How to Network With People You Don’t Know and Get the Job You Want
A step-by-step methodology to take control of your job search and uncover opportunities you’d otherwise miss
In my professional life, I wear different but complementary hats. I am a headhunter, an associate professor of career strategy at IE Business School, and an executive coach. And in all of my roles, I continue to accumulate experience working with both students and executives who are looking for a new professional challenge, or transitioning to a new role.
From a personal perspective, I am also lucky to have experienced similar transitions first hand, through a non-linear 20-year career in professional car racing, investment banking, and entrepreneurship.
When dealing with professional change, effective networking is the #1 most impactful action. And the more challenging the move, the more critical the role of networking is in securing the outcome.
Personal Contact Matters Now More Than Ever
Today, information is available on a global scale. Submitting your CV online to a company with an open process is only the beginning. The only way to beat the competition is to pair process with action and to network your way to decision makers.
This applies to accomplished professionals too. In my coaching practice, personal branding and marketing are critical areas of development for high-potential executives who are working on their biggest professional goals yet. Doing your job and just hoping it will get noticed is no longer an effective strategy. Most times, you need to make sure it gets noticed.
Despite the fact that it’s absolutely essential, reaching out to people we don’t know remains the toughest high-impact action for most people to take.
Why? Because we all have a psychological barrier when it comes to networking with those people. If you are someone in need, talking to someone with the power to make your day can be nerve-wracking.
Putting This Framework to The Test
Over the past two months, I have worked with many Masters in Finance (MiF) and MBA candidates on their approach to cold networking. Their professional background is diverse, ranging from no experience or some internships to 7 years of professional experience.
What they all have in common, regardless of experience, is how out-of-depth they feel when reaching out to people they don’t know.
- Most of them reported feeling like they were wasting the other person’s time;
- They felt out of control in the conversation, and often fell into the classic “nothing else to say, so what next?” trap;
- They were looking for a system they could script, one that motivated people to be helpful, but that also presented them as thoughtful and caring (instead of “needy”).
Based on these challenges, we put together a simple process that has helped these students network effectively to secure an offer.
This process removes anxiety, allows you to regain control of the conversation, and helps focus on volume and quality of interactions—not on getting immediate results out of each chat.
Let’s dive in!
Step 1: Mapping Your Network
Before we launch our outbound effort, it is imperative to map who we will be targeting. You may be reaching out to 4 different kinds of people, depending on how accessible they may be:
- People you know: family, friends, and referrals
- People you just met (through networking events, etc.)
- People you don’t know, but with whom you have elements in common (university, school, town, etc.)
- People you don’t know, and with whom you have nothing in common
Interacting with people you know (1) is relatively straightforward. The problem comes when seeking to follow up with people we have recently met (2), or when establishing a relationship with people we don’t know yet (3 and 4).
We will focus on cases 3 and 4 for the sake of this method, as this works best when there is little to no preexisting relationship. The process aims to convert people in groups 3–4 into people in group 1.
Step 2: Getting People to Talk to You
To get people you don’t know to engage with you, focus on three key aspects:
- Defining an inviting topic of conversation (the “agenda”);
- Crafting a “first move” email or LinkedIn message that gets a reply, and;
- Avoiding typical pitfalls that can put people off.
1. Defining an inviting “topic”
We can think of two agendas when cold-calling or cold-messaging people:
- The “BIG A” or big agenda: “I am looking for a job.”
- The “small a” or small agenda: “I am researching a certain job, a certain firm or a certain division.”
Feel the difference? The first one puts us in a “needy” position. The second one will help with the end goal but comes through more agreeably.
On our first interaction with anyone, we should not go straight to the “BIG A.” If you do, the person you are networking with will feel defensive.
Put yourself in their position. Giving you a bit of my time is ok; asking me to endorse your candidacy by recommending your CV to HR when I don’t know you is a much bigger—and also inappropriate—request.
Focusing on “doing research” puts the other person at ease, helping them focus on what they can legitimately do to be helpful. Don’t underestimate how much people are willing to help others when the opportunity presents itself in the right format.
2. The opening move
Try something like this:
“Hi, my name is Matt and I got your contact through [name/venue/school/reference]. I am interested in investment banking as a career option and I am currently doing some research on corporate finance roles.
Would you have just 7 minutes so that I could ask you 5 questions on the topic? It would really help me to learn more about the industry to develop a career in it when I graduate.”
(Later in this article, you’ll learn all the details on how to define these questions.)
Why does this pitch work?
