This marks a new chapter in my articles, a contribution by a guest writer. I have known Jordan Corn for many years. He, like me, spent many a night and weekend doing improv. He’s also an IT person. Also worked (works) for AAA. However, he’s a far better musician and quicker on the wit than I ever was. He was able to get along with people with whom I never could. And his advice was always measured and well-reasoned.
Anyway, when I found myself in search of my next occupation, Jordan reached out to me, and was supportive and helpful, as you’d might except from a kind human being. He forwarded me something he had written when he, himself moved on from a long-term engagement. I found what he had written to be useful and pertinent, so I asked him if I could republish it. I also asked him to please write a forward for it, which he graciously did. So please enjoy this diversion from what The Monkey customarily writes.
About a dozen years ago, I was called to a “quick meeting” in a conference room I had never seen. My sixth sense was tingling, and for about the only time in my life, it was 100% accurate. To this day, I don’t know how I figured it out, but I was there to learn I was being separated after 23 years of a successful career. I had worked in chemical process automation, quickly rose to managing a group charged with automating a global business’s manufacturing sites, later managed the company’s plant-floor Y2K program, then drove a knowledge management effort, and was now in enterprise IT architecture and strategy. My resume read like a textbook from the era.
Thanks to that sixth sense, I was one of the few people who wasn’t utterly shocked by what transpired in that “quick meeting”.
For weeks and months afterward, people at my now-former company would reach out to see how I was doing. Their outreach overlapped with the network I was building as I moved forward and met different people. I came to realize that talking to them was very different from talking to my newer contacts. This awareness prompted me to document the three types of transitional networking in which I was engaged. To this day, I believe the model I discovered helped me put the past in perspective and accelerate my forward progress.
Three Kinds of Transitional Networking
Career coaches heavily – and rightly! – coach professionals on the value of networking in order to land their next job. So, upon the loss of a job, it is natural for a professional to embark on a personal networking campaign. Unfortunately, the guidance on productive networking is spotty, and its successful execution is rare. In part, productive networking is difficult because we generally tend to be more comfortable around people we know, and find expanding our network to be a challenge. Compounding this is the fact that employees in transition are emotionally wounded, and do not wish to appear as needy.
If you are an employee in transition, an effective networking model should successfully balance your needs for comfort, emotional support, and productivity. It should provide opportunities for connection, catharsis, grief, personal development and growth, and, of course, employment. The three-tier model described here meets all of these requirements, and provides a mechanism to actively manage – or at a minimum, to be aware of – time spent in different forms of networking.
It is important to keep in mind that this is only a model, and as such, it is not perfect. Activities that appear to fit into one classification in the model may turn out to cross lines, or be entirely misplaced. Some activities may not seem to fit the model at all, or their fit may be apparent only in retrospect. However, this model is useful in allowing you to observe and govern your own behavior in the quest for forward motion.
“Backward Networking” is the act of connecting, staying connected, or reconnecting with employees in the place the professional has just left. Wanting to do so is often a natural reaction to the loss of a job. Typically, you are given a number of weeks’ notice before termination. During your final weeks, you may spend significant time in the office, perhaps seeking employment elsewhere in the company, and in all likelihood, receiving emotional support – or at least friendly inquiries – from coworkers.
Upon termination, it feels natural to continue these relationships. These people are seen as friends, and continuing to network with them offers a sense of continuity in a harshly changed world. They offer an ongoing view of what is happening in the organization, and may even offer leads. There is comfort in associating with them, a sense of connectivity to the past, and they’re generally easily accessible. Early association with them is emotionally healthy.
As time passes, however, you should come to realize that there is limited – and diminishing – value in maintaining these backward connections. As you move forward in your job search, much of what individuals at your former company have to say will seem unimportant, and will in fact be counterproductive. Much of what they want to do is to commiserate. Many of them are looking for a progress report; they want to know how you’re doing. Some of them live in fear that they too will lose their jobs, and they are seeking to understand the transition process and its impact. And, in all fairness, some of them do in fact simply miss you and want to stay connected. So there is a strong possibility that you will continue to receive invitations from them.
As these invitations arise, or as you ponder the prospect of a lonely day and consider contacting someone from your former place of employment, consider the value in it for you. Commiserating about your former organization and management is comforting, but after a point, it provides you with little value. Progress reports are useful, but to those who receive them, not to you. Furthermore, progress reports are risky. There may be people in your former organization whom you do not want to update on your progress, and once you’ve started updating former colleagues, you cannot control how that information is disseminated. Explaining the transition process and its impact to former colleagues is likewise helpful to them, but likely only minimally to you. The only real value, then, in maintaining these connections is social.
This is not to suggest that you should completely avoid networking with your former colleagues; only that you understand that you’re doing it entirely for social reasons, and to have little expectation of a return on the investment of time, other than immediate gratification. So network with your former colleagues, but with several caveats:
- Recognize that it will not advance your search
- Recognize that you are doing it for social reasons only
- Limit the amount of time you spend on it! …and…
- Exercise caution in what you report to your former colleagues
In its most basic form, lateral networking is exactly what it sounds like – that is, networking with people who, like you, are in transition. People in transition can come from any number of places. They can be colleagues who were dismissed when you were. They can be people you meet at professional associations, job fairs, etc. You might meet them in career networking groups, or via e-mail lists.
