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Walden Magazine // Aug 01, 2013

The Art of Making Contact

Alumni share their secrets to networking—online and in person—and making it work for your career.

Illustration of two though balloons. The ballons have opened up and two people inside are shaking hands across the side by side baloons.Illustration credit: Mike Austin.

Networking is a skill that must be developed, nurtured, and fine-tuned. Here, alumni who have obtained a new position or new clients as a direct result of their networking efforts, along with professionals in human resources, describe the best ways to advance your career by reaching out, making a good impression, and staying connected online and in person. As our graduates attest, the benefits are immeasurable: Networking can lead to new publishing partnerships, volunteer opportunities, or even a new career.

Start by Connecting on the Web

The Internet is fertile ground for networking. Make the most of it by following this advice:

  1. Let the Internet embolden you. If you’re shy, networking online can take away much of the anxiety of speaking with strangers. “It can help you feel more confident,” says Dr. Antonio Santonastasi ’00, a PhD in Psychology graduate, manager for NATO in Germany, and adjunct faculty member at three universities. Starting online allows you to take those first steps and build on them as your confidence increases.
  2. Join networking sites like LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a favorite site for making professional connections, while Facebook works best for casual networking. “I don’t oppose Facebook, but it is more of a social site for friendships and may not be a great place to establish professional relationships,” says Dr. Sean Stanley ’11, a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) graduate, the interim assistant dean of students at UNC-Charlotte, and a Walden faculty member. “I took a break from Facebook about a year ago and turned to LinkedIn, and I have had great success in establishing professional relationships that have truly kept me in the loop.”
  3. Create an online portfolio of your work. If you’ve given a presentation, post a summary and your PowerPoint on SlideShare. If you’ve been published, list where your articles may be found. If you volunteer, list the projects you’ve contributed to and your interests. By posting this information on LinkedIn, your own website, blog, and pages frequented by people in your industry, potential contacts will easily become acquainted with your skill sets and the quality of your work without having to dig around or ask you directly. “A contact can easily do some homework and get to know you with minimal effort,” says Santonastasi.
  4. Be aware of your online presence. What will an employer see if she runs a quick search on you? Check your Facebook security settings and do an Internet search for your name to remove any incriminating images or text that is viewable by the public—or risk making a bad impression on a potential contact. “As an employer, I always look at an applicant’s social networking sites,” says Dr. Christi Sanders ’11, a D.B.A. alumna, director of human resources for the city of Granbury, Texas, and a faculty member at several universities. “It gives me great insight into the type of employee that person will be.”
  5. Get engaged—participate in the conversation. Visit blogs, follow your professional contacts on Twitter, and monitor other online forums but don’t just lurk. Register, post comments, ask questions, and provide answers. Think of it like the discussion boards in your classrooms now extended to your life as a professional. These connections may even lead to meaningful opportunities. “I use LinkedIn to network and explore business options that I would never ordinarily have access to,” says Dr. Robert D. Boyden ’10, a PhD in Public Policy and Administration graduate and owner of Public Safety Concepts Group in Philadelphia. “It has exposed me to business deals and allowed others to view my CV without me needing to send it out individually or unsolicited. I even located a publisher for an upcoming book.”
  6. Don’t let things get stale. “Keep your profiles up to date,” says Meena Williamson ’11, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) alumna and the human resources recruiter for Care Resources in Baltimore. Visit your LinkedIn profile frequently and post regular updates to your own website. Tools like WordPress, for example, make creating a website easy. Remember, not only does LinkedIn send out alerts to your contacts when you’ve updated your profile, the simple act of updating it may lead you to spend more time actively networking online and building relationships.
  7. Personalize. If you’re going to invite contacts to join a group or network with you on a particular site, make sure the invitations are personalized. No one likes to feel like they’re part of a mass mailing. “In networking, all invitations need to be personalized,” Santonastasi says. And he’s not just talking about using the contact’s name on the invitation, though that’s a start. Try including a detail from a conversation you’ve had or about your new project. It will make your invitation stand out and increase the likelihood of a positive response.
  8. Don’t lose touch. Once you’ve made a contact, keep it. “Stay connected to your classmates and faculty members,” says Stanley, who accepted a position at UNC after learning about it from a contact he made in his fraternity—proving that staying in touch can directly benefit your career. There’s no need to inundate your network with daily emails but don’t let months pass without reaching out. And if you have lost touch, rebuild the bridge. “You can reconnect with former co-workers and supervisors,” Sanders says. All it takes is a quick note to start a conversation. You never know what opportunities might arise.

