Job Hunting

Notes from a Job Search: Rating Your Contacts

The art of networking requires a discriminating eye, one CFO has learned.
Gary StarrJuly 8, 2010

With so many people caught between jobs these days, CFO asked Gary Starr, a CPA and MBA who was most recently CFO at a $70 million professional-service firm, to write about his current experience looking for a new position. In the fourth installment of a series, Starr offers an unconventional way for job hunters to prioritize their networking contacts.

If you read the standard articles on networking, you might think it’s an easy process: just call your “tier-one” friends — the ones you think will provide the most help — who then will connect you with their tier-one friends, who in turn will connect you with their tier-one friends, until you eventually find a job.

Unfortunately, networking doesn’t necessarily work that way. Sometimes, no matter how much people say they will help, the information they actually provide isn’t robust. In my experience, I have found that there are four types of people you might reach: (1) those who understand networking, want to help, and give you good information; (2) those who say they will help, but give you nothing or something you already have;
(3) those who don’t know how to help; and (4) those who just don’t want to help.

People who are good networkers and want to help are obviously the best contacts — and they are not necessarily your tier-one contacts. These folks understand the value of networking and know that at some point everything comes full circle. They care, and prodding them with hints about the types of people you want to meet can yield good results. They won’t necessarily give you their best contacts, but they will give you good ones and good information. Stay on their radar at least once a month by giving them updates on your job search and reminding them what type of position you are looking for.

It can be hard to recognize people who belong to the second type — those who say they will help but constantly give you lip service or names that are not useful. But once you do, it’s a waste of time to continue to engage with them. I had one contact who kept telling me she wanted to help. Finally, she gave me the names of two people whom she knew that I knew. I had always been reluctant to contact them, because they had reputations of not being helpful to their contacts, but I did because she pushed me. They were both pleasant and showed a real desire to help, but after a number of follow-up e-mails and calls, they never responded and never helped. Lesson learned: sometimes you have to go with your gut.

You should definitely engage with the third type of person, those who don’t know how to help. They are people you need to prod: ask them about neighbors, golfing buddies, fellow congregants. With some encouragement, you can get them to help you and feel good about themselves. One such person, after a little prodding, gave me a lawyer’s name, saying he wasn’t sure the lawyer would be helpful. The lawyer turned out to be a great guy and a real networker. After meeting with me in his office, he sent my name to 15 private-equity firms, and I was able to get an interview at one. Lesson learned: never give up with this type of contact.

The fourth type of person is easy to recognize. Generally, such people insist they can’t help, which usually means they don’t want to help. There is nothing to do but move on; trying to engage with them will only make you look desperate, which is not a message you should be sending.

Of course, networking is a two-way street: you should always look to help others. If someone I know or who is highly recommended seeks my help, I will always try to provide names. If I don’t know the person, I will try to be helpful in other ways, suggesting places to search, organizations to join, and so on.

Similarly, I always engage with recruiters who reach out to me, even if their jobs do not fit my skill set. And I always offer to help them source their positions and try to give them names of people who can help. As with all networking calls, I never expect anything in return.

This type of mentality pays off in the long run and makes you a serial networker. If you continue to network all the time, you will probably never have to worry about finding your next job; you will always be reaping the benefits of your constant networking. — Edited by Alix Stuart