A Guide To Authentic Networking
This networking guide will be split into seven distinct sections, so please feel free to read section by section at your own pleasure. On that note, please feel free to skip and choose sections based on your individual experience and preference. Some are familiar with the idea of coffee chats; others haven’t even heard of the phrase.
So, no matter your familiarity with the concepts, read and interact with my content at whatever speed you are more comfortable with 😊
What is networking
Why even network [your side of the story]
Why even network [their side of the story]
Who should you contact when networking
Where should you contact them
How should you prepare for networking
Maintaining relationships + contacts
Guidelines + best practices for networking
Crafting your elevator pitch
What is Networking?
Networking is the single most important tool in your disposal to landing a job/internship, getting promoted, nailing a business deal, and leading lasting change. It is important not only for getting the job, but also for succeeding in it.
Networking is commonly defined as an activity in which “two parties, often aligned in a common profession or special interest, exchange information and ideas.”
Blegh. How utterly boring.
And indeed, at face value it does seem incredibly dull. Even worse, networking often seems “snakey” and “slimy.” It feels fake and disingenuous, as if we are taking advantage of others for our own self gain. It can also feel incredibly plastic and superficial; are we networking because we actually care about the people we’re chatting with, or are we just trying to get something material out this exchange?
But everybody networks.
You networked when you made your very first friend on the playground. You networked when you formed homework parties with fellow peers. And you’re even networking right now, engaging with this newsletter and thus by extension an ostensibly random stranger on the internet: me.
Networking, in my honest opinion, is synonymous with building relationships. We network with family and friends as much as we network with peers, mentors, and even complete strangers, because once upon a time our friends - and even family - were once strangers to us.
But through time, effort, and mutual understanding and love, we can find friendships in the unlikeliest of places. Naturally, this isn’t to say every encounter we have will lead to happy, rainbow-hued endings.
But as the old adage goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Why Should You Network?
So you may be wondering, “Why even bother taking the shot anyway?”
Assuming you’re interested in recruiting for summer internships and full-time jobs, then the answer is quite obvious: you kind of have to shoot your shot.
Networking is the single most effective tool you have in landing a referral - a seal of approval, if you will - from a trusted employee in the company. A referral essentially verifies and validates your interest and qualification for the role. Because it is made by an internal staff member, their seal of approval ‘qualifies’ you for the role.
Picture this: you’re applying for a job for Google. Well, so are three million other applicants. And of those three million candidates, Google will typically hire less than 7,000. That means only one in 428 applicants land the job. And the odds are not in your favor. Chances are, your resume and cover letter won’t be read by a human. It will be picked up by an AI resume screener, and will likely then be tossed into the virtual trash bin along with the hundreds of thousands of other job applications.
But now picture this: you’re applying for a job for Google. This time, you reach out to a school alumni - or perhaps a good friend or colleague works there, or someone who can introduce you to someone else who does work there - and you set up what is called a “coffee chat,” or an informal conversation between two parties that want to get to know each other better. You hit it off really well, and your new friend thinks you’re a great fit for the position. She refers you to the recruiting team, and suddenly your resume, cover letter, and credentials land on the top of the application stack. Your work will actually be read by a human instead of being unceremoniously auto-digested by an AI screening millions of applications for key words and phrases, and, more likely than not, within a week or so you’ll be hearing back from the firm with a hearty “congratulations” and a request for a first round interview. You get more advice on how to ace your interviews and stand out, and before you know it you’ve landed the internship and are working your dream job. Even better, once you’re in you’ll be working with friends and colleagues you already know very, very well.
But of course, that’s not the end of it. Networking offers so much utility beyond just getting the job or internship. For instance, you can:
Get personalized, insider advice on entering a field, industry, and/or profession, boosting your odds of successfully navigating the recruiting process
Get a first-hand impression of the work environment, and if it’s really a place and/or culture you’d want to work in
Learn about current trends and terminology that may prove useful in the future
Have a professional in the field critique your resume, cover letter, and offer valuable insights for this role and others similar to it
Practice presenting yourself in a relatively low-stress environment
Ask questions that could be considered too direct in a formal job meeting and interview, and engage in candid, authentic conversation
Expand your network of contacts
Get yourself a mentor and life-long friend - my personal favorite 😊
Build confidence in yourself and your decision to move into the field – OR –
Learn that this field is NOT for you, therefore allowing you to refine your career options and/or generate entirely new ones
Develop and maintain relationships that can help you in your job search and professional development, both in the short-term AND long-term
Networking ultimately helps us get to this point; by building authentic, meaningful relationships, we can find friends, advocates, and even mentors in what could be the unlikeliest of places. But it can also be daunting; networking is so, so tough, and people are busy with their own lives and struggles. Why should they bother even entertaining us kids? What could we possibly offer them in return?