- You are quoting the exact time the other person will invest in this exercise. Visibility is soothing.
- You are only asking for some information, not action nor endorsement.
- People love to feel relevant and talk about themselves. You are inviting them to do that.
- You have exactly five questions, and it will take only seven minutes? I am curious. People have a thing for exact numbers and a well-constrained process.
- You come across as more thoughtful and considerate, instead of focused on immediate results or “using” the other person.
3. Avoid the typical pitfalls that can put people off
Besides not focusing on the BIG A, there are some no-go areas during your initial interaction. Do NOT do any of the following:
- Send someone your CV before talking to them
- Ask someone to refer to your CV or application when you have not earned the right yet—they are not familiar with you and your work
- Make the conversation all about yourself and what you need
- Expect or press for immediate follow-up or value from the other person
- Ask close-ended (yes or no) questions to the other person
- Come across as needy or boring; instead, strive to be curious and open-minded
- Focus on “selling” yourself
Step 3: Following a Thoughtful Script
We said you would only ask five questions, so here they are:
1. Can you please tell me about yourself and why you chose to do what you did?
You open the conversation by asking the other person about their approach to crafting their career. Why this job? What other options did they consider? What university or degree? This information provides us with input about their decision-making process and intention.
2. Can you tell me about your company and your job, and the day-to-day?
We follow with a question about the job, the industry, the company, or their career projection. We shift from the individual to work itself.
You may have noticed that we are not opening the conversation by talking about ourselves. This is intentional: everyone enjoys talking about themselves, so we use this to get the other person engaged. I call this the “ego” part.
3. What are the things you didn’t know that you didn’t know when you were applying, and when you started (this is, what blind spots did you have when you started that you uncovered over time)?
Once the person is ready, we play an “equalization” game. When anyone is giving you advice, they do so from a “higher up” position. By asking this question, you are forcing the other person to “step down” and think of that time in which they were in your position.
4. How would you approach the next steps in my research, if you were me? (A more direct version of this would be “if I was your brother or sister, what would you recommend I do next?”)
We are now asking the other person to vest themselves emotionally with our process. At this stage, you may get the person to offer their explicit help with your BIG A without you even asking. If you don’t, no worries. They may give you a few useful tips to continue your research anyway.
Questions 3 and 4 are the “empathy” part. We are encouraging the other person to meet us at our level and to invest themselves in our long-term need (BIG A) without even mentioning it. By asking them to recall their own beginnings, they can empathize with you more, and the chances of getting the help you need increase dramatically.
And now, to the closing move:
5. Is there anyone else you could recommend I speak to, in order to continue with my research? Is it ok if I mention you when I reach out to them?
This is the main goal of the call for us. We do not leave the conversation without a new name to continue with our research.
This is key:
- By doing this we are, again, offering the other person to take the initiative and help us beyond the name dropping itself. But even if a name is all we get, that is already a success.
- The idea here is to build a network of interlinked people. At some point, it is likely that we will find someone that either has an opportunity for us or will take the initiative to help us.
- If you get five people to provide you two names each, you can already follow up with ten people you did not know before, already connected to someone you already know. If those ten people do the same for you, you will have a list of 35 connected people in two rounds. You will be building a great network that is leveraging itself at each step.
- If the other person offers to introduce you to their contact, great. But don’t ask for it. Only ask for permission to mention your contact’s name when you reach out to the next person. (You will be able to look the new names up in LinkedIn.)
So, the end-to-end process looks like this:
- Mapping your contacts: approach at least three people at each institution relevant to your recruiting effort.
- Sending your pitch: LinkedIn messaging works great (and you may want to consider paying for premium features for as long as the process goes on).
- Following the script — have it written in front of you. Don’t leave anything to chance.
- Following up with the new names you get from your interactions.
- “Rinse and repeat:” following up with anyone willing to help beyond the initial interaction.
Step 4: Doing The Work
Take some pressure off yourself: most interactions will not yield any direct results. And knowing this beforehand can help us focus on the process, instead of obsessing with the result of each interaction.
In my experience, networking for a job is a 20 to 1 game: 20 interactions will result in 5 meaningful conversations, which will then lead to 1 or 2 individuals doing something tangible to help you. If you are not doing this repeatedly, it is unlikely that, statistically, you will succeed. The volume of interactions is the key.
If getting the job you want is a priority, treat this networking process as a priority, too.
I always ask the following question: how important is getting the job to you? 90% place “getting the offer” at the top of their list.
So then, if this is your top priority, are you blocking out time in your calendar every week that is aligned with the importance of this outcome?
