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If you dread the idea of professional networking, you might want to set up a meeting with Marcia Ballinger.
A former Capella University student and instructor, Ballinger is the co-founder of the Minneapolis-based executive search firm Ballinger-Leafblad and the author of The 20-Minute Networking Meeting, a guide to getting a job through networking. Ballinger says a few simple principles can help almost anyone—including recent graduates—get over the nervousness that comes with initiating and conducting a networking meeting.
She believes the most effective networking meetings are all about efficiency. “20 minutes is all you need to have a really phenomenal networking meeting. Not 25. Not 45. Definitely not an hour,” Ballinger says. “Shaking hands, saying hello, introducing yourself, and asking a couple of questions does not take an hour. You can accomplish that in 20 minutes.”
So what’s the best way to land a 20-minute meeting and make a memorable impression? Ballinger offers these tips:
Once you’ve decided on the kind of job you hope to have, get the word out about your intentions. Let former coworkers, neighbors, friends, members of your faith community or bowling league, and even extended family know about your search. Ask for their help in identifying people you should meet. “Most of us get jobs through our third ring,” Ballinger says. “Our friends and family connect us with a second ring of people, who ultimately lead us to friends and acquaintances we never even knew.”
Contact the person via email or phone and introduce yourself. Establish the mutual connection (“Your former coworker Jean is my neighbor” or “I understand that you and my friend Keith went to business school together”) and clearly state your wish to have a networking meeting. “Telling them you just need 20 minutes makes it seem like a small investment,” Ballinger says.
Networking is like gambling—it’s all about playing the odds. You won’t get everyone to respond, but the more people you reach out to and the more follow-up you do, the more likely it is that you’ll get some sort of response. Busy people may not respond to your first email, but Ballinger says you should give it a couple of tries.
Plan out how you intend to use the time. Here’s what Ballinger recommends: Introduce yourself and what you’re looking for in just a few words, then switch to some questions that indicate you’ve done your homework and know a little about the person and his or her business. Keep things to 20 minutes—even if the interviewee insists on giving you more time, Ballinger says, “At most, stay 30 minutes.” Don’t be abrupt, but respect their time and you will make an impression. “Make them wish they had more time with you,” Ballinger says.
Send a thank-you note to the person you’ve met with, prompting them to connect you with anyone they mentioned during the meeting. Also don’t forget to send a note to the person who led you to that contact. He or she will be impressed that you followed through and will be much more willing to offer additional assistance.
Finally, Ballinger says, remember that the point of the meeting is simple: introduce yourself, learn a little, and leave a good impression so you’ll be remembered if an opportunity arises. “People tend to talk about themselves,” Ballinger says. “I tell job seekers, ‘Keep the chat about yourself to one minute and then start asking questions. You’re there to learn.’”
The Capella Career Center offers networking tips, job search tools, career counseling, and more. Its mission is to empower students and alumni to proactively manage their careers and make meaningful, and effective, career decisions.