Stop looking for a job. Start looking to meet people.

April 29, 2009

Dr. Susan Bernstein[ Ed. note: T his belongs to our series of posts featuring tips for recent grads from LinkedIn users. Dr. Susan Bernstein is an expert on career reinvention and renewal. As the founder of Work from Within , she helps high-achieving professionals to get clear and confident about their career direction through her speaking, writing, and coaching.]

One of the best pieces of career advice I ever received was, “Stop looking for a job. Start looking to meet people.”

During my first year in the MBA program at UC Berkeley, I was at an informal “consumption function,” our ritual Friday afternoon drinking in the courtyard. I met the wife of one of my classmates and discovered that we shared an interest in applying technology to human resources issues. She told me that her group at Intel wanted to assess different technologies, but no one had the time for such analytical work. I suggested an approach to the research, and she said, “Hey, maybe we could make this your summer internship!” I was thrilled. All of Intel’s posted summer internships were in the finance function, so I hadn’t even considered applying to the company. I’d uncovered an unforeseen positive opportunity.

If you’d like to uncover unforeseen positive opportunities for your career, here are some suggestions:

1. Take LinkedIn beyond just an online tool. Set up phone and in-person meetings with people who can be helpful to you. First, do some detailed keyword searches (for example, “HR” and “technology”) and then narrow your results by geography so you find people within reasonable driving distance from your zip code. Then, find those who are most helpful and send them requests to meet for informal phone and in-person (even better) meetings. Tell them about what you share in common and ask if they would be interested in sharing ideas so you make it mutual.

2. Additionally, look at the “Groups and Associations” on the profiles of people you’d like to meet. Find the local chapters of those organizations and attend their meetings, so you get face-to-face contact with real-life people who can talk to you about their work, the industry, the trends, and so on. See and hear and shake hands with actual people, especially in informal settings, so you can share a smile, build trust, and learn things you’d never find out by simply sitting at your computer. I also suggest using and Twitter to find other venues to meet people.

3. Get curious. Instead of asking people, “Do you have a job for me?” ask them “What’s the biggest problem you or your company is facing?” That’s how you start to uncover problems that you might be able to solve. Then you can offer to work on a project that leads to full-time employment. With some people you might not find a problem you can solve for their organization. Still, you’ll learn more about what’s happening in the world. Look for patterns and trends, and envision where your expertise could be useful.

4. Leverage your new contacts. For each new person you meet, ask, “Can you please suggest at least two other people I who could be helpful to me?” Because most people want to be helpful, they almost will almost always share at least one additional contact. Keep following the trail of others who share your interest.

5. Stay in touch. After you meet these people, send a personal note of thanks and personalize a note that invites them to join your LinkedIn network. Post updates on LinkedIn about your discoveries, including links to people you’ve met, companies you’ve discovered, or new products or services you find along the way. Your new (and old) contacts will be able to see your updates and it gives them a reason to stay in touch. And of course, when you land a project or job, send out a big note of thanks and an update on your coordinates to the people who have been helpful to you.

Even today, while I’m self-employed, I still make it a point to meet at least one new person a week -- usually in person, but sometimes by phone. I simply follow my curiosity or my need to learn or discover something new. Over the past five years, I’ve met over 250 new people, many of whom have shared advice, ideas, contacts, and even fantastic friendships. I’m constantly asking about people about the problems they’re facing. The question brings us closer and often opens up opportunities where we both benefit.