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A few weeks ago I received an email from the roommate of a friend in my ward. “Hi Melanie, I think we may have met once at my house. I noticed on LinkedIn that you work in career counseling and I was wondering if you would have some time in the next couple weeks that I could ask you a couple questions.” I responded right away, and the next week we sat down in my living room and had a great conversation. Does this sound like networking to you? I hope so.
Too often we associate networking with suits, business cards, strangers, and awkwardness. Thought of in this way, the concept of networking is rarely an appealing one, and yet we hear time and time again about the importance of building and maintaining a professional network. In my research and practice as a career counselor, I’ve come to take a different, more comfortable view of networking, one which is centered on relationships. On a personal level, I’ve had many experiences that have shown me that I can leverage church contacts to aid my own professional development.
Business and management author Dan Pink has written about a recent shift in professional loyalty. Instead of giving our loyalty to one company and relying on our supervisors and superiors to help us move up, today’s workforce reaches horizontally, to colleagues and other contacts, to advance professionally. Because few of us can rely on one employer for long-term professional advancement, our networks are increasingly important. Fortunately, as members of the church, we have access to a wealth of professional diversity within our own wards and branches. A shared membership in the church not only gives us access to professionals with whom we might not otherwise come into contact, it can also provide us with a sense of comfort as we reach out to others. I don’t know that I would have the courage to blindly contact the senior vice president of a large corporation, but I feel completely comfortable starting a conversation with the second counselor in my bishopric.
So how exactly does one network? Most people like to be of assistance, so it’s important to think about asking for things that people can give. For example, over the past few months a number of people have contacted me regarding the field of career counseling. While I haven’t been able to point them toward any immediate job openings, I have been able to answer questions about my own experience and share resources that I’ve used. When approaching someone to ask for help, consider asking for information, advice, and introductions.
Networking works best when it’s based on relationships, which means that both parties are willing to give, as well as receive. However, it can often seem difficult to make a contribution when you’re just starting out in a field. Working on committees, signing up to attend or help out at events, and engaging in volunteer work are all good ways to develop professional relationships while also contributing something. Additionally, because our relationships with church contacts extend beyond the professional sphere, we have opportunities to give back in ways that are not directly connected to professional assistance. For example, if my home teacher provides me with a valuable introduction to a new contact, I may not be able to do the same for him, but I might substitute teach his Sunday School class when he is out of town.
Although networking involves a give and take, it is important to be specific about your needs. When we talk about missionary work, we often use the example of including our Sunday activities when we speak to others about what we did over the weekend, as a way to invite conversation about the church. Similarly, if you’re currently looking for a job or a specific type of assistance, don’t be afraid to communicate that need. For example, if you’re a student, don’t just talk about what you’re studying, tell people what you hope to do with your degree or what company you would like to intern for over the summer. If you are looking to get back into the workforce or to make a change in your current employment situation, find a way to work that information into the “how are you doing?” and “what’s new?” conversations that we tend to have each Sunday. You never know when someone might be able to offer a valuable resource or introduction. It is, of course, important to be sensitive when asking for assistance. Church members are also professionals who need to be mindful of their own responsibilities and reputations. There’s a saying amongst career professionals that “I don’t work harder than my client/student does,” meaning that I’m not going to put in more effort than the job seeker. When you ask for assistance, make sure that you’re looking to supplement your own efforts, not transfer your burden of responsibility onto someone else.
Effective networking – relationship building – is not a one-time event, and it’s not necessarily easy. It requires an investment of time and continual effort. When I speak to students about networking, I’m often asked how to maintain or strengthen professional relationships after an initial contact. I tell them to never underestimate the power of updates. While weekly contact isn’t necessary, sending an email update to a contact every few months can be beneficial. Even something as low-effort as writing LinkedIn or Facebook status updates can help people feel connected to you. Our activities in the church provide us with opportunities to come into contact with each other on a frequent basis. If you receive an interview or a job offer, be sure to share that information (along with your gratitude) to those who have provided you with advice and resources. When you don’t have an immediate need, focus on helping others: provide introductions, pass along relevant articles, and/or make yourself available for informational interviews or mentoring opportunities.
I know that Heavenly Father is concerned with the professional aspects of our lives. Alma counsels us to “cry unto Him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them. Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.”  I believe that Heavenly Father has organized us into local church units so that we can support and serve one another, including in a professional capacity. If approached with sensitivity, we can draw upon our relationships with our brothers and sisters at church to grow professionally.
Last month we challenged you to ask simple, yet different, questions at church to forge potential networking and mentoring opportunities and relationships. How did you do? What were your experiences? And how can you use Melanie’s suggestions to follow-up on those questions and relationships?
 7 ways to build a loyal team. (2010). Retrieved October 1, 2013 from http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-51384194/7-ways-to-build-a-loyal-team/.
 Alma 34:24-25