You know you're supposed to be networking. But no matter how many people tell you it works, the thought still turns your stomach. Does it really have to be so awful? Natasha explains why people are at the core of any career change, and how to tap into their knowledge and connections without feeling shifty.
The first three months of my career change were among the loneliest of my life.
I felt like a pinball in a machine, bouncing hourly from frustration, to sadness, to anger, to hopelessness.
People would ask me how work was going, and I'd either paste on a smile and tell them it was fine, or I'd slide into a dispirited monologue about how my boss was a halfwit and the organisation was badly run, and the conversation would turn into a slanging match about our respective workplaces.
I'd scroll, glassy-eyed, through job site after job site.
I was embarrassed by how I was feeling.
I had no idea how to deal with the problem I saw in front of me.
Jobs in industries that excited me were few and far between, and my CV was a smorgasbord of now-useless experience, channelling me back, over and over again, into roles I knew I wouldn't be happy in for long.
As far as I was concerned, nobody understood, and nobody could help me.
It's odd, looking back, that I was so withdrawn in my battle with my shift.
If the bonnet of my car started steaming on the motorway, I'd call a mechanic. I'd even wave down a passer-by.
If I was upset or frustrated with my boyfriend, I'd call a friend, talk it out, come up with a way forward.
If I couldn't find the spice I wanted in the supermarket, I'd find a sales assistant and ask them for help.
I wasn't a living in a vacuum.
I knew that the solutions to most of my challenges in life could be found in other people.
But for some reason, with my career change, I seemed determined to suffer alone.
I was familiar with the phrase: "It's not what you know, it's who you know"
But the way I was familiar with it was very specific.
This was a phrase traditionally uttered with a distinct sneer. It was occasionally accompanied by a disgusted eye-roll, and usually seasoned with a hopeless sigh.
And that phrase had its ankle tightly bound, three-legged-race style, to the word 'networking'.
Knowing the right people was a strategy for double-dealing schmoozers.
Networking was a cold-hearted, duplicitous tactic for shimmying up the greasy pole.
And when I considered the idea of 'networking' myself, I was belted by a nauseating wave of shame and embarrassment.
I imagined going to an event packed full of people who worked in an industry that excited me, and having nothing useful to say to anyone.
I imagined sitting in the car on the way to a meeting, rehearsing phrases that were essentially 'begging disguised as conversation'.
I didn't know enough to be able to impress. I didn't have the experience to be credible. I didn't have anything to offer anyone.
And then I did something that changed everything.
It didn't look like networking.
It didn't feel like networking.
I'd never have thought to call it networking.
But it was networking.
And it was awesome.
At a fundraising event for a charity I used to work for, I got chatting to a woman named Deborah, who said she was a business consultant.
"On the side, though, I'm actually working on setting up another project," she said. "I'm really interested in having people feel great at work – looking at how to bring well-being into the workplace on a wider scale."
Without thinking, I replied with something along the lines of: "That sounds fascinating – and it's a little spooky how aligned it is with the kinds of things I've been exploring myself. Do you mind if I take your e-mail address, and maybe we can grab a coffee sometime? I'd love to hear more."
Deborah and I went for that first coffee a week later. She told me more about her plans for the project.
I shared how I was feeling at work, and the kinds of things I dreamed of doing.
She offered to introduce me to a friend of hers who had recently made a documentary about natural horsemanship.
When I received an e-mail from the friend, packed full of information on places to train as a natural horsemanship specialist, I forwarded it to Deborah with a thank-you-for-introducing-us note and and an article I'd found about natural horsemanship retreats for executive teams.
The next time Deborah and I met, she made me an offer: "I know you've not done anything like this before, but I like the way our minds work together and I really want to get this side business off the ground. Will you help me launch it?"
Deborah and I worked on her business together for six months, defining her offering, writing her website, and designing the services she would later offer. Many of the skills I learned with Deborah, I still use today.
None of what I'd just done felt like networking. It felt like making friends.
