The good news is that most people are more than happy to help others when they can. It is up to you to enable and mobilize your network to meet your objectives. Here are some keys to make it happen:
1. See yourself as an educator. Your first inclination might be to start emailing everyone you know to let them know you are out of work. You shouldn't ask "Can you help?" or "Do you have a job for me?" until you have educated your network about your skills, accomplishments and the ways they can be most helpful. These overly general pleas require the recipient to step back and be pro-actively imaginative, rather than laying out a road map that makes it easy to help.
As you communicate, it is important to know your audience and ask yourself: "What does the person who hears my message specifically need to know about me, my abilities and my goals to be helpful?" And then, your task is to provide the right information packaged appropriately for the situation.
2. Be clear about your own goals. Helping someone can take many forms. What would you like your networking partner(s) to do for you? Are you asking for information about an industry, a specific company or individual, a program or a locale? Are you asking for help figuring out what you should do in the next stage of your professional life? If you aren't clear in your own mind about what it is you want, it makes it nearly impossible for someone to give it to you.
3. Practice networking in safe places. Seek out groups of job searchers, often hosted in public libraries, houses of worship, Meetup.com or independently run. Most are either free or have a nominal admission cost. These are great venues to learn how to best present yourself from others in the same situation, as well as to exchange "leads and needs." Typically, you will have the opportunity to introduce yourself to the group as a whole, deliver your elevator speech and get some constructive feedback. These forums foster your ability to hone your communications skills, as well as to gain the support of your peers.
4. Refine your elevator speech. It is common to hear something like, "I'm looking for a role in X industry." That might be great information to convey, but it isn't altogether helpful unless you define the kind of value you bring, and the kind of role you're seeking. You might have skills and experience that could be a fit in any of a number of industries. By defining your objective too narrowly, you might inadvertently limit your own options. Even if you are very targeted about the specific industry in which you want to work, it is important to convey to your audience what kind of role you're seeking. You bolster your case even further if you can provide an example of a prior success or accomplishment that can demonstrate the kind of value you bring to a potential employer.
5. Ask for the possible. It seems obvious, but too often people in networking situations make "asks" that are simply unrealistic. For example, "I'm a [insert job title here], but these roles are drying up. What should I do next?" This would be an excellent topic to focus on with a credentialed career counselor. But if you ask the same question of someone whom you've just met at a networking event for the first time, you are asking for help that the person is ill equipped to provide. Of if you ask for something that is quite time consuming from a busy person, you're also likely asking for what he or she just can't take on.
In short, think out in advance and strategize who can provide what in terms of content, introductions and time. And only ask for what a person can actually give to you.
6. Be respectful. People will want to help you if you engage in common courtesies, don't overstay your welcome at meetings and don't ask for someone to break a business or personal confidence. Present yourself as the competent professional that you are, rather than as a haughty person with a sense of entitlement. And if you relate to the job hunter who asked at one meeting of his peers, "How do you go about faking sincerity?" it is time to step back, do a self-inventory and get real. Effective networking is about building relationships.
Keep in mind more jobs are filled by someone knowing and helping someone else than by the combination of job boards, recruiters or responses to job postings. When you take the time to build relationships, refine your message and treat people with respect, you will be most likely to shorten the overall time it takes to hear the words, "You're hired."
Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.