How to Take the Yuck Out of Networking

Veterans network at a job fair.
Hundreds of representatives from businesses small and large attend the 2019 Small Business Forum in the Davidson Center for Space Exploration at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., Oct. 24, 2019. (Stephan Baack/U.S. Army photo)

The one word I consistently hear when speaking to veterans about strategic networking is "yuck."

Service members and veterans tell me that the idea of networking makes them imagine a cheesy television used-car salesman ... or someone who is fake, dishonest, selfish and downright distasteful. And they don't see any value or benefit from having to network with others.

In the civilian sector, networking is a crucial feature of a successful career. We rely on our network to provide us with endorsements, referrals, and insight and information that help us get ahead. Also, networking is reciprocal, meaning the flow of benefits goes both ways.

Here are a couple of examples of networking, which hopefully will make the concept more palatable for you:

1. Fred had about 12 months left in his military commitment when he began networking with professionals in his hometown where he'd return after the Army. At first, he relied on connections and introductions from friends and family. Then he branched out to LinkedIn and "cold-called" contacts who were in the field or company he wanted to pursue. He committed to nurturing this list of new contacts, and when he visited home, he asked to meet for coffee or lunch.

These contacts forwarded Fred leads on jobs, introduced him to others he should talk to and know, and ultimately one of these contacts suggested he replace him in his current job when he retired. The timing was perfect. The contact walked Fred's resume into the human resources office at his company, and Fred was interviewed soon after. Today, Fred is evaluating the offer he received, along with others that grew from his network, which started a year before he left the military.

2. As Melinda considered what to do next after her five years in the Air Force, she was drawn to the idea of business ownership. She didn't know whether she should pursue a franchise option, start a coaching and consulting practice, or dive into opening that restaurant she'd always dreamed of running.

She began reaching out online to entrepreneurs who were also veterans; this proved very fruitful. She introduced herself, stated her interests and scheduled informational interviews. Many of those interviews turned into in-person meetings, while some stayed online.

Over time, Melinda pursued her restaurant and leveraged her network of contacts to help her secure her initial funding, find a lawyer and accountant for the paperwork, market and promote her new business to the community, and connect her with other business owners who could share insight and resources.

In Melinda's view, her network saved her thousands of hours of work, as well as a lot of money. Your network is there to serve you and help you succeed. That's the joy of networking. In return, your network expects something of value, but not of equal nature.

For instance, Melinda's network did not expect her to introduce them to bankers and lawyers; they had those. They wanted the pride in knowing they'd helped a veteran and a budding entrepreneur.

They got satisfaction in seeing her take their advice and succeed. And, perhaps, from time to time, they enjoyed a free cup of coffee at her growing restaurant.

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