And yet, that simple request of a stranger at a fundraising event sparked new connections all over the world (many of which I've used on my travels since), my first ever paid freelance work, and a strong stepping stone on my path to work I love.
Here's what I learned about why 'networking', when done right, is the single best thing you can do for your career change, and how to network in ways that feel authentic and nourishing.
Three reasons to pull your networking-phobic head out of the sand
I have no doubt that it's possible to change career without ever doing anything like networking.
But when you're confused or trapped in your career change, there's no more effective technique to get unstuck than having great conversations with the right people.
Here are a few reasons why.
1. The world of work is made of people
We think of the world of work as being made up of processes, systems and channels.
You find a job online.
You find the button that says "Apply Now"
You send in a piece of paper that fits the agreed format for introducing yourself in the world of work.
You get accepted for interview, or you get rejected.
Faceless, nameless, heartless processes and systems.
And we relate to the institutions that make up the world of work as faceless, nameless entities.
No wonder it feels like crap.
But the part that we forget is that at every stage of that process, there are people.
Companies, organisations, HR departments – they're all made of people.
Yes, they've set up a system to streamline the way they find employees, or co-founders, or whatever.
But, ultimately, what they want is to find great people to work with.
So, how about you do them a favour, and make yourself visible?
If you want to be that great person for a company or organisation that excites you, the first meaningful step is to let them know you're there. You're there to help them do the work they're here to do.
Some of those people will be the people who make decisions about hiring.
Others will be people who know the people who make decisions about hiring.
Others will be people who have nothing to do with hiring whatsoever, but who know a huge amount about the industry that you're dying to get into, and would be perfectly happy to share their expertise with you.
'Networking' is nothing more than making connections with other human beings. And those human beings are the industry you want to be a part of.
2. People are the key to everything you don't know
As a career changer, the vast majority of obstacles and challenges in your way aren't solid, tangible, immovable objects.
They're things you don't yet know.
You don't know what you want to do next in your career (you have some vague ideas, but you don't know).
You don't think you can make a shift without compromising your mortgage (i.e. you don't know).
You're pretty sure you'll have to take a salary drop anyway to start from the bottom in your new chosen industry (i.e. you don't know).
You've got no experience, so you can't imagine anyone giving you a chance (i.e. you don't know).
These all show up for you as challenges, right now, but the answers to these challenges can be found fairly easily: by talking to people who know more than you do about the industry you want to move into.
"If you want to go somewhere, it is best to find someone who has already been there." – Robert Kiyosaki
Mark, who took part in our Career Change Launch Pad this summer, wanted to get into organisational change management. He had no idea how anyone got started from scratch in the industry. It seemed like one of those fields that drew business consultants and psychologists, but he was a Chemistry lecturer at a university. He was convinced nobody would take him seriously, and that he'd have to start from the bottom of the salary ladder.
He reached out to three people working in change management on LinkedIn, and asked for a quick chat to learn more about the industry.
Only one responded, but that one was more than enough.
Mark was buzzing after his chat. He'd found out about three events being held in London where he could meet more people in the industry, a free weekend training course he could attend, and lots of insider information about how to break into the change management field without breaking the bank.
"It was only a 25-minute conversation, but I learned so much. 95% of the doors I thought were closed to me are now swinging open."
3. It's cheaper than a postgraduate degree
One of the challenges that 90% of the people we work with at Careershifters say they're up against is the fact that moving into a new industry usually appears to require retraining in some way (unless you want to start from the very bottom of the ladder).
"Employers won't even look at my application because I don't have <insert wildly expensive and time-consuming qualification here>."
And it's true. If a person spec. says that the job requires a qualification, it's usually the first thing someone will look for when filtering through that stack of CVs on their desk.
But if you're sitting in front of someone, talking passionately about the industry they work in, asking them questions about what they do, letting your personality and life experience shine through, the 'qualification' question fades into the background.