Why Should They Network?
It turns out, there are a lot of great and meaningful reasons - reasons that are strategic and political as well as emotional and interpersonal - for them to network with you.
First, they get to earn more $$$$. Many firms - including but not limited to Google, Accenture, Apple, and many more - provide cash bonuses for successful referrals. If your coffee chatter really likes you and refers you, and you get the internship/job - congratulations, you just helped them earn anywhere from $200 to $2,000 (a whole month’s rent in a typical Bay Area 1 BR apartment, we love being price-gouged 😊).
Second, people want to help. No man or woman is an island, and none of us would be where we are now without help from others. I personally stand on the shoulders of giants, and I want to honor them by paying it forward. You’ll notice that it’s very common for people to want to give back and pay it forward, especially if they are alumni. So don’t be afraid to ask for help - they want to 😊
Third, it feels amazing to be a mentor and pass along your wisdom to the next generation. Call me a grandpa, but it feels good to help others get started on their own journeys. It reminds me when I was a student getting started; now, it’s my turn to be a mentor and serve others. People are also very flattered when others look up to them, so play your cards right and you’ll be having your coffee chatters blushing in no time.
Fourth, you’re a potential new colleague for them if you join the firm. If, say, you successfully join the company, you will know each other and it will be easier for you to work in teams. Let’s take this example up a notch; say you’re both in consulting, and you’re working in a project that involves you and your team mapping out a possible market entry into the ASEAN region (South-East Asia) for a North American client. Meanwhile, your connection, now a senior principal at the firm, is leading a project and directly working with a client who is curious to learn more about the Indonesian payments ecosystem. You can connect your colleague with valuable information as a result of your particular work, and you can also refer them and their client to other industry experts who may be able to assist them in their own research. Congratulations: you’ve just made your colleague’s job a thousand times easier.
Fifth, they can gain valuable information, resources, or other contacts/connections from you, either now or in the future (if you maintain a strong relationship). From personal experience, after coffee chatting a UC Berkeley alumni who represents RZA (from Wu-Tang Clan), a few months later he learned that I was a Brand Ambassador for 88rising, a global music label. We chatted about a possible partnership between 88 and 36 Chambers, and we were able to connect our various contacts and establish a project between Rich Brian and RZA himself. This is one of many examples of how we can personally enrich our networks’ careers and lives, even as students.
Sixth, they can improve their understanding of what potential employees in their field are interested in or looking for, which is valuable intel for recruiters and senior management. People you coffee chat are, more often than not, intimately connected with recruiting efforts and sometimes lead it themselves. They are personally invested in making recruiting a better and more efficient process, and talking to students like you is key to doing just that.
Seventh, networking and referring strong, successful talent makes them look good. A key skill executives need is an eye for talent, and by helping recruit you they will look good in the eyes of their managers and direct supervisors.
Eighth, they can get updated on campus news and how their favorite professors are doing. I’ve had my fair share of conversations regaling my coffee chatters about how Berkeley has changed - all the new restaurants in town, all the new spots to hit up, how the buildings have changed, and what professors have been up to. Indeed, many of these individuals still want to keep in close contact with their favorite professors; one of my best coffee chat-turned friends and mentors wanted to keep in touch with the professor who wrote her a letter of recommendation, so I passed a hand-written note from her in New York back to the professor in the Bay Area. Now, I’m really close friends with that professor and am getting a letter of recommendation from him.
So, as you can see, there are so many reasons for these kinds of people to network with you. You are valuable. You are worthy. And you have so much to offer. Trust me 😊
Who Should You Contact?
We’ve discovered the why. Now, it’s time to figure out the who: who should you contact to get the ball rolling on all the amazing new mentorships, relationships, and job offers coming your way?
