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Strategies for Networking In Nontraditional Settings

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By Kemba J. Dunham
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

From The Wall Street Journal Online

How do you successfully network in a nonnetworking setting without offending people?

In these tough times, some people are using every opportunity to network -- including bachelor parties, weddings and even funerals. With the holidays in full swing, there are even more chances to make a connection. But with plenty of ways to alienate people in these settings, make sure to take a careful approach.

Networkers can help themselves by first trying to find out as much as possible about those who will attend the event. This tactic works for Patrick Uhm. The freelance writer from New York recently attended an event run by a college friend and found out that many people working within the financial-services industry would be in attendance.

"I was then prepared to effectively network, having known something about those that I would potentially meet," he says. Ultimately, "striking up conversations and networking was both easy and fun."

Many professionals don't mind being approached about job opportunities at nonnetworking gatherings. "The economy is horrible and people are having a tough time so I want to help," says Todd Noah, a principal at Rothstein, Kass & Co., an accounting and consulting concern in Roseland, N.J. "I can appreciate people who are aggressive about their career."

A soft-sell approach is key, however, says Ed Kaye, a recruiter at GSP International, an accounting and finance search firm in Woodbridge, N.J. "Ask them what they do, where they work and how they like their job," he says. "They will inevitably ask about you and then you can start talking about your agenda. Make them feel special and the focus of your attention and interest."

Indeed, job seekers shouldn't focus all their time and effort at social events on making career pitches. "People who walk around handing out cards [at parties] are a turnoff," says Elliot Sloane, chief executive of Sloane & Co., a New York financial public-relations firm. "I'd rather just talk about things that interest them, get a sense of what excites them."

He adds that if the conversation has been engaging and there is some shared mutual interest, the networker "will almost always get a 'yes' " if he or she wants to follow up about career advice later.

The networker also should steer clear of talking negatively about his current job situation at a gathering. "Avoid complaints, though people find it cathartic to say, 'My boss did this,' or 'My company did that,' " says William Morin, chief executive of WJM Associates Inc., a New York executive and organizational-development concern. "The whole world smiles with you, but they don't want to cry with you, too."

Certain career coaches say reciprocity is key in these situations. If you meet someone at a social event who offers some assistance with the job search, "it's a good idea to ask, 'What can I do for you?' " says Barbara LaRock, a Reston, Va., career coach. This could involve sending over an article that was discussed or providing information that the contact might find useful, she adds.

And the follow-up is equally as important as the initial contact. Brent Brown, a principal at a Boston private-equity firm, saw an opportunity to chat up a woman working in his industry at a baseball game this year. Her husband happened to work with Mr. Brown's wife, which made the conversation easier.

A casual conversation about his career goals and their shared industry, real estate, took place at the baseball game. Mr. Brown also obtained some names of people to call. He later got in touch with those on the list and also circled back to his initial contact for further insight. "At the game, we spoke about opportunities, but we didn't get into the nitty-gritty until later," he says.

The connection led to his current job.

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