When, do you suppose, is the right time to begin networking? The answer is simple. It is NOW!
That is true whether you are an established professional, someone in career transition, an entrepreneur looking to start or grow a business, a volunteer working in your community or a student – in high school, in college or in graduate school – just trying to figure things out as you go. And, so, that is where I want to focus attention for today’s post – squarely with the student networker.
It is often difficult for students to bridge the gap between their education and what’s next. What’s next might be a job, it might be more schooling, it might be something else entirely. And, though life is busy with classes and homework and study groups and social life, there is no better time for a student to sharpen his/her networking skills than simultaneously with his/her schooling. In fact, with the changing market, traditional job searches for soon-to-be graduates are less and less traditional. Students sometimes find it more difficult to go the traditional route. Now, students are having to get creative, to think of alternative career options in order to put to use their brand new degree. In order to identify and to weigh those options, networking is your best bet.
One organization that I am involved with that is doing an outstanding job of preparing students – at the high school level – for networking interactions is the Blue Valley Center for Advanced Professional Studies. Students to elect to take courses through CAPS are required to come in professional attire (for guys, this means sports coats, ties and, at least, khakis… you get the picture). Whenever they encounter a visitor to the center, they look them in the eye, say “hello,” offer a good firm handshake and introduce themselves. I commended the director, Donna Deeds, once on how well she and her colleagues were preparing students for college. She looked at me and said, “Oh, no, we’re not preparing these kids for college. We are preparing them for life.” As I have gotten more entrenched in the work of CAPS, I see that she was exactly right. These students are developing hard and soft life skills that are preparing them not only for the university classroom, but life well beyond the constructs of formal education. These folks are starting companies and building far reaching professional networks that would make most adult professionals I know stop in their tracks!
There are many different constituents for the student to keep in mind:
- Other students – especially upper classmen who may be able to offer advice and insight into other courses, internship or job opportunities, clubs to join, etc.
- Teachers/Professors – with an academic mindset, instructors have great insight into important coursework, thoughts on how to apply information from various courses to professional opportunities and the like. One of their greatest joys in life is to see students excel academically and beyond… they want to lend a helping hand when possible.
- School Counselors/Advisors – these individuals are solely focused on helping students to achieve success, in and out of the classroom.
- School alumni – one need only mention his/her alma mater to a fellow alum and an instant bond is formed! This weekend was a terrific case in point: I was at Starbucks having coffee with my friend, Danny, from Florida when another friend, Ruth, walked in. I introduced the two of them. Somehow Michigan came up and, voila! It was as if I was no longer part of the conversation! Alumna to alumnus, they had found a connection that I could not breach. Alumni like helping one another… and, they like helping future alumni (i.e. current students!).
- Local business owners – these folks have a vested interest in seeing current students succeed – academically and, ultimately, as contributing members of the local community. Many local business owners are willing to serve as mentors and advisors to students. Some will even offer paid/unpaid internships, work-study opportunities, summer work and entry level positions for graduates.
- Friends of one’s parents who are working professionals – take Mrs. Smith, your mom’s tennis partner who you’ve known your whole life and celebrated every family milestone with for as long as you can remember. You know that she is an executive with a business of her own, but you have no idea what she does. Now is the time to find out! Chances are that you could pick up the phone… right NOW… and ask Mrs. Smith for either a face-to-face meeting next time you are home on break or for a quick phone call to touch base. Ask her to review your resume. Talk with her about career paths for someone in your field. You are all grown up now and Mrs. Smith is likely to be very proud to talk with you adult to adult, professional to soon-to-be-professional.
So, what to say when the time comes to ask for the meeting? “Professor Jones… Mrs. Smith… Pete… would you be willing to meet me for a cup of coffee… or a smoothie… or a salad…? I have several ideas for summer internships… or startup options… or career opportunities and I would really value your input. Also, I would welcome your introductions to others with whom I should connect…”
That’s all. Chances are that you will land that meeting and that it will lead to many future opportunities.