For starters, begin with your “first” degree connections. These are people you already directly know - friends, family, and people you’ve personally worked with or under. Begin with your least intimidating contacts, because it can be scary chatting with someone you don’t know well for the first time. Practice getting used to the idea of coffee chats, and do it in a low-stress, low-stakes environment. If you’re the kind of person who especially gets shy and anxious when interacting with others, this is a great first step to ease yourself into the world of networking.
Next, reach out to “second” degree connections in industries, companies, and roles you’re interested in learning more about. These are individuals who share common friends and connections. Ask your first degree connections who are connected with said individuals to help introduce you, which will give you a head-start in setting up a meeting and conversation. Because you have friends in common, it’s not only easier to set-up such meetings, but it’s also more likely that the coffee chat itself goes more smoothly. Your coffee chatter already has a positive impression of you by way of sharing a common friend, and it’s easier to talk with someone when you have something, or someone, in common.
Finally, graduate into the last stage of this process by reaching out to “third” degree connections: that is, complete strangers. You share no connections in common with these individuals, and when you reach out to them it is a 100% clean, blank slate. Explain what you want (NOT a job, just information), suggest a time frame (a particular week), and a particular place (phone, zoom, coffee shop, office, etc). Be prepared for phone / Zoom meetings, especially given COVID-19 (and a post-COVID world).
Where Should You Contact Them?
“Cool, Bryan,” you may be wondering. “So where can I find these people?”
For starters, I’d begin with LinkedIn. LinkedIn is one of the most critical professional resources in the entire internet, and it’s quite accessible; anybody can build a LinkedIn profile in a matter of minutes. In the coming weeks, my newsletter and I will be going over LinkedIn tips and tricks and how you can best optimize your profile, but for now let’s focus on how networking and LinkedIn are integrated.
First, if you have a LinkedIn already, use linkedin.com/alumni to search for alumni. Alumni are likely to be more willing to speak with you, and this site is a great resource in rapidly identifying them.
Second, use your university’s alumni association database. Some schools also have LinkedIn alumni groups you can join as a student, and these serve as great resources for you to further identify alumni. Because these individuals have voluntarily joined such groups, you can also reasonably assume that they would be more than happy to connect and answer your questions.
Third, talk to your academic departments (re: professors, teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, etc.). If your class sizes (*ahem*, looking at you UC Berkeley) are too large, then this may prove quite difficult. Nevertheless, our faculty are amazing resources to connect with and learn from. Chatting with graduate students may especially be fruitful, as they are typically closer in age and can provide meaningful, current insight into graduate student programs and the world that is adulting.
Fourth, attend professional organization meetings, hackathons, industry conferences, and other events to meet new people and connections. This is the hardest for most students, as most of these events require you to pay to get in. That being said, hackathons are a great free way to meet like-minded, eager, and ambitious students and solve problems together. Many hackathons don’t require already being in a predetermined team, so if you don’t have any team-mates that’s fine! You’ll be randomly assigned to other prospective' ‘hackers’ who are in the same boat. In these events, many judges and spectators also tend to be industry experts and senior executives, providing you a wealth of opportunities to meet and chat with some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring figures. You can also connect with students from other schools, perhaps even other countries and regions, providing yet another opportunity to seriously expand your intellectual and interpersonal horizons.
Fifth, join student organizations and clubs to connect with not only fellow current students but also past members and alumni. Because you share a club and passion in common, it is much easier to find empathetic mentors. Also, don’t underestimate the power of finding a mentor that’s only a junior and/or senior, or even your own age. You can be inspired by anybody from anywhere: I personally have a lot of mentors and role models who are younger than me, even if they don’t know it (I just don’t tell them 😉), so don’t let experience and years in college or the workforce necessarily hold you back.
Finally, get involved with community work. Many working professionals spend their free time volunteering. This is their passion - and ostensibly speaking, it’s yours too. And again, because you share something meaningful in common, you will be able to build an amazing, genuine relationship built on common interests and shared passions. Note: please don’t do community service just to network. Kudos to you for really getting out there and grinding, but volunteer because it is something you are passionate about, whether that’s teaching English to refugee students in Oakland to providing fresh, healthy produce under Black Earth Farms. Chat with fellow volunteers, and get to learn about their lives and stories. Who knows - you may find someone in a space you’ve never even heard about. And you may just fall in love with what that person does. You never know.
