Networking isn't supposed to be difficult. In fact, it should just occur naturally. Think about how your relationship with your best friend or significant other developed. You met somewhere, discovered that you shared a common interest, exchanged contact information, and then hung out again. It just sort of happened. You didn't know it, but you were networking. You connected and developed a mutually beneficial relationship with someone. It wasn't an event that you planned. You didn't get out of bed and say, "today I'm going to make a friend." Networking is something that can happen anywhere. There is no specific time or place. Just like there is no specific time and place to watch your buddy's back while you are overseas. You are continuously doing it.
But let's be honest: networking doesn't come naturally to many people. At first, you may feel like a phony, as if you're trying to suck up to people. You may not like the thought of meeting people just so you can somehow use them to advance your career. Perhaps the words manipulation and coercion come to mind, along with the notion that people who network are people who get ahead because of whothey know, not whatthey know. Could it be that you believe there is something inherently sinister, bad, or unfair about leveraging personal contacts to help you get ahead?
You'll soon figure out that networking isn't about finding opportunities for yourself to get ahead in life. It's about finding opportunities to help others. You want to join as many "squads" as possible rather than trying to find people to join yours. Instead of seeking out and just connecting with people who can somehow advance your career, begin looking for people who you are able to help in some way. Helping others is an inherent trait in most veterans. We don't have to think about it; we just do it. If you think of networking as an opportunity to help others, you will naturally develop a network of people who will also have your back.
Here's another way of looking at the process of networking: if you're a guy and see an attractive woman at a bar, you wouldn't just walk up and ask her to marry you. She'd think you were desperate and it would immediately turn her off. You'd be much better off playing it cool. You want to walk up to someone with confidence, introduce yourself, and begin a simple conversation to see whether there is any chemistry between the two of you. The goal of the conversation is to get the woman's number so you can meet up at a later time, when you have her undivided attention, and can begin to build a relationship.
Networking for professional advancement is the same thing. You wouldn't want to walk right up to someone you didn't know and ask for a job. Just like in dating, there's a courting process involved. When you meet a professional acquaintance, the goal is to obtain that person's contact information, in many cases a business card, so you can follow up at a later date, when you have the person's undivided attention, and can begin to build a professional relationship.
Networking is simply making friends and building trust. That's all it is. If you were given a bunch of free tickets to a Yankees game (okay, some of you would flush them down the toilet, so insert your favorite sports team here), you wouldn't give them away to strangers. You would give them to your friends and family. Why? Because you know that you'd have a good time with them and eventually they'd return the favor. If you gave those tickets to a bunch of strangers, you wouldn't be able to predict whether you'd have a good time or if they'd ever return the favor.
The same thing occurs with professional opportunities. When a manager at Company ABC needs to hire an account executive, he is first going to see who in his professional network may be interested in the job before telling strangers. Why? It's because he already knows and trust the people in his network. Thus, he is able to reasonably predict how well someone will perform in the specific position. It reduces the risk and the cost of hiring an incompetent person, just like bringing your friends to a baseball game reduces the risk of having a bad time.
Networking leads to opportunities that most people wouldn't get. It's having the inside track and the ability to get the full and undivided attention of decision makers. Networking gets your foot in the door. It gets you a solid look and maybe an interview. But remember that it does not get you a job. Do not expect to be given or handed anything just because you know someone. You will still have to make your case, but you've already won half the battle by putting yourself top of mind and in a position to be considered.
Michael Abrams is an Afghanistan veteran and Founder of Four Block, a veteran career development program based in New York. He is the author of Business Networking for Veterans as well as an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University.