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You're going to like the way you network: Engage, exchange and disengage

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George Zimmer, the gravelly voiced former pitchman for Men's Wearhouse, probably didn't have to network to find employment after he was fired from the company he founded. Mr. “you're-going-to-like-the-way-you-look” Zimmer, who built up his men's clothing empire from one small store in Texas, is widely known … unlike most of us.

Unlike me, anyhow.

"Don't you know anybody else here?"

That's what the nice guy I'd cornered at a networking event asked me. My mistake was assuming that networking was a coffee klatch in business suits.

After that embarrassing episode, I learned how to network and have been asked to share tips with audiences who want to improve their networking. Typically, these audiences are composed of people representing their employers or running their own small businesses.

Then I was tapped to talk about networking to York's Dress for Success: Going Places Network class. The women were all unemployed.

Imagine a networking exchange going something like this:

"Hi, what do you do?"

"I'm unemployed."

"Oh …"

After some minor but crucial tweaks, however, the traditional networking script can work for the unemployed, underemployed and unhappily employed.

Layoffs, firings, downsizing, furloughs, corporate restructuring — no matter the euphemism, they all stink for anyone who suddenly has a new title: nonessential employee. Whereas being let go was a black mark in the past, today there's not as much stigma associated with receiving a pink slip. Smiling and saying something like, "It's more complex than I can explain right now," or "The circumstances changed since I was hired," is sufficient for networking purposes.

Networking shines light on the "hidden job market" that Forbes says accounts for up to 80 percent of hires. Uncovering unadvertised jobs boosts one's chances of finding a position that is a good fit. Before going to the event, networkers set goals that will focus their interactions. A paralegal might want to "get contact information of three people who have connections in legal firms," and an underwriter might want to "set up follow-up conversations with someone in the insurance industry."

Networking is a three-step dance: engage, exchange, disengage.

"Engage" means inserting yourself into someone's space and connecting. Walk toward the target, extend your hand and shake hands while trading names. Asking a question that delves deeper than "how are you?" makes engaging actually engaging.

Try:

"Why did you choose to come to this event?"

"What project are you working on now?"

"What's an ideal client for you?"

These questions go down well, whether you're meeting a person for the first or 50th time.

Exchange: "I'm unemployed. Can you hire me?" probably won't cut it. Use your "elevator speech" or "30-second commercial" and ask your companion to share his or hers.

Here's the abc + d exchange template:

a. Name your main skill or expertise.

b. Mention for whom or on what you use the skill or expertise.

c. State benefits others enjoyed, thanks to you.

d. Ask.

"I'm a human resources specialist networking for opportunities in small to medium-size companies. I keep track of employees, salaries and benefits so businesses can avoid expensive, embarrassing violations of laws and policies. Who do you know that would appreciate meeting someone with my skills and experience?"

The out-of-work networker didn't ask for a job. That puts people on the spot. They might feel awkward or bummed out if they can't offer a position. Pity isn't the emotion networkers want to evoke.

To disengage, the standard, "Nice meeting you," is OK. Introducing the person to someone else, even if you've met that someone else a minute ago is better. Exchanging business cards (unemployed people use name cards with contact info) and agreeing to follow up is best, provided there's mutual interest for reconnecting.

Cultivating professional relationships creates a network of people to go to for fresh ideas, advice, feedback and encouragement as the job search continues and even after being hired or launching your own business.

Beth Fowler, a York SCORE volunteer business mentor, coordinates the organization's Speakers Bureau. Find SCORE chapters at www.SCORE.org. Fowler is also an accredited home stager and proprietor of Home Presentation LLC.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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