The truth is this: if you are not blocking at least 3–5 hours per week to this process, then getting an offer will be an uphill battle.
How can we link decision-making to the end goal?
By not relying on willpower, but by designing a process. Try blocking predefined slots in your calendar, and treat those as medical appointments. Focus on each day, each interaction, and go through the list. Let the process drive you to the ultimate goal: an offer to do the job you want.
Top 5 Questions Raised by Students Using This Framework
1. “At which point can I talk about myself?”
Probably between Q2 and Q3. Or even better, whenever the other person asks you to do it. At that point, they are ready to listen.
2. “How can I trigger a follow-up interaction?”
You could end wrap up saying — “Would it be ok for me to keep you posted with my progress?” The key thing is to earn the right to follow up.
3. “When is the right time to move from the “small a” (doing my research) to the “BIG A” (getting a job)?”
When you get a hint by the other person, or when you have had a couple of chats, and you feel that they may be supportive. There is no rule for this; you will have to judge the energy of the meeting. Moving people is not an exact science, but an “art”. Rest assured that exposing your contacts to this framework is a great way to open the dialogue.
4. “What if they do not want to give me a name? What if they do not want to help?”
Bad luck; we focus on the next contact. Focus on the process and not on obtaining immediate results. Again, it’s a numbers game. Some people will never help you, no matter what you try. Be at peace with this fact and move on.
5. “I can’t put it in practice if the other person does not agree to get on the phone. What now?”
Good question. It comes down to the selection of your initial batch. You may not know them personally, but you can try and pick people that you have something in common with. It will be easier if you attended their same school or university, or if you share a passion for the same sport. People tend to look for points of reference, so give them one, and the initial approach may prove a lot easier.
Testing The Effectiveness of This Approach
Since any method is judged upon its results, I ran a survey among the students that had worked with me using this approach during the past few months.
In total, 25 individuals contributed with their input — these are the questions surveyed and the aggregated responses:
1. How many people did you contact in your initial effort with this technique (your initial list)?
Respondents reached out to between 5 and 15 people in their initial effort.
2. How many people have you been able to reach, eventually, using this technique?
So far, this framework has allowed students to extend their network, reaching up to 30 people in some cases.
3. In which ways have you adapted this technique to your particular style?
These are a few replies:
- “I tweaked the script slightly to fit it to my personality.”
- “I’ve tried to go from LinkedIn messages to live one-on-one’s as quickly as possible given that I am more comfortable with in-person meetings.”
- “I have started attending networking events and then using this framework with those with whom I have interacted live at the event.”
4. Did the technique make networking easier, make you feel safer, and/or make you feel more in control when reaching out to people you did not previously know?
A “thumbs up” to the effectiveness of this framework when it comes to feeling more in control and getting more out of the interactions with unknown people.
5. Did people become more open and/or more helpful since you started implementing this tactic? Would you recommend this technique to others?
6. If you responded “yes” to the previous questions, can you describe how this technique made networking easier for you?
- “You get a more positive response from people.”
- “Having a template makes everything a lot easier.”
- “It made me realize that cold calling was actually fine.”
- “I discovered how powerful cold calling can be. It wasn’t something I was doing a lot of before.”
- “It allows you to drive the conversation and puts you in control.”
- “It helped me look insightful instead of nervous.”
6. Are you booking time in your calendar for weekly networking?
Those getting better results were those that treated networking as yet another priority in their weekly calendar.
7. How many job interviews did you get since you started implementing this technique?
The jury is still out in terms of final offers (the recruiting season is still ongoing), but candidates applying this framework made noticeable progress.
All respondents progressed to at least one interview after applying this framework; 25% of them got two so far.
Conclusion — A System That Works
This system allows you to leverage your network. Small initial numbers can grow to hundreds of people over a few weeks of consistent work.
By talking to people referred to you by others, you will end up getting out of the established recruiting circuit. You will uncover opportunities that may not be out to the general public. Bear in mind that sometimes people hire people that they know, or that come from trusted sources with robust references.
The scripting helps you take pressure off the immediate result and focus on long-term impact. Desperation and anxiety make for terrible marketing. You will feel secure and in control, allowing you to be your best version when it matters most.
You will come across as someone hirable: thoughtful, with a well-designed process and with a focus on effective execution. All are coveted qualities in any professional role.
Serendipity happens when you leave little to luck — so that luck can come to the rescue when needed. So get on with your goal; stop contemplating your LinkedIn profile, and start making the connections that may change your life forever.