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How to Network Your Way Into An Executive Role

Anshu and Tyler both applied for the same job.  On paper, they looked very similar- both had master’s degrees, twenty years of experience, and both had worked for a similar caliber of companies.  They both interviewed extremely well also and seemed to be a cultural fit. 

However, Anshu had an advantage that Tyler didn’t.  She had been referred into the interview process by a contact she found through networking.  Tyler’s resume had been pulled from a deep stack of others that had applied online.  In the end, Anshu got the job.  Why, you may ask? Because she had someone on the inside who could vouch for her so, in the end, she was a safer bet.  That is one of the many powers of networking.

In particular, when you’re trying to land an executive role, networking becomes even more critical.  As a leader, the impact you have on the company is massive, both from a cultural standpoint as well as an execution standpoint.  Because of this, companies tend to take their time as they look to fill executive roles because they need to ensure they make the right hiring decision.  Hiring a trusted source versus someone “off the street” increases the odds of success.  In addition, it’s beneficial to you to be referred in by someone you know and trust so you have an accurate read on what it would be like to work for this company. 

For your benefit and also, to increase your odds of landing a role, it’s most effective to network your way into an executive role.

Why Is Networking Important?

Here are some statistics to consider:

  • Networking trumps applying directly for a job by a factor of 3:1
  • According to an U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Yale University report, 70 percent of all jobs are found through networking
  • A recent survey by CareerXroads shows that job board filled only 15 percent of positions
  • According to PayScale, 70% of people claim they got their current job through networking
  • 12% of the world’s population uses LinkedIn (source: Hootsuite)
  • Only 5-10% of executive job seekers will land jobs through a job board

Although job boards are useful in the research stage of your job hunt, to secure a new role, you’ll want to lean more into networking to increase your odds of success.

Before You Start Networking

It’s really, really important to know what you’re looking for before you start reaching out to people for new roles.  This will save you, and your contacts, a ton of time and potential frustration.  To help define and crystalize the next ideal role for you, check this out.

Once you land on the ideal next role for you, create a list of target companies that you would like to work for.  Consider these factors as you build your target company list:

  • Industries of interest
  • Products/services that excite you
  • Cultures that you would like to be a part of
  • Geographic location
  • Company size

Using these considerations, and the work you’ve done to understand where you should focus based on your passions and strengths, create a short list of target companies. Put your limited time to good use by referring to this short list when you have time to network.

How to Network Effectively

Networking is not about meeting as many people as possible. 

It’s about staying in touch with a small group of well-connected individuals who believe in your and are willing to connect you with others.  And it’s important that you like them/they like you and you have established a good rapport. 

Cultivating Existing Relationships

A good way to approach networking is to think about strengthening the ties to your inner circle of friends but also to spend time staying in touch with acquaintances as well.  A study by Quartz revealed that you’re 58% more likely to get a job through acquaintances, rather than friends. 

Another study by Stanford revealed that people who just had a strong social network of close friends were at a disadvantage vs. those who had a close inner circle and also maintained an outer circle of acquaintances.  Those who kept up with both networks were able to find higher paying and more fulfilling jobs.

Building New Relationships

It’s also helpful to expand your current network by meeting new people.  Again, focus on quality not quantity when undertaking this endeavor. 

Look for people you have something in common with to make the connection request easier- fellow alumni, people who worked at the same companies as you, people who share a common interest or connection.  Reaching out to people you have something in common with increases your chance of initiating a conversation.  LinkedIn is a great tool to help with this.

As you look to your target list, find ways to use your network to connect with people in your target companies.  Start to warm up those relationships so you are on their short list when they go to hire.

When connecting with new people, focus on a “you-based” message instead of a “me-based” message.  Show genuine interest in learning about the other person and getting to know more about them, their background, and their goals.  If you do this, eventually, the conversation will turn to you, and your new connection will have a vested interest in helping you since you’ve offered to help them.

72% of people were influenced by looks & a handshake according to a study by greatbusinessschools.org  So, if you’re meeting in-person, work on that firm yet comfortable handshake, especially if you’re doing business in the US.

Brown University released a solid Top 10 Tips for Networking Etiquette.  These are all common sense but nonetheless, it’s always good to review:

  1. Respect the time of the people you’re networking with
  2. Listen more than talk
  3. Ask more than tell
  4. Give more than ask
  5. Maintain good eye contact
  6. Don’t mix networking, marketing, and selling
  7. Finesse really pays off—don’t come on too strong
  8. Make other people comfortable
  9. Ask if this is a good time for a brief chat when following up

In terms of the medium to use when you reach out, start with a message and, if you get a friendly banter going, ask to move the conversation to phone or Zoom.  Eventually, if it’s feasible, it’s always better to meet someone in-person.

In terms of effectiveness in ability to make a positive, long-lasting impression, the most effective sequence (in order of importance) is this:

Email/text-> Phone call-> Video Chat-> In-person

Don’t worry too much if you can’t meet in-person if time is tight (or if there’s a worldwide pandemic).  Nowadays, people have gotten used to connecting over video chat.

After someone makes time to chat with you, send them a thank you note.  Small gestures like this go a long way, are often skipped, and leave a positive, lasting impression.

How to Make Time for Networking When You’re Already Slammed

Most people will wait until they are in job-search mode before they start networking.  I definitely did this when I was in the corporate world.  I was already so busy I couldn’t imagine making time to network. 

Let me first relieve you of some added pressure- it’s ok to put the hold on networking when life is too crazy to fit in anything else.  Especially in the midst of the pandemic, people are juggling a lot, and it’s ok to say no to doing one more thing, especially if finding a new role is not critical for you right now.

If you do have the bandwidth, finding time to network will help to keep relationships outside of your company warm so people remember you when outside opportunities arise.  Even if you’re not job searching, you could be invited to be a speaker, be featured in an article, to sit on a board, etc. because you recently spoke to someone who remembered how great you were.

To fit networking into an already-busy schedule (again, if you choose to do this.  If you’re already stretched so thin that your eyeballs are about to pop out, don’t worry about this), calendar some time every week or every month to reach out to someone. Connect with someone who you haven’t spoken with in a while but you’d like to stay in touch with. 

It’s nice to do this at the end of a busy week when you can’t manage complex work but can fire off a casual note as you start to mentally transition into the weekend. 

The key to make sure this gets done is to add networking time in your calendar in a cadence that’s feasible for you.  And be sure to stick with it.

The Nuances of Networking Into an Executive Role

Different from networking into a non-executive role, who you know and talk to matters even more in this case. 

Here’s why: imagine a funnel.  The closer you are to entry-level roles; the more opportunities exist.  The higher you work down the funnel, the smaller the pool of opportunities.  Because of that, quality networking with the right people (aka- the decision makers and those connected to the decision makers) is key so you are considered for the limited number of positions that exist.

In addition to investing time in networking, in more competitive climates (like the pandemic and recessions), you may need to get creative.  If you’re looking for a lateral move in the same industry, networking will likely do the trick.  If you’re looking to switch industries and/or move up in title and networking has yielded little return, here are some things I’ve seen people do to get their foot in the door:

  • Provide something of value to a leader in the company(s) you are interested in (a key piece of information that’s legal to share, a report you wrote, an insight you have, an idea for expansion, etc.)
  • Offer to do limited pro bono work so they can see how great you are and how much value you would bring to the company
  • Introduce the company to a critical contact who could help them expand their business

If a new executive role doesn’t show up overnight, don’t get discouraged.  Patience and persistence are key. The average job search takes six months but it can take more depending on how selective you are about your search.  Don’t lose confidence or hope, the next person you contact may just be the right one. 

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