How to build a career network you didn’t know you had

By Julie Wilson

If you’re like many long-time members of the U.S. Armed Forces, your connections consist of your buddies from basic training or the tight-knit unit you were deployed with, along with friends and family back home. But when the time comes to embark on a civilian career, you need to look beyond your comfort zone to create a strong career network that will help you land your dream job.

Getting started

According to Hallie Crawford, founder of career coaching services company, your network often consists of your immediate social circle of your friends and family, but you need to think bigger than that. “Expand your reach beyond what you would normally,” she advises.

“My network includes all my old flying buddies in the airlines,” says Randy Gibb, Ph.D, and retired U.S. Air Force colonel. When he decided to retire after 26 years of service and pursue a career in higher education, he knew he had to cast his net wider. After taking advantage of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP) for veterans, Gibb had a resume that would make sense to the civilians who would be hiring, as well as a clear vision for the kind of career he wanted. Then he began to seek out leaders in his target industries and fields to learn more.

Unexpected connections

Career networking websites like LinkedIn, professional association meetings and friends of friends and family members were an obvious way for Gibb to make new connections, but he soon learned that opportunities to expand his network could be found anywhere.

His most fruitful contact? The mother of a child who attends his daughter’s preschool. He noticed her email signature on a message she sent to his wife about a gathering for the moms at the school.

For weeks he deliberated about whether or not to contact her. On the one hand, she held a key position in his desired industry. On the other, he wasn’t sure it was appropriate to contact someone he didn’t know at his child’s school with a networking request. “I wrestled with myself to get the nerve to email this person out of the blue,” he remembers. “She wrote back immediately and wanted to help, and then I kicked myself for waiting.” Gibb ended up landing a dream job as a result of reaching out.

For Crawford, this is an outcome she sees repeated over and over for her clients, who have found leads and jobs through people they have met at weddings, parties and their children’s daycare center.

She says that networking can happen anywhere as long as you’re open to it. “Go through your week,” she suggests. “Where are the places you go, what are the things that you do, and how are any of them possible opportunities?”

Be prepared

All the opportunities in the world won’t make a difference if you’re not prepared to seize them, cautions Crawford. She advises her job-seeking clients to always have business cards handy and to have their elevator speech prepared so they can quickly explain who they are, what they are looking for and what they bring to the table. “Don’t be shy,” she says. “Be assertive and proactive, yet professional—not pushy. Assume that people want to help.”

Gibb can attest to this. “Don’t hesitate to ask for help,” he says. “Everybody at some point had somebody help them out, and everybody wants to pay it forward.” ★



Who’s in your network?

Chances are you have a network you don’t even consider. Your network isn’t associated only with your military job or connections. Think of all the ways you interact with people each and every day. Your personal relationships with friends, family, colleagues, and others you meet in informal gatherings can also be great resources.

Many activities you engage in each week are potential networking opportunities.

  • Joining friends for dinner
  • Family gatherings
  • Volunteering for a community organization
  • Attending a social club
  • Church services
  • Meeting with neighbors
  • Posting on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn
  • Reading or sending emails
  • Attending professional meetings, conferences, or conventions
  • Speaking with your children’s teachers, coaches or friends
  • Visiting with other parents during your child’s sporting, school or music events
  • Taking a class
  • Working out at the gym
  • Striking up a conversation at a doctor appointment, restaurant, on an airplane

Above all, remember that you are networking everyday, not only when you are searching for a job.

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