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  • Writer's pictureKrista Wise

Are You Up for a Networking Challenge?

Enjoy this article written by Ray A. Smith, a staff reporter with the WSJ careers and work bureau.

Build Your ‘Strong’ List

In our personal lives, we have contacts, and we have emergency contacts. Our work lives should include both, too. Think of the latter as a list of professional Samaritans you can call when you need urgent advice, job leads or referrals—and fast. Who could help if you were suddenly laid off, and get results?

As a longtime print-media journalist, I’ve faced potential layoffs more times than I want to remember. I wish I could say I had a professional emergency-contacts list every time, but I’d be lying.

Once, when I actually was laid off, I contacted my old boss from the very job I had quit to join the company that was letting me go. We had a friendly relationship, and he did offer to help. But my email was a desperate SOS, not a thoughtfully considered ask. What’s more, I only asked about potential jobs at my old company, even though I was looking to do something different, somewhere else. I ended up with an offer to take my old job, the one that had burned me out.

The experience was a big lesson in the importance of widening my network and my ask. (Oh, and fortunately I landed another opportunity through a college friend who had heard what happened—a friend I didn’t even think to ask for help.)

Your “strong” list is a strategic network of professional emergency contacts who can help open doors to a range of opportunities and can use their own networks to amplify yours. Think of it as a tree with lots of sturdy branches—senior people in your field, the people in your industry who seem to know everyone else, a recruiter or headhunter, former bosses, colleagues and classmates.

During another layoff scare years later, I planted seeds with a wider array of people. I let colleagues and contacts know I was open to opportunities, whether at a media outlet, publishing house, consumer brand or a public-relations agency. At my own employer, I reached out to a senior manager I had become friendly with because of our shared interest in jazz.

Tapping a variety of go-to contacts—including people outside my immediate circle and profession—gave me perspective and options. While I didn’t get laid off, I now know exactly which people to call should that or another career emergency arise.

Now let’s create your professional emergency contact list.

The Challenge

Step 1:

Identify your inner power circle

Grab a piece of paper and pen and set a timer for five minutes. OK, go: Imagine that you’ve just learned your job is on the chopping block. Write down the names of six to eight people you would email first for help.

Try not to overthink it or worry about what you’d say. After all, you just have five minutes. You can use your phone’s contact list, your email inbox or your Rolodex. Don’t use Google: These are the folks who know you well—close colleagues, former co-workers, mentors or known connectors in your circle.

Focus your list on the half-dozen or so who are enthusiastic networkers: the people who talk to a lot of other people and have a proven track record delivering good intel on industry developments.

On my list were all people I reflexively knew would lend a sympathetic ear, and I’d have no qualms asking them to tap their own networks on my behalf.

Step 2:

Let’s find the influencers

Once you’ve got your core list of friendly, go-to connections, it’s time to think more strategically. Set the timer again, now for 10 minutes. Pick six to eight influential people you don’t communicate with on a regular basis but had a good rapport with in the past—a college professor, the colleague who left your company for another venture or industry, the most interesting person you met at that last networking event, an ex-coworker or acquaintance who made a leap similar to the one you theoretically face.

Take a little more time to craft this list, since you want to include people beyond your comfort zone or outside your immediate professional tribe. This may include someone you’ve never emailed before or people you haven’t talked to in years.

Step 3:

Go for the gusto

Now it’s time to get ambitious. Set your timer for another 10 minutes. On a third sheet of paper, write the names of four to six higher-level professionals with the ability to open the right doors, or to get you to someone who can. They’re people you know or can develop a relationship with, even if it takes some plotting.

This list might include a fast-rising manager you befriended because you have shared interests. The former boss of your boss. The senior executive who commented on your LinkedIn post.

Step 4:

Mind the gaps

It’s time to return to your original list from Step 1. What kind of people are missing? Does your inner power circle lack a connector? A headhunter? A senior executive whose introduction opens doors? Now go to your lists in Step 2 and 3 and identify people in those groups who should really be on your strong list. Start making plans to get in touch.

Pro tip: Don't Sweat It.

Right now, it’s just a list—so don’t be afraid to aim high. But if the thought of cultivating a senior-level contact is daunting, keep in mind that this person may not be sought out for career help as often as you think, Yale’s Dr. King says. In other words, it’s an opportunity to stand out.


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