“Networking” is a fancy buzzword that we all have a love-hate relationship with. We know this is how over 70% of people supposedly get jobs. We know career professionals (like me) advise it. We also know that it can be awkward, scary, and even unproductive.

This is especially true in the Washington, DC Metro area – where “politics” in any form play a huge factor in business and career success.

It’s easy to tell someone, “Oh – you’re looking for a new job! Well go out and network!” Huh? How? Where? What do I say? Should I wear a suit? Do I need an elevator speech prepared verbatim?

To answer these and other pressing questions, I turned to my own valuable connections. I asked 7 savvy professionals who have had networking success in the DMV (that’s District, Maryland, and Virginia; a lovely alternative to the Department of Motor Vehicles) for their insight.

The Networkers

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Janine Finnell, Clean Energy Ambassador; Founder, Leaders in Energy

Mikael Manoukian, Cameraman / Digital Consultant, Ear of the Eye Productions

Maria “Delmy” Vialpando, Founder/Chief Instructor, Healthy Happy Heart CPR Training

Tammy Raabe, Graphic Designer/ Social Media expert; “Rubicat” owner

Shouka Darvishi, Technology Strategy Consultant

Phaedra Brotherton, Principal, Resume & Career Strategies

Sandra “Sandy” Smith, Transition Manager, Arlington Employment Center

10 Best Overall Strategies

Our networking experts felt that a proper mindset is paramount to making and keeping the best connections. Networking is more like farming than hunting (and continues to evolve as-such). Nurturing relationships will, in the end, be more fruitful than a quick attack. The 10 best overall strategies include:

  • Know Yourself.  Before embarking on a strategy or going to networking groups, practice some self-awareness. “How are you best motivated? What are you doing that’s sabotaging your motivation? Answer this before you start meeting people at networking events,” says Delmy. We may not realize how we’re coming across to others, and learning to pay attention to how others experience us can have surprising career benefits. Shouka adds, “The more comfortable I became with myself, the easier my interaction with others were.” Once you know your strengths, weaknesses, and what career you’re looking for, you can begin to search for groups and events that are a good match.
  • In-Person Is Best.  Virtual is great, but in-person usually offers a stronger connection. Janine says, “I always remember one networking/career expert saying that staying at home can often lead to depression and isolation when one is unemployed and to make sure to stay active and engaged.” Tammy and Delmy agree, and advise to always carry business cards. “Most importantly,” Delmy adds, “Be prepared to ask for the business cards of people you meet.”
  • Know Your Audience Like with clothing, “one size fits all” is a myth in networking. Different audiences have different motivations. Thoroughly researching your targeted position and industry, identifying your audience, and developing a strategy to connect with them is vital. As Mikael points out, be prepared to work at this. “Clarifying a target audience to market yourself (or your product or services) is a constant process of refinement and feedback.”
  • Be Strategic “Networking will always be the most successful job seeking strategy because employers are looking for any extra information they can get about quality of candidates”, Sandy points out. Panelists agree that because the DMV is such a competitive marketplace, job seekers who “wait and see” without a proactive, strategic approach to networking will not be successful. This means doing your research and reaching out to ask for an informational interview, if appropriate.
  • Be open to serendipity.  “I accompanied a client by chance to a meeting on the Hill and it developed into a long-term relationship that was very beneficial to my career,” Janine said. “I had another opportunity to write a one-off speech for a client that ended up blossoming into a many-year working relationship.” Tammy shares a similar anecdote: “I just sold an item on Craigslist and had a wonderful conversation with the buyer… who happens to have a daughter-in-law who is a hiring manager at a company that would be a great fit for me!” You never know where your next opportunity will come from.
  • Get a buddy Having a “buddy” to attend events with makes it a lot more comfortable, fun, and valuable, Janine reveals. “Your friend/colleague might run into people they know, and this can help you leverage meeting additional people, especially if you’re on the shy side.” Additionally, by having a supportive friend, you can’t help but spur each other to succeed.
  • Know that others feel awkward too Though it may not be initially obvious, most people feel awkward at events where they don’t know the other attendees. “I found myself at an event like this about a year ago, and was just standing around, trying to look inconspicuous. A friendly woman came up to me and said, ‘I love your shoes!’ We had a great conversation, and she’s become a valuable connection. I’ve since used the ‘compliment’ strategy – with great results – when I’m at an event and notice someone standing alone,” says Edythe. Phaedra cites a similar strategy, “Take the initiative and introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. ‘What brings you here today?’ or ‘Have you been to these events before?’ are low-pressure conversation starters.”
  • Pick yourself up “….because you’re going to get rejected. A lot,” says Tammy. “Thankfully, you’ll get a couple interviews that will also result in rejection, but that’s okay, because throughout all of this, you’ll be keeping your eyes and ears open for avenues and connections that you didn’t see before. Plus you’ll be adaptable and able to imagine yourself in similar – but different – positions than those you’ve applied for.” Phaedra adds that networking is a skill that can be developed with practice. “Start simply, and start slow.”
  • Be nice!  All of our networking experts agree that being likeable is key in networking. Just like in the dating world, desperation and anger aren’t attractive qualities in an employee. Or a network connection. Sandy has an important reminder: “It’s not about you! Networking is about the prospective employer and his or her needs.” Remember, they have their pick of candidates, so it’s important that you set yourself apart with a great impression. Good networking is less about academic credentials and experience and more about likeability.
  • Pay it forward. Showing compassion to others may be the last thing on your mind, especially if you’re the one who is struggling. But don’t write it off just yet. Research shows that people who practice the art of paying it forward are ultimately more successful in their careers, and have a host of added health benefits. Most of all, it just feels good. “I genuinely enjoy connecting with others, listening to their stories and then connecting them to others who would benefit from knowing them,” says Shouka. “This is super powerful because one of the best gifts you can give is a meaningful connection to someone else.”

