Career Advice for New College Grads: Leveraging Your Connections

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time

2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This second post covers the first key career strategy: Leverage your connections.

Leverage Your Connections

When I say “leverage your connections”, I know half of you are about to dose off already, because you think you know what I’m going to say, and it’s all about networking. But you have nothing to worry about. I’m not going to advise you to go to a networking breakfast where you only know two people vaguely, and start working the room. Nor would I suggest doing a mass email to everyone you’ve known since grade school asking them if they know of any available jobs . Leveraging your connections demands a very strategic approach, and it requires that you act authentically. That means not doing anything in your job search that is obviously inconsistent with the way you normally behave.

Now that I’ve hopefully allayed your fears, let’s talk about who or what connections you have. Everyone has two types of connections: I’ll call them the Gold list and the Silver list. People on the gold list are already in your corner. You could call them up even after a long silence, and they’d still be happy to hear from you.

  • parents and relatives
  • school-related: friends from school or elsewhere, professors you really hit it off with, spiritual or career advisors with whom you formed a bond
  • professional-related: colleagues and connections; bosses and former bosses; people you’ve done projects with.

These count, even if the person knew you as a summer employee, intern, or through your campus job
I will guarantee that everyone here has at least a dozen people in the above categories. (And, if you don’t think you have many connections, you still have time to build them. Make it a point to get to know one adult well every semester.)

So who’s on the silver list?

Here’s where your alumni network really comes into play, because alumni from your college or university have a vested interest in your success. If you say you attend Grove City, it’s an automatic calling card for a cup of coffee with someone, or perhaps even an interview.

Apart from alumni, there are also plenty of other people who might go on your silver list, by dint of their being connected to your gold list. There may also be people your past who can come to life as a great connection. Don’t rule anyone out as a silver connection, even if they seem unlikely. The hairdresser in your home town who always asks what you’re up to these days is a perfect example. Barbers and hair stylists often know more what’s going on and who knows who than anyone else. Some of you may remember Ray’s story from Smart Moves. Ray’s the stuntman who got his first stunt opportunity through being alerted to auditions and a contact by his hair stylist.

OK, so you’ve got all these connections; how do you leverage them? Because even though over 50% of jobs come through connections by some estimates, it’s rare that you call someone on your gold list and they just happen to have a fantastic job available to you.

First you have to do some, what I call, “back work”. You have to figure out what you want to do, and create what some people call your “brand”. That means getting involved with social networking.

As a minimum, you need to get a LinkedIn account and develop a strong profile. The wonderful advantage of LinkedIn is that you can present yourself any way that you want, even emphasizing where you want to go, or skills you want to use, even if it’s not evident from your major. LinkedIn is also a place to put a passive message about the fact that you’re seeking a job and what type of job you want.

Many students are not as familiar with LinkedIn as they are with Facebook. You can think of LinkedIn as your professional presence, and that presence will eventually connect you with hundreds or thousands of people. I’ve been actively using LinkedIn for just over a year, and I now have over 700 first level personal connections but over 3 million related contacts. If you plan, it doesn’t take that long to build a network.

Second, consider writing a blog and developing your expertise through a personal website. Simple websites or blogs can be free, using a platform like WordPress. If you’re passionate about something, writing about that passion, and getting others experts to guest blog, is a great way to brand yourself. You can get word out about your blog by using Twitter and sending a tweet every time you submit a new post.

Once you’ve got an online presence, it’s time to Google yourself. What shows up? What do you want to show up that doesn’t? What do you want to try to get taken off? If you Google yourself and the first thing you see is an unprofessional Facebook photo that you put on when you were in high school and you forgot about, it’s time to find a more appropriate image.

Here’s the second piece of back work you need to do: Develop an elevator speech, and an eyeball paragraph: Each do the same thing, one verbally and one in writing. They allow you to explain clearly and concisely what you want to do. Unless you’re starting your own business, you’ll probably never be able to give the whole speech, but it really helps you to focus on the points you want to make in a discussion about your career. The eyeball paragraph is something you can use all the time: it’s a short paragraph that you can send to your connections, allowing them to immediately know why you’re writing and how they might be able to be helpful to you.

So, how do you put this all together to leverage your connections? Pretty much anyone, except your parents, who’s going to help you, is going to want to know how you’ve been spending your time and where your interests lie. Having information on the web helps you quickly and easily answer their questions, while you move on to quickly and succinctly explain how you’d like them to help.

When you really understand where you want to go, you can take advantage of even random connections. Sharon, another person who was profiled in our book, Smart Moves, wanted to switch from being a buyer for a very large apparel store, to writing about fashion. Her ideal employer was Newsday in New York. When she saw a person on the subway wearing a Newsday jacket, she engaged them in conversation about their work, and ended up getting hired as a freelance writer.

Sharon’s situation is actually more common than you think. Leveraging connections usually means finding common ground before you ask for help, and having an idea where you want that conversation to lead.
There are plenty of circumstances in which you can leverage the knowledge and background of your connections through an informational interview:

  • They work in a company or type of company where you want to work
They have insight into the hiring of a particular company
  • They have connections who could help you get in the door for an interview
  • They know what background and qualifications are essential for the work you want to do
They understand the culture of an employer or industry
  • They know where the growth is in the field
  • They can help you fine-tune answers to questions

Never underestimate the power of doing a lot of informational interviewing about a career field before asking someone more directly for help with your career. And before you decide to take out large loans to do a graduate program, find out from as many sources as possible whether further education is necessary right now for the work you want to do. Graduate school as a way to ride out the recession can be a quick way to mounting debt—a strategy not to be undertaken lightly.

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