates. But … and this is a very important but … you absolutely MUST do so with acknowledgement and care.
(Also, assume everything will conducted virtually for now, so brush up on your email, video chat and phone game.)
I’ve received more than a few cringeworthy “ask” emails in recent days. The worst of them dive right in without so much as a sentence related to what is “now”:
Are you tired of always cold calling or having to do endless follow up to generate new business? I’d love to show you a better way. I know these messages can get lost in the shuffle, did you see my note about the free training we are offering to firm owners? I don’t want you to miss out. Here’s where you can sign up … blah blah blah.
Do you see what’s missing there?
Empathy. Authenticity. Acknowledgement that our world’s been turned upside down in a very short period of time.
Had this person simply added some verbiage that acknowledged the big ‘ol coronavirus elephant in the room — and maybe made me feel like I wasn’t receiving a blob of five-year-old canned copy — I would have likely responded. Instead, I hit delete and moved along through my inbox.
Back to you. How can you approach people right now?
Like a human. Like an empathetic, calm (even if you’re feeling a bit panicky) human who understands very clearly that pretty much everyone around you is experience varying levels (from “plenty” to “unthinkable”) levels of distress and uncertainty right now.
I’m not saying you need to belabor the topic, but for sure let the recipient know — before you dive right in on a request — that you’re thinking about how they’re doing, that you understand if timing may be off, and that you’d love to speak if timing and circumstance permits.
In a weird way, now may be a really great time to reach out to your network, or even strangers, if you do so with care. We’re isolated. We’re bored. We’re craving community, levity and contact with others. We want to care for others and be cared for.
So, yes. it’s OK to network right now. Smart, even.
This leads us to …
2. What, specifically, you should say.
Obviously, everyone has their own communication style, so there’s no one “what you should say” answer here. My best advice on what wording to use is oddly simple.
Answer this question:
How would I like to be approached right now — and what wouldn’t work?
Seriously, if someone were to contact you today — looking for your input, an introduction or maybe an informational interview — what would you most likely respond to?
For me, it’s something like this:
My name is _______. I sincerely hope this note finds you and your family safe and healthy.
Listen, I know you may very well be navigating immediate issues related to coronavirus, so if it’s simply not feasible to connect right now, I absolutely understand.
If you are open to_________________ (a quick conversation, introducing me to so-and-so, answering the two questions below), I would be most grateful.
(Enter any additional specifics here … but be concise)
Thank you for any (guidance, support, help) you may be able to offer. And, of course, if I may return the kindness, please let me know.
If I received a note like this, I’d feel acknowledged. I’d feel like this person understands that I’m probably navigating all kinds of new terrain with my family and job.
I’d feel like they’re willing to be a bit patient if needed. (And, given the influx in email and InMail we’ve been receiving of late, a bit of patience would likely be needed.)
And, I’d feel inclined to respond favorably.
So, if you’ve been hanging out in your pajamas for two weeks, stressing about how or if you can keep your job search networking going, go ahead and give it a whirl.
Proceed with care, proceed with humanness and, if the situation permits, proceed with an appropriate sense of humor.
Proceed. Because the even smallest steps forward?
Are still steps forward.