By Liz Ryan
This is one of the most important networking lessons to understand and integrate. Thrusting a handshake at a person we don't know is the second-best way to meet that person. Being recommended by a person already credible to that individual is better.
I went to speak to a group of undergraduates, young people who'll be graduating this Spring. One week after my visit, they were set to attend a town/gown networking event with a group of local businesspeople.
"This will be a great opportunity for you to make some contacts, and practice your networking skills," I told them.
"I only hope," said one of the students, "that the nametags the businesspeople will be wearing, are large. If I can read a nametag from across the room, then I'll be able to quickly determine which businesspeople will be most deserving of my networking time."
That observation backed me up - and shut me up for a moment.
"I wouldn't worry too much about that," I finally said. "Any businessperson who has taken time out of his or her schedule to come and network with you students is worthy of your time. Every one of those people will give you a useful tip or two, and perhaps some ideas or leads for your job search."
"But," said another student,"I want to spend my networking time with the most high-level executives in the room - not some lady with her own consulting business or something." I gulped, seein' as how that description fits me pretty much to a tee.
"Ah, there's a misconception in your thinking, I fear," I said. "You guys may believe that sidling up to the Fortune 500 exec is the most potent networking you can do. I wouldn't be so sure."
"Why not?" asked a student. "If we can get five minutes with an executive, what could be better from a networking perspective?"
"Here's what could be better," I replied. "Rather than introducing yourself to a big-company executive who'll meet fifty students this year and perhaps retain a memory of two of them, why not manage to be recommended to that same executive, or someone on his staff, by someone who can get that leader's ear? Someone who has credibility with that person, something that you, at this moment, do not?
Wouldn't you rather be recommended to Bill Gates by his best friend, who has become one of your biggest fans, than have three minutes of networking time with Bill directly?"
The students pondered that question. I guess you're right, they finally said. It's better to be recommended to a lofty person by a trusted colleague of his or hers, than to try to do the promotional work on your own, from left field.
So, how do we wend our way through the networking jungle, to the point where we'll be introduced to people who can help us?
We grow our networks and our fan clubs by remembering that introductions are the fuel that allows networking to happen. We'll never meet, under our own steam (and wouldn't necessarily want to) every person who'll be instrumental in our job search.
We rely on the goodwill of our new and old friends to make kind introductions for us, and to tell the people who haven't already met us why we're worthy of THEIR time and attention.
"I think I get it," one student said to me as the workshop concluded. "I've had my eye on the wrong networking prize." Smart young fellow, that!
Liz Ryan is Job-Hunt's Networking Contributor. Liz is a former Fortune 500 VP and 25-year veteran of corporate human resources departments. In addition, Liz is the author of Happy About Online Networking and an internationally recognized expert on careers and the 21st century workplace. Find Liz on LinkedIn and on Google+.