It's that time of year again! Time for all those holiday get-togethers that come with the holiday season. If you're one of the millions of Americans looking for work, however, you're probably not in much of a celebrating mood. Add to that the recent news that the government won't be extending unemployment benefits, and spreading good cheer at party after party is likely the last thing you want to be doing. For you (and so many others), it's job search crunch time.
Maribeth Kuzmeski stresses that if you're seeking employment or looking to take that next step in your career, this is the year you should focus less on the open bar and those trays of tempting hors d'oeuvres and more on maximizing holiday events to make connections that will land you that great new job.
"The holidays mean plenty of opportunities to meet new and interesting people," says Kuzmeski, author of The Connectors: How the World's Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for Life.
"There's no other time of the year when you'll have so many events to attend that also translate to more opportunities to network! If you go into them armed and ready to make the most of your time with every holiday well-wisher you encounter, you just might walk away with a ton of new job contacts and maybe even an interview."
Kuzmeski is an expert at helping businesses and individuals create strong business relationships that will help them get ahead regardless of their professions.
"Great networkers are capable of leaving something behind with everyone they encounter—a thought, a memory, or a connection. This is exactly what you need to do if you are in the job market this holiday season. You need to make strong connections, become a relationship builder. You want to be the first person who comes to mind when someone in your network hears about a great job opening."
Below Kuzmeski offers advice for how you can network your way to a great new job this holiday season:
Think like an introvert—if you have to go, have a plan. Social events can be nerve-racking, especially when you have so much on the line, as many unemployed partygoers will. But instead of succumbing to your clammy hands and being a wallflower all night, formulate a plan of action ahead of time that will help you make the most of every event. Doing so will ensure that you make all the right connections, and it will help to alleviate all that pre-party social anxiety.
"First, think about which contacts are the most important to you—maybe the HR rep for a company you've been eying is there or maybe there are a few people you want to ask about possible openings at their companies—and make a point to speak to each of them during the event (instead of hiding behind the dessert bar the entire night!)," says Kuzmeski. "Find out who will be attending the event. Do some research online or on social networking sites like LinkedIn to learn about attendees. You may even want to consider asking the host for a guest list. Pick five people with whom you definitely want to speak while you are there, and don't avoid the big names. Make sure you challenge yourself by making an effort to connect with at least one top dog."
Let them do the talking. (You ask the questions!) There's nothing worse than coming away from a great networking opportunity realizing that you never got to the point. For example, maybe you learned a big-time CEO's favorite basketball team, but you have no idea if he is planning on hiring in the new year. As you work the crowds this holiday season, be sure to have more in your arsenal than small talk. Kuzmeski suggests coming up with a list of questions to use on your fellow holiday party guests. Here are a few great ice breakers to get the ball rolling:
Where will you be spending the holidays?
Where did you grow up?
Do you still have family there?
How are your kids?
What are they up to this holiday season?
What do you think about...? (Complete this question with something from current events, your town or city's local news, or a recent event in your industry. Remember, it is always a good idea to avoid topics that can lead to contentious conversations, e.g., religion, politics, etc.)
Once the conversation is flowing freely, then you can move on to the questions that might help you land the new job:
How did your company do this year?
I heard you have a great (fill in your expertise) department. Do you think you will be expanding any time soon?
What's your biggest challenge? (After you hear the answer to this one, if you can, describe how you might be able to help this new contact overcome his challenge.)
"After he answers you, it's always a good idea to follow up with a secondary question that encourages him to tell you more," Kuzmeski adds. "The more he talks and you listen, the more he will like you because you are showing genuine interest in him. Pretty soon, he will be asking you questions, and a valuable business connection will have been made!"
Be prepared to pitch yourself in fifteen seconds. It's no doubt that you have a lot of qualifications and experience. So much that you could probably go on for hours about yourself. But the harsh reality is that no one (except for your mom!) wants to hear that much about your accomplishments. Kuzmeski says that when you're meeting new people at this season's holiday parties, you should resist the urge to start presenting your résumé word-for-word. Instead, prepare a short, fifteen-second elevator pitch that hits on your career high points and top skills. Think about what's unique about what you have done and what will stand out in a room full of people who are also talking about themselves. Be sure that whomever you speak with will still remember you at the end of the night.
"The key to an effective pitch is keeping it short while still including your biggest wins," Kuzmeski explains. "For example, I've had great success with the following pitch about myself: 'Hi! My name is Maribeth Kuzmeski. I own a marketing consulting firm, Red Zone Marketing, which employs seven people who are all focused on helping companies find more business. I've worked with an NBA basketball team, with U.S. senators, financial advisors, and mutual fund companies. I've even closed a sale while upside down in an aerobatic biplane at 3,000 feet above ground.' I find that it is hard for most people to walk away without asking me about that last part or which NBA team or U.S. senators I've worked with. Be creative and think about how you can frame your accomplishments in a way that gets other guests' attention. Once you have their attention, the door is open for you to tell more about yourself, find out more about them, and start connecting your way to a new job."