Best Networking Groups in the DMV

Our panelists believe that groups related to not only your profession and industry, but individual interests are excellent places to connect with others. “It’s very important to make the effort to get involved with group activities,” says Mikael. Meetup.com is a great place to start. But beware: this strategy won’t land you an instant job. It’s more about building a path to long-term career stability.

Additionally, our panelists encouraged job seekers to attend local chapters of their professional organizations, alumni associations, and industry groups to get know others in their field and to interact with leaders. Events at these locations are also resources for informational interviews or volunteer activities. Our panelists’ favorite DMV networking groups include:

  • Women in Technology (WIT). “I met several amazing women with similar experiences who understood my challenges. I was thus open to hear their advice and put great effort into following their suggestions,” says Shouka. “WIT has relationships with several area companies, which gave me a chance to learn about their openings and how my skillset can fit in.”
  • Fairfax Breakfast Club is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs not only grow their businesses, but build relationships with each other. They also hold an annual Business Expo, semi-annual celebrations, and mentoring for new businesses persons.
  • Toastmasters. Delmy is a gold-card member and avid proponent of the communication and leadership skills millions of people have learned through Toastmasters. With 400+ groups in the DMV, job seekers are sure to find one that works for them.
  • Career Network Ministry. This group is highly recommended for job seekers, regardless of religious affiliation. Job postings, mentoring, resume and job search feedback, and social media assistance are just some of the offerings. Every week has a new inspirational speaker, and volunteers who help out are caring and understanding.
  • Leaders in Energy.  Janine started “Leaders” first as a LinkedIn group when she herself transitioned out of the corporate world. Today, it is a learning community with 2000+ members who come together once a month to share best practices and success stories on energy, environmental and sustainability topics.
  • 40Plus of Greater Washington. Founded in 1939, the founders realized that a program combining training, motivation, and support, led by and for unemployed people, would work wonders. That’s still true today.
  • Washington Network Group (WNG). Members are committed to assisting each other navigate networking opportunities in the DMV. The group is composed of 6 roundtables: International, Communications, Government, Technology, Entrepreneur, and Career Development.
  • Project SAVE.  Though this monthly meetup group is designed for recruiters, others can register and attend. This group discusses current recruiting trends, techniques and tools, and challenges with the “on-boarding” and selection process. In doing so, it helps attendees understand the recruiter’s perspective.