Now, Get up Close and Personal

Going online isn’t enough. Face-to-face communication is just as important. Find networking events by joining trade groups (online or in person), volunteering, subscribing to journals, keeping in touch with past and current colleagues—and staying current with Walden’s own alumni network. Other options may also arise from your online networking. Once you have a few upcoming events, here’s what to do when you walk in the door.

  1. Face your fears. Shyness is common at networking events. Push yourself to overcome any hesitation you feel about approaching people. “Relax, take deep breaths, and maybe even share a funny story about yourself,” Williamson says. “People are drawn to others who have a smile on their face or use humor in face-to-face meetings. You would be amazed at how many other people in attendance are as nervous as you are,” she says. She personally ignores the awkward feeling. “If I have a few paces to cover before reaching the person,” Williamson says, “the walk gives me time to stabilize my nerves.”
  2. Have your pitch ready. Make sure to have some basic remarks about your career and your research memorized. “Always have your five-minute elevator speech ready,” says Doris Idahor ’12, a Master of Public Health (MPH) alumna, PhD in Public Policy and Administration student, and the head of human resources and organizational development for ActionAid International in Liberia—you never know when you’ll encounter an opportunity to network. “In an airport, on a flight, or even in a taxi, I have networked and made some lasting connections,” says Robin Hertel ’08, a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) alumna, Doctor of Education (EdD) student, and a faculty member at North Central Kansas Technical College. “Standing in line for a security check in an airport one day, I connected with an IT specialist,” she says. “We spoke of information technology in healthcare and the problems we see with gaining buy-in from more experienced nurses. From this conversation, I developed an idea for my doctoral study and also found an excellent resource.”
  3. Pick your targets. If you’re faced with a room full of people at a networking event, don’t attempt to speak to everyone. “I typically scan the crowd and pick out a few people who I think will be interesting to talk to and then introduce myself. I find that a few meaningful conversations help build my network a lot faster than just handing out my card to people I barely talk to and who will forget me the minute I walk away,” says Sanders, who knows the power of these conversations firsthand. “I have obtained my last two positions solely through networking.”
  4. Keep the conversation going. Ask open-ended questions, provide positive and encouraging feedback, listen carefully, and be appreciative. “Start with a compliment and follow up with a question that shows genuine interest,” Idahor says. Or start the conversation with a casual topic, like a news article or a joke. “Make yourself approachable,” Stanley says. “When you open up and share what you’re doing, it tends to lead to a good conversation. They will begin to share, and you’ll find common ground.”
  5. Complete the circle. “Follow up, routinely, with the people you’ve met,” Williamson says. When Hertel takes someone’s business card, she writes a note on the back to remind her of what was discussed. “When you return home, send a personal email to thank the person for the insights shared or ask further questions,” she says. “To be successful at networking, you must work at it. You get out what you put in.”

Craft Your Online Presence

So you’ve signed up for LinkedIn—now what? Here are the key elements of a solid, productive profile:

Start With the Basics
Create a clear and detailed profile, including previous and current places of employment.

Post a high-quality headshot and make sure it is recent. Using an unprofessional or inaccurate photo raises red flags.

Detail Your Expertise
Include your educational background. Employers not only want to see where you went to school and which degrees you earned—they want to see if you’re a fellow alum.

Keep It Fresh
Include keywords that pop up routinely on websites within your industry. It will help employers find you and help you find relevant opportunities.

Be proactive. Request recommendations from your current contacts.

Keep your contact information up to date—you never know when someone will reach out.

  • Add any memberships to professional organizations.
  • Provide links to your website and published research or articles.
  • If you’ve won awards or received accolades, describe them.
  • If you volunteer, link to the organization’s site.
  • Add blogs and short YouTube videos that further illustrate who you are as a professional.

Start a Conversation
Each contact counts: Recruiters want to see more than where you’ve worked; they want to find out who you know. “Word of mouth is a great resource. If I can find someone who will recommend an applicant, I always talk to them,” Dr. Christi Sanders ’11 says. “They are more comfortable answering questions, and I am more comfortable asking them.”