How Should You Prepare?
Along our quest for the infinity stones of networking, we’ve come across the what, the why, the who, and the where. Unfortunately, for my pop culture metaphor to work, we would need ‘six’ elements, so bear with me as we move into the fifth and final part in our adventure: the how. How should you prepare for your coffee chats, and what do you need beforehand to succeed?
First, you’ll need to prepare research and conduct your due diligence.
Read career literature, trade publications, company information, and biographical information (if relevant). Find out as much about the individual, the company, and career field as possible before you meet. It’s better to use your contact as a resource for specific data (re: their stories, experiences, and pathways) rather than basics information you can find with a Google search).
Read journals and newsletters - I recommend The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Morning Brew, and Blogging by Bryan 😉 - to have a strong understanding of the industry your contact is working in. In fact, I highly recommend doing so if you’re a junior and above, and especially if you are beginning to cement your professional interests, goals, and ambitions and know what you want to do. If you’re a freshman or sophomore, this action is optional, but highly helpful, in your job and internship search.
Avoid questions that can be answered with a simple "Yes" or "No." Also avoid questions that can be answered by the internet. That’s what this research is for!
Next, you’ll need to come up with good, insightful questions that lead to an engaging and mutually entertaining conversation. Think about what you hope to learn, and develop questions that will elicit that information. Write a list before you begin to contact others in order to help you prepare. Questions you may want to ask include:
A detailed description of the job: What challenges, rewards, or frustrations have you encountered? How do you typically spend your time on the job? What kinds of decisions do you make? What does a typical day look like? What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started this job?
Desirable skills, education, and experience: What training or experience is required? What did you do in preparation for entering the field? What courses could I take, skills should I possess, or internship experience might be valuable for me if I decide to enter the field?
Career paths and advancement: What are your career goals? What kinds of opportunities do you see this job preparing you for? Why this job or company?
Lifestyle implications of the work (e.g. travel, hours, pressure, flexibility, salary/benefits, family policy, security, etc. ): it’s acceptable (and recommended) to ask about what range of salaries one can expect to receive upon entering. But do NOT ask how much money the contact makes personally.
Work environment: physical setting, people (colleagues and/or clients), organizational structure and culture. How does this job fit into the department's/ organization's structure? How does this department work with others, and which ones? How is performance measured?
Current industry issues and dynamics: What trends or changes are occurring in this field? Have these changes affected pathways into the industry? If so, in what ways? Why? How?
As you can see, the best kinds of questions are questions that are focused on the individual. You’re not asking the company for its fancy half-minute talking points - that’s what information sessions and career fairs are for.
You’re here for the individual - for their story, their experiences, and their insights. And by actively listening to the individual, they will not only appreciate your earnestness but they will also reciprocate and share unto you valuable lessons and candid conversations about the nature of the work, firm, and lifestyle.
Of course, you shouldn’t enter a coffee chat reading off a script. Come prepared with questions, and then be prepared to ask follow-up questions and adapt to the natural flow of the conversation. You two may veer off your intended path, but honestly: spontaneity is the spice of life. And you’ll find your chat all the more rich for it.
So, when you’ve prepared what kinds of questions you want to ask and are ready to begin coffee chatting, you can use the following template to format your LinkedIn connection request (299 character limit, be concise!) or email (<500 characters):
Hi <Alumni Name>,
I’m a fellow <University> <Student/Alum> and came across your profile. I really admire your career journey since college, and was wondering if you would be willing to chat <over phone/in person>? If you are unable to, however, I more than understand.
Thank you so much, and <Generic College Phrase, like GO BEARS>!
<First Name Last Name>
Maintaining Your Relationships
But wait, there’s more!
As they say, it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. And by the proverbial fat lady, I mean your relationship with your contact should never be over.
Assuming you two hit it off very well, you should keep in contact and update him/her on your milestones, achievements, and internship/job progress. They will love that you are staying in contact, because there are few things in life more rewarding than to see the people you’ve helped succeed and kill the game. That’s hype.
