You know that age-old question about the five people you would most like to invite for dinner? I am still working on my list, but I am certain I want to include Morgan Freeman. Over the holidays, I have used the quiet time to binge more than a few movies on Netflix. One of those movies was a small independent film from 2006 titled 10 Items or Less starring Morgan Freeman. As is often the case with me and movies, I found a job search lesson in the film, in this case, the art of networking.
In the film, Morgan Freeman essentially plays himself as an actor doing character research for an upcoming role as a manager in a grocery store. The premise for the movie is the unlikely friendship he develops with Scarlet (Paz Vega), a young cashier at the store. As the friendship develops, Morgan learns more about her life and helps to coach and mentor her for an upcoming job interview.
Sounds like a light and uplifting move, but what does it have to do with networking? Throughout the movie, in multiple scenes, Morgan Freeman’s character builds new relationships. From his co-star (Scarlet), a store manager, workers at a car wash, to customers at a Target, he is constantly networking, more specifically, engaging and connecting. At one point, when asked to describe his behavior, he says he is a connector. And right there, I understood. I am a connector too!
I am that guy in the grocery store who starts the conversation with the stranger next in the checkout line. The person who engages with the individual on the other side of the counter or the waiter serving our table. It drives my wife crazy, but after 36 years of marriage, she has developed a high tolerance for my inquisitive behavior. Is this practice the same networking technique defined in a traditional job search process? No, but there is an element of my personality, and Morgan Freeman’s character, that is essential to successful networking. And by that, I am referring to networking for your job search, sales, or just general professional advancement.
What is that element?
Intellectual curiosity. The innate desire for knowledge and social engagement.
If you view networking as a transaction or a one-way street, you lose before getting started. In a job search process, transactional networking only moves in one direction and has a lower probability of producing a winning result. I need to meet with Person X to ask for help finding a new position or convince them to help me connect to Person Y. That is the definition of a transaction. Get what you need from the connection and then move on down that one-way street. Would you want to be on the giving end of that transaction? Not me. I have a long list of charitable organizations that I support, but this network meeting is not one of them.
At the core of effective networking are intellectual curiosity and social engagement. Before requesting that connection or scheduling that networking meeting, ask yourself a few questions. Would I want to meet with Person X if I was not seeking a new position or attempting to connect with Person Y? Is there anything of value that I can contribute to the conversation. If the answer is no, hit the brakes and rethink your networking approach.
Instead, ask yourself what can I learn from Person X? What questions do I want to ask this individual to acquire knowledge, stimulate social engagement, and foster an intelligent discussion. For example:
Can you tell me more about your career path, how you advanced to your current position, what challenges you have faced along the way, and what factors and strategies contributed most to your career advancement?
What is your view on Industry Trend A? How are you dealing today with Market Challenge B?
And always, what can I do to help you? This question comes from a networking book that I highly recommend, The 20-Minute Networking Meeting by Nathan A. Perez and Marcia Ballinger. Ask this question, commit to any requested action, and you will be driving on that two-way networking street.
These are only a few examples, but you should see how these types of questions can drive meaningful conversation. The need for connection, social engagement, and intellectual growth is hard-wired into being human. Ask me to talk about myself or discuss important topics, and I am hooked. And that conversation will lead to a memorable networking meeting. Memorable connections are the ones that I will help in the future. The ones who only have their hand out wanting to take, take, take…not so much.
What’s at the top of your list of worst fears? Death, public speaking, or maybe reaching out to and meeting with strangers? For many, the prospect of contacting a stranger to execute a networking “transaction” is the equivalent of listening to your eulogy. Instead, consider your networking request as the desire for knowledge and social engagement. I doubt that you are afraid to go to the library, check out a new book, read it, and then use your newly acquired knowledge to make a difference in the world. Take the same approach and attitude with your approach to networking.
I may never find out if Morgan Freeman would accept my dinner invitation. Perhaps if he knew who the other guests were going to be and what I was serving, he might attend. If he did, I know I would ask many questions and listen with complete attention and focus. And if you ever end up next to me in the checkout line at Wegmans, I apologize in advance for my questions. But it will be great getting to know you and learning from you.
Dan Troup is the author of Selling You: The AdvantEdge Job Search process available through multiple channels in Paperback and eBook formats. He is also the Managing Director of the AdvantEdge Careers coaching service. If you are interested in learning more about how a job search expert and certified career coach can assist you, please contact AdvantEdge Careers for a free initial consultation.