People in transition are excellent networking colleagues, for a number of reasons. First, and perhaps foremost, they are going through exactly what you are experiencing. This makes them prime – and much safer – candidates for commiserating, swapping stories, and sharing learning. Second, they are on the lookout for job leads. Therefore, they may be aware of opportunities which you have yet to encounter. Third – and this is especially true if they do not come from your previous organization – they know people who you don’t. This can make them excellent sources of contacts in companies you may be targeting, contacts with recruiters you have yet to meet, etc.
People in transition can do far more than find you contacts. They are excellent sources of feedback on resumes, cover letters, references, job applications, etc. They are good sounding boards, too; once they know you, they can offer you significant advice on how to advance your search, what avenues might be wise to consider, and where you might be wasting your time. They will usually do this both constructively and sympathetically, as they are in the same position you are.
Much has been written lately about the benefits of job hunting in groups, which is of course an activity ideally suited to people in transition. Among these benefits are having someone to ask questions of a potential employer that you as a candidate do not want to ask, strongly targeted leads, and the ability to effectively attend multiple networking events simultaneously.
There is also enormous emotional reward in interacting with people in transition. They understand what you are experiencing, and can be truly sympathetic. You will want to reciprocate the help they offer you. You will find doing so to be truly uplifting, both for the impact it has on those you are helping, and for the feeling of worth it provides to you.
People in transition are excellent antidotes to the lonely days you will likely face during your transition. With a broad enough network of them, you should have little trouble finding someone to talk to, have lunch with, or plan an outing with, whether it be to a job fair or the local coffee shop. Be warned, though; when your colleagues in transition find jobs, you are likely to experience an emotional setback. Just remember when that happens that your newly-landed friend may be able to help you find a job in his or her new organization. And remember too that there are always more people entering transition, many of whom would benefit from your experience, and many of whom can open new doors for you.
It is important to recognize the role of people from your organization who lost their jobs when you lost yours. While these people can be excellent lateral networking contacts, you need to ensure that your connections with them don’t take on too many elements of backward networking. Just as with your backward networking contacts, reminiscing about the past and complaining about your former employer is of limited value.
Lateral networking can extend beyond people in transition. A broader definition of lateral networking is interacting with people who may (or may not) be able to help you move forward, or whom you may (or may not) be able to help. This broader definition would include:
- Recruiters who might or might not be aware of opportunities for you
- People currently employed at other organizations (including your former company) who you know are job-hunting
- People in professional associations who might be able to connect you with leads
Forward networking is the act of connecting with people who are likely to move your search along. Clearly, these are the people with whom you want to spend as much of your time as possible, or as much of your time as possible seeking.
The most obvious forward networking contacts include hiring managers and interviewers, HR staff at companies at which you are pursuing leads, and recruiters who have approached you with definite leads. These individuals are clear gatekeepers as you approach specific jobs, and so must be treated differently than either your lateral- or backward-networking contacts.
There are other, less obvious people who fit the criteria of forward contacts. You likely have friends or acquaintances who can either help you network into their companies, or perhaps even hire you. You may be connected to these people in any of an infinite number of ways – they might be neighbors, fellow volunteers, members of professional organizations to which you belong, members of your religious organization, former coworkers, etc.
You already know how to behave among the gatekeepers – attentiveness, a positive, can-do attitude, and a blend of assertiveness, humility, and curiosity are essential. In dealing with these individuals, you cannot complain about the past, commiserate, or have down days. While the less obvious forward contacts rarely are immediate gatekeepers, you must treat them as if they are. By default, you should view every forward connection you make as an interview. While most of your contacts will not be as formal or intimidating as a panel interview, it is crucial to assume that each person with whom you forward-network is judging you as a potential candidate. This is true regardless of whether your contact is as simple as a casual e-mail request, or as involved as an office visit and lunch.
Finding forward contacts is a matter of talking to people. Your lateral contacts are an excellent starting point. Job postings often provide contacts. Beyond that, the most effective way to find contacts is to be clear that you are job hunting, without appearing needy. Don’t hesitate to let friends, neighbors, fellow congregants, and professional colleagues know you’re looking. They will suggest contacts to you. You may even make a few useful forward connections through your backward contacts, but approach these by initiating targeted requests (i.e. “Bill, I recall that you used to buy from GreatCo. As I recall, Joe was your salesman there, wasn’t he? I’d appreciate it if you could provide me with his contact information.”) rather than as part of general networking.
Spend as much time as you can finding and connecting with forward contacts, but remember, when you’re exhausted, having a bad day, or have simply run out of ideas, to go back and connect with your lateral contacts to get re-energized.
The Blur Between Lateral and Forward Networking
There is clearly a gray area between lateral and forward networking. Some people you think are lateral contacts will turn out to be forward contacts. Some people who start as lateral contacts may become forward contacts. Some people who you think are forward contacts may lose their status as you learn more about them, or if their position changes. Here are some guidelines for dealing with the blur between these two classes of people:
- Assume that anyone you meet who is working for a company that might hire you is a forward contact, until you have reason to believe otherwise. Therefore, do not assume you can safely commiserate with them. After all, you cannot control what they may say to a potential gatekeeper who asks about you, so why give them anything negative to relate?
- Similarly, approach people who are in transition cautiously – do not simply assume that because they are in transition, they are lateral contacts. Use your early interactions with them to determine their role.
- Take care in dealing with lateral contacts who have landed, and therefore have potentially become forward contacts. It is quite possible that you have shared more with these people than you would with other forward contacts. The good news is that since they shared an experience with you, they are likely to be significantly more forgiving of your grievances than other forward contacts would be. However, once they become forward contacts, you should shift your attitude in dealing with them, and look to other lateral contacts for commiseration.