So do your new friend a favor, and chat with them from time to time. Here is a very simple spreadsheet I made with Google Sheets that essentially formats your contacts into neat columns and rows. Feel free to copy and paste and/or build upon this template, and use it to organize and manage your contacts and maintain valuable relationships with connections, friends, and mentors. I even included a formula and conditional formatting clause that highlights a contact red if you’ve spent more than 6 months without contacting them. This helps you prioritize who to contact, which can be helpful if you are maintaining a particularly hefty network.
We’re nearing the finish line for this post, so let’s finish strong with a set of some best practices to keep in mind:
Always be professional, courteous, and considerate before, during, and after your meeting. Be mindful of the time, and generally keep the conversation between a minimum of 20 minutes to a maximum of 35. Some may be willing to chat longer, but in general most people expect coffee chats to be ~ half an hour.
Most people enjoy the chance to tell you about their own careers and activities. So actively listen and learn from their stories, insights, and words of wisdom. Engage in conversation, not a script.
Be well prepared for each conversation. Develop a list of questions ahead of time, but don’t be afraid to extemporaneously dig deeper into areas of personal interest.
Be gracious. Appreciate the time and effort of your contacts and send a thank you note or email within ~24 hours of your conversation.
Stay in touch. Update your contact when you hit significant professional and academic milestones, especially if you feel you two are close enough.
Ask for the names of their friends, colleagues, and contacts in the field. This should be your last question. This demonstrates interest, and will it allow you to engage with more relevant connections and set up future coffee chats.
DO NOT ask for a job or a referral. If they are comfortable enough, they will offer you a referral. If they don’t, don’t push for one. In fact, most of the time, coffee chats don’t end with a referral. And that’s a-okay. Referrals are a sign of trust; do you think you could trust somebody after just meeting them once? Continually staying in touch with each other, over an extended period of time, and reaching out for multiple coffee chats is a tried-and-true method of landing a referral. So if you don’t get it the first try, don’t be afraid to try again!
Give back. Know enough about the people you meet to keep their needs in mind as you continue to meet people. You may be able to pass on ideas, articles, and contacts that will interest them. You can do this during a coffee chat, and you can just as well do it after.
And below are some optional best practices to keep in the back of your mind. I say optional because some of these are, well, optional. While the above points are a MUST for each and every coffee chat you have, the ones below are made viable based on the situation, environment, and person you’re talking to. Some contacts - especially senior ones - are a bit more traditional and will act so. They will expect a copy of your resume in hand, and may even review it with you. Others may be strict about the time and cut you off (note: this is not necessarily a bad thing, they have to cut you off because they suddenly got pulled into an emergency work meeting, or because they’re running a very tight schedule), while some might dedicate an entire hour just for you. That being said, keep these on the back-burner as you prepare for your coffee chats:
Email to confirm the meeting a day ahead, and arrive a little early so you can experience the work environment and relax before your appointment.
Write and take notes on what you have learned immediately after the meeting.
Be sensitive to nonverbal clues that it is time to end the meeting.
Bring a copy of your resume along to the meeting ( as a way of presenting yourself and your background, not trying to obtain a job).
Ask the contact to review your resume with you. Ask for advice on how to best present yourself, what skills may need refining, which areas need attention or development to best qualify you for that field. Also be sure to ask for advice or other experience/knowledge needed for the field.
Offer to pay if you’ve gone out for lunch or coffee for your meeting (re: “He or she who invites offers to pay”). But accept graciously if he or she insists on paying. This will most likely be the case, since you are a student and they are a full-time working professional.
Networking is as rewarding and inspiring as it is challenging and exhausting. It can open the door to amazing opportunities - internships and jobs, yes, but also friendships that can last a lifetime. But it requires extreme focus, dedication, and hard work. It can be nerve-wracking and exhausting, and you can be cold contacting hundreds and hundreds of alumni and individuals to no avail. It 100% sucks to give it your all, only to be ghosted by walls of one-sided emails and LinkedIn DM’s.
But don’t give up.
All you need is one person to respond. All you need is one person to listen. All you need is one person to give you a chance.
And all you need is to be ready when that happens.
If you’re a non-believer: from one non-believer to another, trust me. It will get better. And maybe that starts with contacting and coffee chatting me.
Good luck with everything, and stay healthy + happy y'all! You GOT this.