Many transitioning veterans find themselves invited to networking events. These are often in anonymous hotels, with recruiters in attendance, and mediocre finger food. They may seem archaic, desperate and uncomfortable, but if you get that one contact or that one piece of good advice, it could turn a stagnant job search around 180 degrees. Just remember to avoid these five common mistakes.
1. Networking exclusively online. Veterans especially prefer to do all their networking (and applying) online. The fact that many transitioning service members have deployed, or at least been stationed somewhere far from home, is partially to blame. You learn to make do with video chats, social media and email when you’re far from home.
But there’s no substitute for meeting someone face-to-face. It may be unpleasant to drag yourself to networking events — dressing up, bringing cards, mentally preparing for a whole afternoon (or evening) of small talk — but remember that it’s a lot harder to be rejected face-to-face. A potential contact may ignore your connection request on LinkedIn or your email, but it’s hard to avoid looking you in the face and shaking your hand in person.
And you’d be surprised at how much you stand out as a veteran. You’ll look more cleaned up than many civilians if you treat your suit as a uniform and you shave. You’ll likely stand straighter when you talk to people and be naturally more courteous. Your military bearing makes the kind of first impression that cannot be translated online.
2. Expecting instant feedback. One thing about networking is that it takes time. The ugly fact is that only very few of the people you meet will become or remain contacts. As a transitioning veteran, you may feel a lot of pressure to lock down a job, and that can make you easily frustrated spending time and effort for so little apparent reward. “I should be applying for jobs,” you’ll think. Or you’ll glom onto the one person who you think will help you, and look desperate.
The benefits of networking appear slowly. The first thing you’ll notice is that, if you listen, you will learn a lot of “lingo” and interesting facts about a variety of professions. Paying attention to these “cultural details” can help you de-militarize your resume and interview, learn about new jobs that you can pursue and prepare for more direct research about the jobs for which you do apply. The second thing you’ll notice is that you’ll be able to name-drop people and companies. The first time you meet someone in a particular industry, you’ll likely only be able to ask something like “Tell me about this job.” Later, you’ll be able to speak with familiarity about products, services, companies and even people in that same industry. All of this helps a conversation turn into a meaningful contact.
3. Failing to project a personal brand. The thing about networks is that the more contacts you have, the stronger and more helpful your network will be. A good network is a bunch of people who know you, and when they happen to talk about you, like when a potential employer asks what his network thinks of you, they all tell the same story (Read: Personal Branding, and Why It’s Important).
It’s key that you present yourself as the same person to everyone you meet when it comes to networking. And more importantly, you should strive to present something that sticks — something other professionals will remember. A big part of your brand will probably be your military service.
A note about personal branding: it isn’t about faking. A personal brand isn’t something you build in response to what you think others want to see. If you do that, others will spot your lies from a mile away. Good personal branding is always true. It’s your true history, your true values, your true interests and your true skills. What makes it a “brand” is that you’ve packaged it for easy consumption. When you have a personal brand down, you’ll communicate it in a few short words and make it stick with the listener.
4. Being vague. Networking isn’t like the movies. Nobody is going to listen to some important-sounding core values and sea stories you tell, then immediately offer you an awesome job. Good contacts will want to know what you can offer, specifically. Specific skills, experiences and characteristics. What’s bad: “I want to go back to school. Something in business.” This is vague and could mean anything. What’s better: “I strongly believe in good products, which means good quality control. I did that in the military, and I’d like to do that in the civilian world. I’d also like to go to school to learn quality systems.”
The reason why that second phrase is better is that it initiates conversation. Whoever hears it can ask you about your work in the military, your thoughts on certain jobs in the civilian world and what schools you want to attend. Also, it invites the listener’s opinions on what you’ve talked about. It starts a conversation. And it doesn’t have to be your life’s dream, just pick something that interests you, research it enough to be specific and bring it to the networking event. Maybe you’ll find out it is your dream; maybe you’ll learn about something that becomes your dream later on.
5. Failing to follow through. This always starts with a simple thank you. Every conversation you have, at every networking event, remember to thank the other person for their time. If it was a friendly conversation, it can be a casual “thanks.” If it was more in-depth about opportunities and advice, it should be heartfelt. You want to make sure you leave every interaction positively.
The second element of follow-through is dropping a note to potential contacts and mentors. This is best done via email (which you should have if you’ve exchanged cards). This is certainly not necessary for people you only briefly met, but if you struck up a friendship or got some good advice, sending an email a day or two later opens the door for them to reach out to you with opportunities.
Finally, if you promised to do something – like send an article, or provide more information, or talk to a third party (when someone says, “contact so-and-so and mention me”) – make sure you do it. If you don’t, your potential contact will almost certainly find out about it, and they’ll feel rejected. At that point, they’re probably no longer your contact and you’ve wasted an opportunity.