The party may end, but your connection shouldn't. It's a busy time of year, and if you're meeting tons of people at parties and other networking events, it can be hard to keep track of what you told to whom, who gave you what advice, and whom you agreed to meet with to discuss your qualifications next Monday. Following an event, be proactive. Spend ten minutes cementing your connections by creating a database that allows you to keep track of all the connections you've made. Include reminders to yourself of interesting or remarkable things that people said or that you learned so that you won't forget them and can refer back to them in later conversations. And be sure to use social media to keep in touch.
"Use LinkedIn or other social networking tools to invite your new contacts to connect with you," Kuzmeski says. "Share something the person said to you at the event that you really enjoyed or remind her of a connection point you made. (For example, if you discovered you both like the same sports team, you might say, 'Let's hope the So-and-Sos get a win this weekend!'). If you can, send her something that shows you care about her business. It might be an article about her industry or even a referral for someone you know would benefit from that company's help. Whatever it is, create a course of action that will help you further connect with these important individuals. Soon, they will be seeking you out because you've piqued their interest with the impression you have made!"
Remember, who they know matters too. You're going to meet a ton of people during the holiday season. Some of them will have direct connections to companies you want to work for, but many others will not. Remember, just because "Sam," who manages a small widget-making factory in Reno, isn't going to hire you for his company doesn't mean that he doesn't have a brother-in-law who happens to have a best friend who works at a software company that's hiring.
"The focus of networking should not be on gaining an immediate job offer from the people you network with," says Kuzmeski. "In fact, that tactic almost never works. The goal should, instead, be to build a mutually beneficial relationship with someone who may never even be able to give you a job, but might know someone who can. When you start a conversation with someone, commit. Follow it to its conclusion and you never know what you will find out. Giving up on someone just because you don't think he can help you is the absolute opposite of being a master connector."
Even family functions are networking opportunities. Sometimes the most obvious connections are the ones most easily ignored. Just because a holiday event happens to be a mandatory family meal doesn't mean there's no opportunity for networking. When you are building your network or considering who might be able to lend you a helping hand during your job search, don't forget about the fruit closest to the ground.
"Again, think about the people close to you, who might have huge networks of their own," says Kuzmeski. "For example, maybe your mom is or used to be a teacher. She's had contact with tons of parents over the years who just might be working at a company that could hire you. Or maybe your best friend is in a completely different industry from you, but he has a huge network of friends on Facebook. Maybe your sister-in-law has a client who told her he is desperate for help. You never know how a great opportunity will present itself. Don't count anyone out of your networking efforts, especially those who are the closest to you and therefore the most willing to help."
Give yourself the gift of a professional organization membership. If you've been avoiding joining the association of your profession, there is no better time to make the move than the holidays. First of all, they might be offering a special holiday membership fee. Secondly, what better way to find a job doing what you love to do than by joining a group of like-minded professionals whose employers just might be hiring?
"In order to meet people within your industry this holiday season, add trade shows and seminars to your list of holiday parties," recommends Kuzmeski. "These events and organizations provide great opportunities to help you get your name out in your industry. Again, you might not find someone who is going to hire you on the spot, but you will have the chance to meet people who have the potential to hire you in the future. And while you can't exactly lug a stack of résumés to your wife's work holiday party, you can certainly take hard copies of your résumé and of course business cards to these kinds of events. The more people within your industry or profession who know you the better."
Volunteer. When you think of volunteering, you might not immediately think, Great job finding opportunity , but it actually can be. It's the time of year for tons of holiday parties, but there are also tons of volunteering opportunities that offer a great way to sneak in some networking. For example, if you are in marketing, volunteer to work with a nonprofit and offer to send out a fundraising/marketing piece that will help them tap into people's giving spirit and raise some money for the organization. "There are usually many hands that go into keeping a nonprofit running," says Kuzmeski. "Volunteering provides you the opportunity to meet them. And remember, you don't necessarily have to be doing anything that is connected to your profession. Simply volunteering at a place with a cause you are passionate about will provide you the chance to get in front of a lot of great connectors you might not have met otherwise."
"If being unemployed or just unhappy in your current job has zapped all of the holiday spirit from you, don't throw out those holiday party invitations just yet," says Kuzmeski. "RSVP with a 'yes!' and resolve that you won't leave any event without having made a couple of great new job connections. Approach each party as the first step to getting a job interview. Put yourself out there, make the first move, and be yourself. It is the best way to kick off 2011 sitting in your office at a great new job."
Maribeth Kuzmeski, MBA, is the author of five books, including ...And the Clients Went Wild! How Savvy Professionals Win All the Business They Want.