Beyond LinkedIn

Having 500-plus connections on LinkedIn is only valuable if you actually know and speak to all of those colleagues. Our alumni explain how to make your networking efforts more collaborative:

Stay Active in Professional Organizations
The National Education Association, the American Management Association, and the American Mental Health Counselors Association are examples of just a few of the industry-specific organizations you can join. Not only will these memberships help you stay up to date with advances in your field, you’ll also learn about upcoming events, seminars, and publications—prime opportunities for networking. “They also help you widen your geographical reach,” says Doris Idahor ’12. “These organizations offer access to industry leaders.”

Focus on Where You Want to Work
“The next trend by far is employee referrals,” says Meena Williamson ’11. Employers look for candidates by talking to their employees first and asking them to reach out to their networks. She urges job seekers to pursue new connections at any organization through volunteerism, mentoring, or shadowing. Dr. Christi Sanders ’11 agrees the workforce makeup is changing. “I believe we’ll see in-house networking increase,” she says. “Organizations will need to look internally to develop talent and hold on to their best employees.”

Go Off the Beaten Path
Sure, your connections may start on LinkedIn, but they may also jump to other sites, like Scribd, SlideShare, and Skype. “I think we’ll see more virtual meetings, training, and even recruiting,” Dr. Robert D. Boyden ’10 says. Dr. Sean Stanley ’11 agrees. Think of it as a “social media umbrella,” he says. “Users will build their résumés and reputations in new ways, exposing them to a wide audience, and facilitating conversations that will allow them to build ongoing relationships with clients or potential employers.” But remember to mix your online pursuits with in-person meetings, cautions Hertel. “There is a lot to be said for the art of simple conversation.”

Think Like a Hiring Manager

We all know the basic rules to follow when applying for a new position. Check that your materials don’t have spelling errors. Always be courteous. Follow up to thank an interviewer. What you may not realize is how much each detail matters. Our alumni with experience in human resources explain why it’s so important to dot every i and cross every t:

Tailor your résumé, cover letter, and application materials. “One size does not fit all. Organizations have unique needs and interests,” says Doris Idahor ’12. When revising your résumé for a position, consider all of your interests, including your hobbies. “If it relates, highlight it,” explains Meena Williamson ’11. If you are a technology guru, for example, list your software, hardware, or coding skills so the employer is aware of your level of expertise.

Present a professional image from all angles. “The interview begins long before you step into the office,” says Dr. Christi Sanders ’11. “From the moment I receive the application, every interaction is judged, including your voice mail message and public search results on the Web.” Remember, any detail, even the email you use to send the materials, may be the first impression for a hiring manager—make sure it’s positive and professional.

Share your passion. “Candidates who are passionate stand out,” says Williamson. Once you’ve secured an interview, come prepared to share professional stories. Not only will they make you memorable, they will build your credibility. “Compelling stories portray your value,” Idahor says.

Remember that courtesy is essential. Even if you’re no longer interested in a position, respond to every call or email you receive. “Employers track their applicant pool,” explains Williamson. “If you apply for another position at the company in the future, your courtesy will be remembered.”

Meet the Experts

Doris Idahor ’12, a Master of Public Health (MPH) graduate and PhD in Public Policy and Administration student based in Africa as the head of human resources and organizational development for ActionAid International in Liberia

Dr. Christi Sanders ’11, a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) graduate, director of human resources for the city of Granbury, Texas, and a faculty member at Southwestern Assemblies of God University and Indiana Wesleyan University

Dr. Sean Stanley ’11, DBA graduate, interim assistant dean of students at UNC-Charlotte, and a faculty member at Walden

Meena Williamson ’11, Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate and human resources recruiter and QA (quality assurance) manager for Care Resources in Baltimore, Md.

Dr. Robert D. Boyden ’10, PhD in Public Policy and Administration graduate and owner of Public Safety Concepts Group in Philadelphia

Robin Hertel ’08, Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) graduate and Doctor of Education (EdD) student, and a faculty member at North Central Kansas Technical College in Hays, Kan.

Dr. Antonio Santonastasi ’00, PhD in Psychology graduate, manager for NATO in Germany, and an adjunct faculty member at Baker College, California InterContinental University, and Capella University