Talent, hard work, and showing up will only get you so far in your career. At some point, you’re going to have to network. You could say it’s no party, but sometimes that’s exactly what it is—mixing it up socially or attending an awkward (or, worse, shark-ish) gathering of people all looking for a leg up on the competition.
It may be excruciating at times, but networking can make all the difference, whether it’s because a new acquaintance puts in a good word for you or because someone alerts you to a job opening (only half of which are ever advertised in public, according to one study).
The money incentive here is huge: getting good jobs early in your career gives you a launching pad for higher subsequent earnings—the same reason why experts always advise negotiating salary, even in your first job.
Read next: 10 Ways to Network Like a Boss
But networking isn’t easy, and people botch it all the time, choosing the wrong venue—or the wrong people—to try to promote their career agenda. When it comes to outreach, it pays to be intentional, even in casual situations.
Let’s start with people. Who do you know who could conceivably help you in your industry of choice? One popular tactic is to start close to home, with friends and family. Make a list of everyone in your inner circle who might be able to offer useful advice or make introductions to others in your desired field.
Then widen the circle to include friends of friends, acquaintances, and co-workers. (Here are great tips for networking with colleagues.) You’d be surprised by how much mileage you can get by simply walking around your floor, says career expert (and MONEY columnist) Caroline Ceniza-Levine. Get acquainted with people outside your usual departmental group. That way, when future projects require diverse skill sets, you’ll have established connections in other parts of the company.
Moving out still further, LinkedIn and alumni groups are another great place to connect. But instead of just trolling for contacts and asking for favors, Ceniza-Levine suggests, make contributions that will help raise your profile and build your reputation. Post an article or make a comment that highlights your interests or expertise.
Directly contacting people you may not know is the next step, and it involves a delicate balance of finesse and bluntness. Keeping your ask small lowers someone’s barrier to helping you; if it’s no skin off their back, your chances of getting a yes are higher. In the past few years there has been a minor backlash against requests to “pick your brain” or “meet for coffee” with a career focus (some people have even charged for their time), so if that’s your approach, be sure to offer to pay for the coffee. And whatever you do, don’t forget to say thank you.
Have a question, comment, or suggestion? Email us at [email protected].