You already know that asking for help in your job search is a smart thing to do—that’s why you did it. Research suggests that the vast majority of job offers come by networking (no surprise there), but especially through those “weak connections” in your professional circle—that intern manager from a few years back, the marketing exec you met briefly at a conference and forgot to take out for coffee afterward.
Since it’s these sorts of people who actually tend to prove most helpful, it can be tricky to enlist their support. They’re not close friends or colleagues, so they may not have a strong personal stake in seeing you succeed. But many are willing to offer a hand, just as long as you don’t give them reason to regret it. Here are some of the most common ways job seekers wind up stepping on their contacts’ toes or wasting their time, and what it takes to avoid doing so.
1. YOUR REQUEST ISN’T SPECIFIC ENOUGH
If you’re approaching someone, tell them exactly what you want. That means first decide on what you want. In my 30-year career, I’ve had many people come and ask me to open doors for them. The ones I’m happiest to help know what they need from me or how they think I can be helpful, and they’re direct about asking for it.
Other people just say, “I want to pick your brain, I’m between jobs” or, “I’ve been downsized and I need to find a new position.” This makes the request more about their predicament than either the type of solution they foresee or my role in bringing it about. It usually just frustrates me when people network without a clear agenda. Be specific. After a few pleasantries, tell your contact what industry and companies appeal to you, explain why, and suggest a few ways that they might be able to help you.
2. YOU’RE UNDERSELLING YOURSELF
Sponsors want to believe in you, so give them a reason. This means getting your pitch down before contacting them (and yes, networking for a job search really is about pitching yourself). It should be short and compelling. Don’t just say that you’re gunning for XYZ opening; explain why you believe you’re right for the opportunity you’re talking about.
Say you’re speaking to a well-connected friend of your parents, and you’re asking for a lead into that person’s company. Don’t be afraid to sound confident. Share your excitement about that opportunity and give three or four reasons why you think you’d be a real asset. Trust me, this won’t sound presumptuous. Whatever you do, don’t end with something like, “I think I’d like working there”—too wishy-washy. You’re trying to convince somebody you aren’t that close with to go to bat for you. Instead, say, “I’d love a chance to contribute to your firm.”
Senior people expect you to sell yourself enthusiastically. One CEO told me he looks for “fire in the belly.”
3. YOU’RE BEING PRESUMPTUOUS
This is the flip side of the previous pitfall. You do need to sound confident and excited, but there’s such a thing as overdoing it. You don’t want to come across as boastful or entitled. A healthy dose of humility goes a long way toward building a respectful relationship with someone who’s helping you—but being humble doesn’t mean being timid or sounding tepid.
Several years ago an undergrad approached me while she was looking for an internship. Her dad was a senior executive, and he’d asked the HR head of his company—a friend of mine—to pitch in, so the HR head referred her to me. From the second I met her I caught a whiff of entitlement about her. She knew her father’s circle had some pull; when we spoke, it was almost as though she were doing me a favor by coming in. And when I mentioned I was writing a business book, she chimed in, “I can write that for you.” That was the last conversation we had.
4. YOU BACK OFF WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
Once you’ve asked for help, hang in there—your sponsor expects you to play the long game.
I know a vice chairman of a bank who went to bat for a VP on his team, and fought for that person when a more senior position in another department came up. But another senior exec wanted to secure that same job for his own protégé, and a political battle erupted. As soon as the competition spilled into the open, the first candidate pulled out of the running, not wanting “to cause a stir.”
Big mistake. The sponsor wasn’t just disappointed, his credibility was tarnished. He might think twice next time before lending a hand to another candidate at that level. Once you have someone on your side, don’t leave them standing on the battlefield alone.
5. YOU LET YOUR MANNERS LAPSE
Being gracious is a must when you’re indebted to a well-connected person in your network, especially when they’re somewhat distant from you. Most people with the power to help your job search have gotten where they are because they’re good with people. They expect the same thoughtfulness of you—after all, those “soft skills” are a major job qualification.
I once got an acquaintance shortlisted in a job competition for which there were over 200 applicants. He was interviewed along with four others but ultimately didn’t land the offer. The biggest disappointment for me, though, was that he never wrote me a thank-you note—in fact, I never heard from him at all after that. Would I help him next time? Not a chance. Showing some gratitude is important in every networking relationship, not just when they lead to something.
6. YOU EVENTUALLY LOSE TOUCH
One easy way to show you’re grateful for somebody’s help with your job search is by staying in touch with them after it’s ended. They will feel glad to know that your career is progressing, and that they helped you at an earlier stage. So give them a call or send a note when you get your next big promotion. Congratulate them if they receive an award, or maybe invite them to speak to your team. If you read a book you think they’d like, drop a copy in the mail. Or just take them to lunch.
However you choose to do it, keeping the relationship alive long after your job search you will make your contact feel good about having helped you. Not only will that keep them open to future advice and assistance later on your career, it might also help you turn a “weak connection” into a strong one.