Alumni can be some of your most valuable job search networking contacts, but only if you utilize them effectively.
Unfortunately, most candidates have the goal of an introduction ... and it's usually the wrong goal. When you pick an alumni networking goal that's achievable (one that is in the contact's power to deliver) and that delivers maximum impact to your job search, alumni can be a huge help to your efforts.
The strategy of alumni networking wasn't always so important. When there were candidate shortages prior to 2007, most companies had written or unwritten policies to give a guaranteed interview to anyone who came through a company employee from anywhere within the organization. Pre-2007, when so many employers had guaranteed interview policies, it didn't matter how you networked because volume of networking was more important — it was literally just a random numbers game.
Fast forward to today's job market, where "spray and pray" doesn't work. Today's effective alumni networking techniques are far more focused, with specific targets, goals and actions. When you learn how to leverage them in the right way, alumni networking contacts can represent tremendous inroads into employers.
5 Best Practices to Use When Networking With Alumni
- Find the right alumni: Use alumni networks to gain information or access to hiring managers in departments of your target companies to give you the widest reach. Too often, job seekers use their alumni networks to try to directly reach hiring managers and HR managers. Contacting HR managers is not the best use of networking efforts, since their job is to keep candidates away from the hiring manager — they're gatekeepers who may not have good information about the hiring manager's real problems. If you're looking for hiring managers in your alumni directory, you'll limit the reach of your networking. Alumni directories only list limited numbers of hiring managers in your area, representing a small number of companies, even in huge schools with large alumni networks. By combining your alumni directory and Linkedin into your networking research, you can find exponentially more alumni who can lead you to the right person.
- Ask for information: Reach alumni who can provide company/department/hiring manager inside information. Why would you ask these valuable contacts about what jobs are open when you can find that on the company's Web site? Instead of asking for something your fellow alum probably can't provide (a job), ask for something they can provide that's far more valuable to you — information. Most candidates don't have a clear idea what you really need in order to be ready to meet a hiring manager (besides just a positive attitude). To make your best first impression, you need to be ready by already knowing what's on the hiring manager's mind, and what the biggest problems, most difficult obstacles, greatest opportunities and priorities are.
- Build bridges: The right alumni to reach are often ones who aren't easy to contact because they're busy people. Find alumni (often outside your target company) who know and can lead you to someone else within the company that can provide inside information. Of course this information isn't listed in your alumni directory — this will take some digging and groundwork using Linkedin and (gasp!) your phone.
- Have an alum vouch for you: Vouching can be one of the most valuable ways a fellow alum can assist your job search. When you're trying to reach a contact within your target hiring organization, it's tough to build trust because you're a stranger. We've been taught not to trust strangers from when we were young children, so why would you expect adults to suddenly act differently? Vouching changes this because when a common acquaintance tells your company contact that you're OK, that you're trustworthy, the walls come down and, usually, quick trust is built.
- Get an introduction to hiring managers: While most job seekers make this the most immediate alumni networking goal, it should be one of the last. At this point, most of you are asking "why?" Most candidates rush to set up sessions with hiring managers prematurely, before they are ready. You only get one chance to make a first impression ... why would you want to put yourself in that situation before you have the necessary information to wow the hiring manager (see #2 above). Only after you understand the hiring manager's most pressing issues are you ready for an introduction. Once you've prepared in this way, you'll give the hiring manager two main impressions: That you've already solved his/her most important problems, and that you're somehow a mind reader.
Alumni networking can be one of your best networking opportunities — it's important to know how to maximize the effectiveness of these opportunities. You may be tempted to go in for the quick kill, immediately asking for a job or to be introduced to the hiring manager. It's not your fault — job search used to be easy. When there were candidate shortages, you could make all sorts of mistakes and still land a good job in a reasonable timeframe. Businesses from the 1940's until 2007 faced slow growth unless they could find reasonably qualified candidates ... the businesses who could find candidates would grow, while those who were too picky would stagnate. A market with job shortages changes what works and what doesn't.
So be careful in how you network with alumni, so you make the most of this valuable resource and create the maximum help for your job search.