"Most skills can be learned, but it is difficult to train people on their personality. If you can find people who are fun, friendly, caring and love helping others, you are on to a winner." – Richard Branson
This isn't to say that qualifications are never necessary to land a new role or progress in a new field. I'd be deeply uncomfortable having a heart operation with an unqualified surgeon who was simply "passionate about medicine".
But, for a surprising number of careers, all you really need is to be seen. Truly seen for who you are, as a 360-degree human being with skills, experience, motivation, drive and passion. And the only way to be 'seen' is to get in front of people's eyes.
Patrick (pictured right) had no experience in the design world, and shifting from management consulting felt like an enormous leap.
He decided to throw himself, full tilt, into the design industry. He researched everything he could find about the way the industry operated, read articles and books on design, and, crucially:
"I delved deep into my personal network to find people who could tell me more about the industry and whether there was a place for someone with a business background but no design experience…"
The person he found referred him for a job at a leading London design consultancy – a company that would usually be looking for qualifications or experience at the very least.
But once Patrick was in front of them…
"When I got to the first interview, all of the reading and research that I'd done made it clear to the interviewers that I was truly passionate about design and that I'd done my homework. At the end of the day, it was my self-awareness and passion for the space that encouraged Frog to take a risk on me when I didn't have a background in design."
Five ways to remove the 'ick' factor (and make better connections as a result)
Here's the biggest lesson I've learned about networking without feeling like an asshole:
1. Don't 'network'
"Networking is rubbish; have friends instead." – Steve Winwood
The networking elephant in the room. It's bright orange, trumpeting like a klaxon and emblazoned with a neon sign that says: "YOU'RE ALL OUT TO GET SOMETHING."
Ultimately, this is what I hated about the idea of networking.
As a career changer who ultimately wanted someone to give me a chance, the power dynamic in any networking situation felt inherently skewed.
And, because I was so frustrated at work, I wanted to see results, quickly. I wanted useful information on how to get into an industry I was interested in. I wanted to be introduced to other people who might be helpful. I wanted job offers or work experience opportunities, or anything…
And I really, really didn't want to feel that way.
I pictured myself skulking around people's ankles like a needy monkey, scrabbling for scraps.
Thing is, I met awesome people all the time in other contexts without dealing with this creepy desperation.
And so do you.
Switch your mindset from 'networking to get a result' to 'hanging out with interesting people'. In fact, cut the phrase 'networking' out of your vocabulary entirely. Call it 'connecting'. Making a connection, with another human being.
Jim Rohn said: "You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with."
What that means for your shift is that surrounding yourself with a new group of people – people who share your passions, who see the world in a different way – will open up new possibilities, ideas, and opportunities in your life.
Focus on connecting, simply to shift the balance of the people you have around you, not to get a specific result. Meet interesting people. Have interesting conversations with them.
Open up your world. The results will come naturally.
2. Tell the truth
"It's been such an incredible relief to stop lying all the time." – Katy, October 2015 Career Change Launch Pad participant
One of the most excruciating things about networking – and what puts most career changers off – is the feeling of having to impress the people you're meeting.
When you're trying to make a shift into a new industry, it's easy to feel as though you have to package yourself attractively, hide the uncomfortable parts of what you're dealing with, and sound like you have everything perfectly under control.
But (as I'm sure we've all experienced) it's incredibly difficult to connect with someone who's all smooth and shiny and perfect as a pane of glass.
There's no authenticity there. There's no brave, warm, human connection.
Authenticity is the single most powerful tool for any career changer who's looking to develop a nourishing and useful new community.
Allow the people you're connecting with to see you as a whole person: skilled and talented and experienced in your current field, and also pretty confused and a bit vulnerable, if that's what you are.
That frankness – that honesty and authenticity – is what will form the bedrock of an actual relationship between you, rather than a cold, functional exchange.
"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness." – Brené Brown
Let people know that you're really stuck in your shift. Explain why doing work you love matters to you. Share your ideas with them, and let them know where you're stuck. Give them a reason to want to help you move forward.
