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December 14, 2017

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Navigating the Alumni Network

Conventional job search wisdom tells us that between 60 and 80 percent of jobs are found through networking. The newly laid-off and those feeling less secure about their futures are out scouring the woodwork for old school chums, the next door neighbors’ best friend, the fellow who lived above your girlfriend’s apartment five years ago and just about anyone else who appears able to help in the effort of generating job leads and advice.

A new group of networking tools has appeared on the scene, giving job seekers a chance to reconnect with those whom they have worked with in the past and others with whom they never worked. These networking groups, known generically as corporate alumni associations, have sprung up almost without any effort and are growing at a rapid pace, thanks in large part to the ease of connection and communication afforded by the Internet.

Formal company alumni associations have, in fact, been around for a long time – seen first among the large accounting firms and the major consulting firms. These firms understood the tremendous value in keeping in touch with the alumni from the company as these people were often "going places" and would likely have the pull to hire the firm to do work for his or her new firm (McKinsey labels there alumni group as "one of the world's most dynamic professional networks." Since most of these firms practiced an "up or out" policy, requiring associates to advance their careers to the next level of responsibility or move out of the firm, they saw a tremendous amount of turnover that did them little good – in essence, they lost their investment in these individuals, hoping they would remember the firm when the time came, but that could be several years down the road. Thus was born the company alumni association, managed by the firm, with cocktail parties and alumni directories and even help in finding new jobs. In the recent employment markets, firms also used these groups as a fertile ground for convincing "boomerangs" to return to the firm.

The new wave of alumni associations, however, is getting very little support or even sanction from the former employer. These groups have sprung up on their own through Internet chat rooms, through employee discussion sites such as The Vault, through discussion boards about the company’s stock on Raging Bull and Motley Fool, and through unemployed former employees sitting around in a Starbucks trying to build up their networks. Some of the groups are extremely happy about their experiences at the firm, some are looking for someone to gripe to, others are reflecting on a company that doesn't even exist anymore. Some of them try to meet in real time, face-to-face; most simply act as a repository for names, current jobs, stories and a little discussion. The methods vary, but the real value of the network – for employment and business development – is immense.

How can a job seeker take advantage of a company alumni group?

Here are several approaches that can help a job hunter take advantage of the tremendous networking opportunities available through alumni groups:

Find an alumni group from your former employer. Check Corporate Alumni (www.corporatealumni.com) or Yahoo! Groups to see if one exists and then join it. Also see if you can find a group through Google. Ask you human resources group if there is an official or unofficial alumni group.

Start connecting on a personal level first, not a job hunting level. The initial instinct is to spam the list with "I’m looking for a job" messages. Stop before you alienate the whole group. First, find people you know (and hopefully like) and connect. Drop some emails back and forth about what is going on in your lives and in the lives of others you used to work with. These people will figure out pretty quickly you need a job and once you have reestablished your connection, you can ask for leads and contacts.

Understand the dynamics of the group before contacting strangers. Talk to your friends and get a feel for how people interact. Is open networking tolerated, encouraged? Is everyone else in the group also looking for a job? Is connection better by email or phone? Is there an open discussion area where job leads or resumes are posted?

Connect by asking for advice. If the group allows direct connection to other alumni, find those whom you genuinely want to talk to and call or email. As in any other networking, don't go in asking for a job. Ask instead for advice. Target those who can give you insight into companies you are interested in or who work in your field/industry/geography and can help you in your job search in some way. People generally love to feel they are important enough to give their insight into a certain situation and just about everyone has strong opinions and advice they can offer.

Ask lots of questions, but not lots of favors. Don't put people you barely know on the spot, but do ask them all you can about the things you need to know.

Only ask for a meeting if you really think it will be worth it. A meeting is an incredible demand on someone’s time. A phone conversation is a much easier investment to make in someone you barely know. You don’t want to gain the reputation of someone who asks for meetings on the thinnest of rationale.

Get involved with running the group. Most alumni groups are volunteer (often unemployed) run. Volunteer to the organizer to help set up a reunion, put together a group promotional piece, update the web site --- especially something related to your job skills so you get a chance to show off. By being an insider, you can gain greater access to the network and introductions to those who can make a difference.

Promote the group to others. Track down your old coworkers and encourage them to join up. You have an excuse to find them and talk, and you gain points if they find the group useful.

If you don't find a group, start one. With the Internet, creating a group is fairly easy. Groups of former Enron employees sprung up almost within the day of the first layoffs. It's easy to find people and to publicize your group. You will gain exposure, you will get to know who is who outside the company and everyone in the network will end up knowing you as the organizer. There may not be a better way to spend time among the unemployed as helping other people who are in the same boat as you.

School ties may be the strongest (outside of familial ones), but company ties can be pretty robust. The unemployed should take advantage of the company connections as a way to enhance both their job hunt and the skills they maintain as they search for their next opportunity. Alumni groups give job seekers the chance to do both in a fairly encouraging environment.

Joe Goss
Kidder Solutions
josephgoss@msn.com

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