By Jennifer Wills 

I’ve heard some version of this story many times: Someone I know from my tennis/sewing/mountaineering club told me about a job at company X, and it’s perfect for me. She connected me with the hiring manager, who reviewed my application. I got the job!

Whether you are someone who loves networking or someone who loathes it, the reality is that networking is essential for your career. You need it for moving a program forward in your current role, or for moving your career forward into another role. 

This time of year offers plenty of opportunities for making connections that are easy to overlook. Traveling to visit family? Networking can happen on a plane! Deciding among too many holiday party invitations? Accept them all! Any and all of these social gatherings can be excellent networking opportunities, if you approach them in the right frame of mind.

Basic tips for expanding your network while enjoying canapes: 

1. Find jobs through people, not postings By some estimates, up to 80 percent of jobs are not posted on job websites. This is why your network is so important. 

That doesn’t mean job sites should be ignored, however. You can use them to get a sense of keywords for your resume and LinkedIn profile; you can improve your understanding of the qualifications typically sought for certain roles; and you can identify hiring trends in different sectors. 

2. Don’t overwork the networking It wasn’t the mountaineering club acquaintance who worked at company X; she knew someone there. And it wasn’t the career-seeker’s acquaintance who was a member of the local sustainability association; she shared a common hobby with someone who was.

It seems rather random, and you may be wondering how you can strategically build your network when you don’t know where you’ll meet an acquaintance with connections in your career field. They could be anywhere! In this case, do what you love and see who you meet. 

To build your network, joining associations or local organizations that relate to your field, or a field you’re interested in, is a good place to start. Simply reaching out to individuals for coffee is also an option. When you do that, keep in mind that networking is give-and-take. Offer a relevant article or piece of information when you reach out to someone. Maybe you’ve read an article they wrote and you have thoughts about it you want to share, or maybe you are in a similar industry and you have insights to offer. 

3. Think beyond formal networking formats Consider all those holiday parties and whom you might meet there. Perhaps it’s someone you haven’t seen in a few years, or someone you’ve never met before. You’ve probably heard of Mark Granovetter’s paper titled The Strength of Weak Ties (American Journal of Sociology, Vol.78, No.6 (May, 1973)). The idea is that you are more likely to get information from weak ties in your network than from close ties. This is because the people with close ties to you have similar networks as you and similar information. Hence, the need to broaden your network to learn about new positions and trends in your industry or other industries. For additional information on this concept, read Why Every Employee Should Be Building Weak Ties at Work

In the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), students build their network in several ways. They create a “network map” to evaluate their network. They learn about informational interviewing and add to their network in that way. In addition, they build their network through their cohort, and as alumni of the program. XMNR has an alumni Facebook page where jobs are posted, as well as a LinkedIn page. CLiGS has a LinkedIn page that any interested person can join. 

4. Advocate for yourself  CLiGS’ current Program Coordinator wasn’t initially hired when she applied for the position. She was still interested in CLiGS, though, and when she saw that the International Society of Sustainability Professionals (ISSP) and CLiGS were co-hosting a happy hour in Washington, D.C., she mentioned her interest in working for CLiGS in her RSVP email. I sent that email to the faculty in the program who have hiring authority. As CLiGS faculty are a close-knit group, her name was already familiar to the head of the program when she met with them a few days after the happy hour. Coincidentally, the first person hired for the job left the Center shortly after that happy hour, so the position was open again. She kept the connection and she got the job. 

5. Show up and listen Listening is a vital component to networking and relationship building. There are many articles about the different levels of listening, which range from distinguishing 3 levels to 8 levels depending on the source. I recently learned about Levels 1, 2 and 3 listening in a book called Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives. Level 1 listening is when the focus is on yourself, on how the words the other person is saying relate to you. Level 1 listening has a role, especially when getting to know someone. For example, you want to find things in common, or you listen for something the other person says that relates to you and then you share a story about yourself. Level 2 listening gets deeper: you are hearing what the other person is saying without thinking about your next question or statement. Level 3 listening is a deeper level of listening where the listener uses all of his or her senses. To build relationships, you need more Level 2 and 3 listening.

Networking is important to your career. Think of it as relationship building, if that helps. Remember that when networking, you should do what works for you. If one-on-one is better for you, reach out for coffee or a meeting. If you like groups, go to an association networking event or conference. Do both! Then let people know what you’re interested in doing as a next career move, and be sure to listen—really listen—to the other person. You may walk away with a whole new appreciation for the person and for the idea of networking.

Jennifer Wills headshot
Jennifer Wills, CLiGS Lead Career Coach, founder of J. Wills Career Coaching

Jennifer Wills is the founder of J. Wills Career Coaching, a career coaching firm for environmental and sustainability professionals. Formerly an attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a Brookings Institution Fellow to the U.S. Senate, Wills is an expert in advising and problem-solving with clients.