Give them a person to connect with.
3. Be curious
"The single greatest 'people skill' is a highly developed and authentic interest in the other person." – Bob Burg
It may come as a relief to know that connecting meaningfully with other people is much more a practice in making them feel great than a practice in looking great yourself.
For many of us, we connect 'networking' with the end result we're looking for: getting into a career we're passionate about.
But what works infinitely better is simply being curious about the world, and the people we're talking to.
Ask questions. Make them feel valued, and heard, and interesting.
What do they love about what they do? Given your shared interest, what do they think you'd love to know? How did they get into the field they're working in? What are they working on right now?
Get interested in the person you have in front of you.
Taking networking from 'slimy and embarrassing' to 'comfortable and useful' requires little more than a shift in mindset. It's not about getting something for yourself. It's about creating a relationship.
And what better way to create a relationship than to get deeply, authentically curious about the human being you're creating it with?
By being curious, you won't have to be crafty about getting what you ultimately want. You'll encourage the person you've met to open up. It'll happen organically, easily, and honestly.
No slimy 'networking' needed.
4. Make it easy
The other deeply important element of any meaningful relationship is respect.
And in this context, we're talking about respect for people’s time, for their energy, and for their choices.
I receive lots of requests for my ideas and input on people's career changes every week. And the ones that fill my heart with gratitude, and impress me the most?
They're the five-liners.
I'm a <insert job title here>, dreaming of doing something more meaningful with my life. Trouble is, I'm feeling really trapped by <insert challenge here>.
I love what you do at Careershifters, so I wanted to ask for a brief nudge in the right direction.
I'm really struggling with financing my shift / coming up with new career ideas / whatever.
What would be your top three pieces of advice for someone in my position?
Thanks in advance.
This kind of a message tells me a lot about the person who sent it.
They took the time to get clear about what they wanted before they wrote me a message (i.e.: they respect my time enough not to make me sit there for a half hour, trying to work out what they're asking for, in amongst their entire life history and a long stream of consciousness)
They were specific about what they wanted: three pieces of advice. Not 'any thoughts or ideas you have' (most of my thoughts and ideas are very unprofessional, and I don't think they're what you actually want)
They're human. Even in those brief five lines, they've said something that reminds me of how I felt when I made my own shift.
It leaves me grateful, and it makes me want to help them.
The easier you can make it for someone to help you, the more likely it is that they will.
- Be specific about what you're asking for. Do you want 30 minutes of their time over a coffee, or do you want the 3 best resources they've ever come across on a topic? Or introductions to 2 people they think could help you? Be specific. Make it easy for them.
- Be mindful of people's time (no need to be weird and grovelly, just keep an eye on it). Get to the point quickly, where you can. If you ask for 30 minutes, wrap up at 30 minutes. They can always offer to continue if they're having fun.
- Do as much as you can do on your own. Go for coffee near their office, not yours. Research the company yourself, so you can ask specific questions instead of making them tell you everything from the start.
Mutual respect is the bedrock of any decent friendship, business relationship, or any other kind of 'ship'. By starting out in a respectful way, you're creating a foundation for a relationship that could quickly turn into something beautiful.
5. Spread the love
"Networking is simply the cultivating of mutually beneficial, give and take, win-win relationships. It works best, however, when emphasising the 'give' part." – Bob Burg
No matter who you are, what you do for a living now, or how amazing the person you've met is, you have something of value to offer in return for their help.
Maybe you've found an article online that you think they'll enjoy. Send it to them.
Maybe you had a thought about the project they're working on. Share it with them.
Maybe you've just met someone you think they'd love. Introduce them.
Find a way to keep track of who you've spoken to, and when, and maintain the relationships you've started. Have the people you meet feel valued and cared for. Keep them in mind as you move through the world, in the same way as you might with a friend or a relative.
This is what will shift the balance of an interaction from slimy to sublime, from 'networking' to 'connection'.
