Debunking the myths that prevent professionals from moving ahead

As a first line manager at Prudential in Atlanta, Gregory Morrison made sure he never missed the chairman’s annual state of the company address. It was by invitation only for company officers at a location 10 miles from Morrison’s work site, though it was also telecast. Morrison was never invited. But he knew no one was verifying RSVPs. And because of the distance, senior managers at his location would opt to watch it on television. So Morrison would just show up—even coming in from vacation one year—and use the occasion to introduce himself to top-level executives. “I usually had a particular individual that I wanted to meet there and I would find a way to meet him if it meant just walking up, introducing myself, and starting a conversation or cornering them someplace where they couldn’t run.”

There were 100,000 employees at Prudential. Morrison understood the importance of making a personal connection to develop the right relationships.

When Morrison left Prudential in 2000, after 11 years, he had risen to the post of vice president. I got promoted on a very, very rapid schedule,” explains Morrison, 45, who today is chief information officer of Cox Enterprises Inc. “Some of it was merit-based but, quite honestly, I know some of it was because of the relationships. I got the opportunities because I’d already established the relationships.”

Networking has become the nomenclature for the art of developing powerful relationships that move careers forward. Every professional is aware of its importance. After all, 85% of all jobs are secured through networking. But as familiar as it is to everyone in the workforce, it is an underused career enhancement method, due to misconceptions about how to network strategically. Here we talk to experts and professionals who debunk the myths.

Myth #1: It’s all about you.
The most successful professionals view networking as a two-way street. A networking alliance should benefit each party, experts say. In fact, many say it’s better to err on the side of giving more than receiving. “You can’t build your network and always expect to get something,” says Marlon Cousin, managing partner of the Marquin Group, an Atlanta-based executive search firm. “To get something, you give something.”

Morrison concurs: “The best approach from a networking perspective is to ask, ‘What can I do to help you?'” he says. Morrison notes that everyone has something to give, whether it’s time, talent, or performance. But perhaps the most valuable networking currency is information. Morrison didn’t always focus on networking for a job or promotion; often it was for information that could be helpful.

Myth #2: It’s about a party.
Most are familiar with networking “mixers” or, as some recruiters call them, “card parties.” In the midst of drinking and socializing, strategic networking oftentimes gets lost. Though some experts recommend avoiding mixers, others note that networking can be done anywhere. At these events, it’s important to make a connection instead of just socializing.

Indeed, some parties are fertile ground for networking. Attending internal corporate functions can help you raise your corporate profile and bring you into contact with people you might not otherwise have ready access to. Morrison says he would attend retirement parties at Prudential for that reason.

“Especially if they were [for] a senior individual, because I was likely to meet someone I was looking to meet or talk to or follow up with,” he says.

The key to social networking is knowing your goal, figuring out who you need to know to facilitate that goal, and deciding where you’re most likely to find that person, experts say.

In some cases, you can do some homework in advance. If you’re attending a conference or panel discussion and want to approach a particular panelist, research the person. They may have been quoted in an article, compiled a paper, or may presently sit on several boards. Having that information beforehand will make you more confident and conversational in your approach.
Myth #3: It’s is a quick hit.
The most you can hope for at an initial meeting is to make a contact that, with care and time, could blossom into a fruitful relationship. The key is to view networking as a long-term career strategy and to be diligent about following up with contacts.

Always send a note no later than a week after the first exchange. Cousin recommends jotting down some information from your conversation on the back of a contact’s business card to make following up easier and more relative to your initial meeting. Following up should be continuous, he says. The benefit in your meeting may not happen that week, but it may happen six months or a year later.

When Angela Morris, a former human resources professional in banking, was looking to enter diversity recruiting, she contacted a former colleague who was working for her company’s rival, Bank of America, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The colleague passed Morris’ resumé to the hiring manager and, though he had nothing immediately, it was the beginning of a relationship that resulted in Morris being hired as the bank’s diversity recruiter. It didn’t happen right away, but Morris kept in touch through periodic phone calls and e-mails asking how things were going. She was offered a job three months later.

Morrison realized early on that it would take time to build and nurture his relationships, so he has always been methodical in his approach. When he first joined Prudential, he made a list of the few African American executives at the firm, introduced himself, and asked for mentors. “Once they said yes, I had free rein to try to engage them,” he says. Morrison cultivated his relationship with each executive through breakfasts and lunches, e-mails, and phone calls—all while continuing to widen his circle at corporate meetings and other events. He would prepare questions to ask the executives about the challenges of working at the company and how they had become successful. “I wanted them to give me specific advice around something,” he says. “They were all very open.”

Morrison later expanded his initial list by asking those executives to recommend other influential employees and officers at the company. He would solicit specific information about backgrounds, perception, likes, and dislikes—useful information that would help him begin the process again. “By the third time they’d seen me, they’d remember who I was.” When Morrison arrived at Cox, a major media and automotive services company, in 2002, he used the same strategies that worked for him at Prudential. He made a list of “key influencers” he might not see regularly in his day-to-day activities, which included senior executives and those on whom an executive might rely. “Depending on the individual, I have them on a monthly lunch schedule or a quarterly lunch schedule,” he says. Morrison also maintains contacts outside the firm. Compiling a list of CIOs at other Atlanta companies, he has created an informal group that meets several times a year for lunch to exchange experiences.

Myth #4: Only people within your professional or social group can help you.
If you subscribe to this belief, you may already have missed opportunities coming from unexpected places. Those looking for a job or promotion often focus only on hiring managers and executives above their level. But experts say employees should network sideways and down, as well as up. “You just never know where information is going to come from,” notes Larry Hollins of the Hollins Group, an employment recruitment company with offices in Chicago, Atlanta, and New York. In addition, you never know where a former colleague may eventually end up in his or her career.

Lance Coachman, CEO of EXI Inc., an Atlanta-based executive recruitment firm, says many people make the mistake of discounting those whom they consider below their professional level. “Don’t ever blow off the secretaries,” he advises. “They are the greatest source of information of any company.” They also handle the bulk of inter- and intraoffice communications. “Some know the whole historical hierarchy of upper management.” When Coachman started his firm, his best sources of information were a secretary and a shoeshine man in a corporate building in Atlanta, with whom he would chat while he was having his shoes shined. In their conversations, Coachman learned when companies were acquiring new divisions and closing others. “They assumed he didn’t understand what they were talking about,” Coachman says of the executives, “and I didn’t assume he didn’t.”

Randy Latimer, a marketing director with UPS in Atlanta, networks down as well as up. In addition to lunches with colleagues, Latimer, 40, typically has three or four lunch engagements a week with people outside the company. He sees networking as a constant exchange and finds that networking with junior employees provides him with information he might not otherwise have. “[They] are the ones that are actually doing the work on projects I’m close to,” Latimer says. “They can give me added insight about what is going on and at the same time I can give them value in terms of how they should proceed with their career.”

For Dr. Heather Neblett Alexander, a pediatrician in Columbia, Maryland, the road to her new position began with friends from church who owned a business in a building where a new pediatric practice had opened. There wasn’t an opening, but months later she was given the opportunity to meet with another practice, thanks to their referral. Soon after her second meeting—during which she was told the practice wouldn’t be hiring for months—she received an offer. Her advice: “Let people know that you’re looking so they can be your eyes and ears. You never know what contacts people have.”

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