Time For a Lifestyle Change? Try Networking

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written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

It’s true: it’s not what you know but who you know that matters.

Networking is a skill, of course. There’s a housekeeping element; you need to be organized and set up a paper or electronic file system to remind yourself of whom to call, when, and what needs following up.

More importantly, networking is also a mindset, even a way of life. Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point coins a term, “the connectors,” for intuitively skilled networkers, those rare individuals who always seem to be making brilliantly useful introductions, literally connecting people from different spheres of life. For many highly successful individuals, networking is, or becomes, second nature.

“Targeted networking or direct referrals account for between 70 – 80% of all jobs found,” according to the Yale School of Management’s online Alumni Career Search Manual. “To conduct networking most effectively you must remind yourself (and believe) that you are not selling – you are conducting career research.”

If this sounds familiar, that’s because the best 20th century advice on networking hasn’t changed one iota: Consider everybody a potential contact, from members of your faith community to your yoga class to your old high school buddies, and certainly present and past work colleagues, ex-bosses, mentors, family members, neighbors, and friends.

A recent Wall St. Journal article recommended spending five minutes a day on calling contacts and networking. At a half an hour a week or so, that’s less time than most people spend watching the tube or driving to the office. Eventually you’ll run out of people who recognize your voice. So when your list of contacts includes many people you’re unlikely to bump into the neighborhood, how should you reach out? Call and chat. Invite them for a coffee or meal. If it’s someone you used to see occasionally, say at the golf course or kids’ soccer games, consider the possibility that they might not remember you well. A casual attitude can go a long way toward smoothing over the inevitable awkward moment.

Still, for some people, networking calls feel more like work than work itself. If that’s the case, then tackle them when you’re feeling strong, whether that’s the first thing in the morning or when you’re pumped up from a long run.

Don’t overlook cyberspace. Email exchanges can be for the perfect door-opener. Plus, there’s a potent new cyber tool for expanding your reach. It’s called social networking. Social networking sites at their best serve as an electronic version of Gladwell’s “connectors.” They can open doors to new contacts and offer opportunities to pick other people’s brains, share perspectives on matters of common concern, moan and groan, and trade advice. A few years ago, teenagers and college students fueled the rise to prominence of social-networking sites such as MySpace. Today, sites such as ours, www.boomster.com, offer adults a similar networking service but with a professional, entrepreneurial and altruistic focus.

If it’s networking you need (and in a transitional phase, who doesn’t?) then online is one place you can find other boomers who are on the same wavelength—without ever having to rely on someone else’s Rolodex or a chance encounter in an elevator.