"I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued." Brené Brown
It's all about finding great people, and sharing what we know. Pooling our resources. Supporting one another. Exploring ideas together. Taking care of one another.
There's nothing slimy about that.
Two simple ways to get started
So you're inspired, geared up, and ready to see what new connections you can harness to get your career change moving again.
How do you get the ball rolling?
1. Piggyback on bumblebees
For network-phobes, there's little quite as horrifying as the thought of 'cold' networking – getting in touch with someone you don't know, with no introduction or lead-in, and trying to make an impression.
So skip the cold contacts and go right to your most likely source of introductions: your bumblebees.
Bumblebees are the people in your current community (friends, family, colleagues, ex-colleagues, acquaintances, etc.) who are natural-born connectors and cross-pollinators. They seem to know loads of people, they're always on the phone, and if you put them in a room at a party they'll always leave with twenty new friends.
Do a quick mental 'scan' through your friends, family and acquaintances, and start by identifying the biggest 'bumblebee' among them.
Then, reach out.
Send an e-mail, make a phone call, meet for coffee. Explain what you're up to in your career and your shift, and ask if they know anybody who works in the fields you're interested in. Who can they introduce you to?
Plus: If you're feeling fired up and ready to play full out, you can reach far wider than your bumblebees.
Katherine, one of my coaching clients, took the bold step of sending a text to 20 of her friends with a very simple, but deeply heartfelt message:
"I'm miserable at work and dreaming of a career in interior design. Who do you know that I could talk to? Names, introductions and ideas welcome and gratefully received."
Of the 20 people she messaged, 18 responded, 14 of them with at least one person they thought could help, or an idea to move her shift forward.
She was introduced to freelance interior designers, agency designers, a journalist for a major interiors magazine, an architect, and the head of an independent design agency who offered her two weeks' work experience after a half-hour coffee meeting.
That work experience later turned into a job offer.
And all from a lowly text message.
2. Leave the house
Your friends, family, and resident bumblebees are a phenomenal resource, if tapped correctly.
And there's also an entire world of people out there to meet, connect with, and get to know.
They're on the street, in the supermarket, on the train…
They're at seminars, classes, events, and parties.
If you look online, many of them will even tell you where they're going to be and when.
And the wonderful thing about people is that they tend to travel in herds.
If there's an open talk going on about economics at your local university, chances are there will be a whole herd of people interested in economics there.
If you're interested in pottery, you can be almost certain that your local pottery class will be filled with other people who are also interested in pottery.
That fact, in itself, is clearly no great revelation.
But 'networking', at least in my mind when I first started out in my career change, happened in very specific places. It happened at Networking Events, and Conferences, and other places that required capital letters and a business suit.
I wouldn't have imagined it would happen at a talk at the National Theatre, where Claire (one of our Feb 2015 Career Change Launch Pad participant) connected with a theatrical producer who offered her an hour of his time and advice on breaking into the industry.
I wouldn't have imagined it would happen at an event for female entrepreneurs, where Zoe (another Career Change Launch Pad participant) met the editor of Style magazine and landed herself a single page spread to advertise her bag designs.
I wouldn't have imagined it would happen in my local bar (which is where I connected my way into a copywriting gig). I wouldn't have pictured it happening at the airport (which is where I met the woman who taught me how to live rent-free while I travelled the world). Nor in a flower shop (which is where I met a man who introduced me to a woman who later became my employer).
Connections can occur wherever there are people – and you're very unlikely to find many people to help you out inside your house. (One would hope, if they were inside your house, you'd have found them by now).
Seek out places where people working in your industry might be found. Join them there. Introduce yourself. See what happens.
How do you network without feeling like a slimy, lying, con artist?
You don’t 'network'. You connect.
You bring real humanity to the process.
It's as simple as that.
Meet people. Celebrate people. Make them feel good. Ask questions. Share who you are. Take care of them.
And watch your world shift and grow.
What could you do this week to connect with interesting people in a new, authentic way? Let me know in the comments below!