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What’s the best way to network in your niche and with experts in your field — but outside your company? How can you find these experienced professionals, and how should you reach out? Can you find a mentor outside your own company? Reader M wonders:
I just landed a job in a field I’m excited to be in, and am looking to make the most out of it. However, I am the only one in my office who is responsible for this specific subject matter. While my managers help me out whenever they can, the only other person who has similar exposure to this type of work is based at our overseas office. There are a number of professionals based in my city who are experts on this particular subject matter, and I would love to meet them and perhaps find a mentor in this field. However, since my office is based a bit outside of the city and I work long hours, I’m not exactly in the position to meet up with someone for a weekday lunch or coffee. How can I start to form relationships with experienced professionals in my field when my only free time is on nights and weekends? There are only a very limited number of conferences and events that I know of, so I thought it might be worthwhile to reach out to someone directly. Thoughts?
What a great idea, Reader M — networking with other people in your niche is going to allow you to accelerate your learning, have someone else to bounce ideas off of, and even give you some visibility in the field and hopefully the means to move to other companies if and when the time is right. Networking when you’re junior takes some finesse, and maybe I’m overcomplicating your particular situation — you can always just call the local experts you know of and ask to take them to breakfast, of course! — but my concern is that a cold call would seem either like you’re job searching, or possibly (depending on the field) like you’re trying to get intel on how Company X does its work so you can copy it for your own company. However it’s interpreted, it might raise eyebrows with the expert you’re calling as well as with your company. (One option that might bypass this: ask your overseas colleague if they have any local-to-you contacts in your field who you should know, or what local groups they recommend joining and who is in charge of them — and then ask if you may reach out using your colleague’s name.) So, instead, my approach would be to focus on getting involved in associations and clubs within your field — this will put you in the right position to meet the experts at an association event. If there are no local events, your involvement in the association still gives you a good reason to reach out to the experts — interview them for the association’s newsletter, or set up a local event yourself. (It also gives you a good reason to leave work early, within reason — having an industry meeting once a month or once a quarter is generally accepted and encouraged by employers. I’ve also mentioned my love of breakfast meetings for networking — it’s often more acceptable to come an hour late to work rather than leave two hours early, but obviously, you have to know your own office here.) SO: Some ideas on how to get involved:
- Use your alumni club if you have a specific degree. First, how did you get hired in the field — do you have a specific degree or experience in the field? Reach out to the alumni club to see about joining or starting an alumni club just for this particular field. If your school alums are spread out around the country or world, you may want to consider starting a Facebook group, Yahoo! listserv, or even a newsletter.
- Use LinkedIn to find clubs or associations that connect people in your field. On LinkedIn, there are two ways to go about this. First, do a search on keywords for your field and see what groups come up. A second — and possibly more effective way of taking this step — might be instead to look up different local people who you KNOW are in your field, and (even if you’re not connected) see what groups and associations they belong to on LinkedIn. Some of these may be national associations; some of them may be local; some of them may be cloud-based groups alone. Join them all and see what the mailings are like and what the opportunities are like. Make it a priority to go to every in-person event you can find, and network, network, network. (You can repeat the exercise with Meetup.com and/or Facebook, depending on your field.)
- Reach out to the leadership of the associations and clubs — the more local the better! — and see what you can do to help. This might involve writing an article; it might involve setting up a monthly networking breakfast — it might even involve setting up a speaker a few times a year for members in your association.
- Look for industry publications. Get on a newsletter for it, a mailing list, or whatever — and keep an eye out for conferences and more in your field. Especially for conferences you have to travel to, pay careful attention to who you recognize at the airport gate on your way back to your town — this is an excellent opportunity to network! “Hey, weren’t you just at Conference X? So was I! No kidding, you work in Town Z? So do I! Great conference, wasn’t it — don’t you wish there were more local get-togethers for people in our field?”
- As you see problems in your field, or questions that you’ve struggled with, consider writing or speaking about the resolution. Odds are good that other people have had this problem, and when you can recognize and successfully solve one problem, you get closer to becoming an expert yourself. (Obviously confidentiality problems may present themselves, depending on what your field is — your loyalty and duty to your employer and clients should be paramount; don’t ever compromise them.)
Readers, what are your thoughts on networking in your field but not your company — how would you go about it without stepping on anyone’s toes? How would you juggle your desire to network with a busy schedule?
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