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Networking in the HR Space - Both an Art and a Science

Reframe the way you think about building your network

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Dec 04, 2023

Networking with our colleagues - sharing ideas and information with others in our industry - is one of the most critically important, yet most frequently overlooked aspects of our careers. Many people make the mistake of waiting until they need a job before they take the time to develop personal relationships with their colleagues. I made this mistake myself until I realized that I was standing in the way of my own professional growth by not devoting enough attention to this area.

It is worth noting from the outset that networking is a separate skill unto itself, apart from the work we actually do to earn a living. Accordingly, it should be taught to young professionals from the moment they enter the labor force. Since it is not, Linkedin is filled with posts from job seekers of all types, clamoring with delight that they have figured out how to make sure their resumes are approved by corporate software, or will be noticed by recruiters. To this end, they are missing the point entirely - utterly unaware that in most cases, online applications are appropriate only when pursuing junior-level positions. Many professionals are caught off guard as they reach their mid to late 30s - the time at which they typically begin to pursue senior leadership roles. Suddenly they are forced to adjust to a shocking new reality - that executive level jobs are filled almost entirely through personal introductions, or direct outreach from a recruiter for a position that is not posted on any job board. In other words, you will remain on the outside unless you know someone on the inside. Fortunately, getting to know someone on the inside isn't as hard as it may seem, provided you go about it the right way.

Many people have asked how I became a super connector, and what they must do in order to become one themselves. My response is always that it happened entirely by coincidence and it isn't really possible to become one by trying. In the spring of 2023, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to three of the top HR super connectors in the greater New York area, whom I now refer to as my "core 3". The conversations that blossomed from those, either directly or indirectly, quickly grew from a small handful, to dozens, and now to several hundred within the space of about 6 months. I quickly realized that connecting people is something I have a talent for, and I've compiled some helpful tips to network effectively in the HR space and beyond. Please bear in mind that everything I'm about to share with you I've figured out through trial and error, until I discovered what works best.

Networking in HR is in many ways easier than networking in other industries, due to its inherent versatility. To illustrate this point, I will contrast it with another industry - for the sake of example I'll choose engineering. Engineering, like most industries, has a very linear networking structure. In other words, if you're looking for a job as an engineer, you're unlikely to find anyone outside of the engineering industry who will be of help to you. Conversely, HR is in a unique position as the backstage support system that enables all the verticials across a company to function. Because of this, there are any number of professionals across many functions who are well connected in the HR space. In fact, many of the people who are best connected in HR don't actually work in HR themselves! I know numerous colleagues in sales, marketing, finance and IT who are extraordinarily well connected in the HR world. The super connectors I mentioned earlier are actually third-party service providers whose work has no direct relevance to HR whatsoever. However, as they must gain buy in through HR to sell their services, their own success is contingent upon maintaining a massive network of HR connections.

The key to effective networking in HR is thinking outside the box. A colleague once phrased it perfectly: "Although we wish networking were a 6 foot putt, it's actually a 300 yard drive." In other words, casting a wide net will help you to reach your goal more quickly. If you limit your conversations only to executives who are in a position to hire you, or whose company is struggling with the exact problem your consulting business can solve, you are missing out on many potentially great connections who can help you in any number of ways.

In addition to internal HR leaders, vendors and consultants can be invaluable networking partners, as they are in close contact with HR leadership at numerous companies simultaneously. Moreover, you should not reject a networking conversation out of hand because someone doesn't work in your specific industry or live in your hometown. That person may have the exact contact who can help get you over the finish line to your next great job or client!

A consultant who develops leadership programs recently asked me to introduce her to HR leaders who are experiencing difficulties with their leaders' communication skills. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this problem exists at a particular company unless an internal stakeholder explicitly tells me so. I then reframed the conversation to offer introductions to other consultants who might be able to offer a closer insight. 

A networking conversation is very different from a formal interview, in that it is not a structured conversation. As I often remind my networking partners, I can only help you with the future but not with the past. Accordingly, there is no need to rehash your entire career history or to tell me what types of projects you're especially passionate about. This is not the time to dissect a business case about a task you completed and the results you achieved. During a recent networking conversation, one gentleman attempted to give a presentation about the work his company does. Although the content was quite interesting, it was not at all helpful. When we're on a networking call, I only care about two things - what your immediate goal is, and which types of people I can introduce you to. Once I have that information, there is no need to say anything further. I will share the same information on my end, and then we can end the conversation. 

A sourcing call with a recruiter (either internal or third party) can be an incredibly beneficial partnership as well. I have strong partnerships with numerous HR executive recruiters, even when they don't have the role I'm seeking immediately available. I introduce them to senior level HR contacts in my network to help them build their candidate pipeline, and they in turn introduce me to HR executives in their networks. There is always a way to help each other in the meantime!

In closing, my call to action is this - when reaching out for a conversation, lead with value by offering to help the other person in some way. It only stands to reason that if you do that person a favor, they will feel more inclined to do one for you in return. I encourage everyone to take tangible steps to help each other. Introduce one colleague to another. Recommend a friend for a job at a company where you know someone. When everyone takes the time to help one another we all win!

Want to discuss more, connect with Josh on LinkedIn.

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