Networking Advice for the Unemployed

If you’ve been out of work for longer than you’d like to admit, listen up! Our panelists have all been there and have kindly shared their advice so that you can land the job of your dreams.

Don’t ask outright. “People don’t like to be asked to find a job for you. The best way to approach people is to ask for a chance to learn about what they do and what they like most about their company and work. Then, by sharing stories, we start a connection that can be valuable in the future. This is how I found my mentors, who have been tremendously helpful – and helped me land a great position!”  —Shouka

Use local employment resources. “Tap into your state, county, or city unemployment support services/systems. Not only can these be direct monetary resources (like unemployment benefits), but they probably provide job counseling, resume review, MBTI testing, and interview practice. People who work there know that the process of finding a new job is a job in itself, so treating the process like a job affords the best chances for new and better positions.”  –Mikael

Attend events, seminars, and conferences “You never know when this may open up a door to an unexpected path.”  I remember hearing a speaker on the topic of environmental ‘externalities’ that ended up leading to a research endeavor and many new opportunities.”

Figure out where targeted pools of people who have your ideal job hang out “Once you know who has your ideal job, make contact with that association. Every occupation in this town has a professional association comprised of members who have your targeted job. Figure out how to volunteer if you can’t become a paid member. You can also ask yourself where people with your targeted job might be taking classes. For example, if you’re in transition from private to federal or military HR, you could take a class at Graduate School USA, where certificates are widely valued by federal hiring officials. In addition to the classwork, there are numerous opportunities to connect with other students between and after classes – and everyone will be a federal HR person!” —Sandy

Don’t be a robot at career/job fairs Don’t say, “I’m looking for a job; here’s my resume.”  Approach people at career fairs with sincerity and genuineness, not a canned speech. This shows an interest in the person’s company and will leave a lasting impression. And if you are rejected or not a good fit, ALWAYS follow up with something along the lines of ‘I enjoyed chatting with you. Please keep me in mind for any future openings for which I’d be a better match, and by all means, if you know of anyone in YOUR network who needs a ______, please pass along my information!’” –Tammy

Volunteer.  Did you know that volunteers have a 27 percent higher likelihood of finding a job after being out of work than non-volunteers? There are so many benefits to volunteering, including building social skills and gaining experience. Find a cause you believe in and donate your time. The more satisfying your volunteer experience, the more it will help your career.  –Edythe

Consider your own gig. “Becoming an entrepreneur and creating your own job/business may ultimately be a way to “up-career” (a term I coined when I founded Leaders in Energy) yourself. As the Executive Director, I’ve gained an increasing number of valuable experiences that would not otherwise have been available to me.”  –Janine

Share your knowledge. “Many quieter types who enjoy reading and research have lots of knowledge about things that others would find helpful or interesting. Take advantage of this natural talent by using it to help you connect and follow up with others and build relationships. With social media or even just plain old email, it’s easy to send someone a useful article or link to an interesting video or podcast. This can be done through a social networking site — like LinkedIn or Facebook — or an alumni site or your trade/professional association’s website (which might have a message board or email list to connect members).”—- Phaedra

Get involved.  “Find ‘real-world’ groups that cater to your profession, industry, skills, and interests. Select a few to join, but make the effort to get involved with the group activities so that you can meet people and expand your network.” –Mikael

Many thanks to my valuable connections for sharing your knowledge. There’s no doubt that employing your strategies will be valuable to others who are networking in the DMV.