A student in my flagship program, Break Into Development, recently completed the full program.
In Break Into Development, I don’t talk about “networking”.
That’s always felt like a foreign concept to me.
I’m definitely among the introverts in the sector – and always found it hard to fulfill what everyone describes as “networking”: like there is a magic sequence of words that will land you a dream job in global development.
Now, knowing people is IMMENSELY useful in growing you global development impact career.
It can lead to opportunities, new insights, and fresh ideas.
But make no mistake, even if I have received a few assignments because I know people…
If I wasn’t the most qualified person applying – I would NOT get hired.
In fact, the times in my experience that I most relied on contacts for a job – I was out-competed by others. When I focused on “networking” too much, I missed something important about the job, the ToR, and in demonstrating to the hiring managers what I could bring to the work.
The true value of “networking” in global development becomes easier to see when you shift those terms and reframe your approach.
“Authentic relationship building”—that is key.
It means you don’t only build or maintain contacts as a transaction to make: You give me this, I give you that.
The reality of human relations is far richer – and our careers are stronger for embracing a more nuanced approach.
Authentic relationship building centers on learning. Build a relationship with a contact – and learn from them, as much as you can aim to bring value to their learning as well.
My Break Into Development student shared:
“Unfortunately, my personal experience and conviction is that networking – or building authentic relationships rather – is a huge part of the game. It is especially so, if you do not have a particularly strong CV or are trying to get your foot in the door. I have literally been advised by the HR division of the UN organization I was working at that I need to step up my networking game if I intend to grow. There are even official training sessions held specifically on networking (I attended once. You sort of map out your contacts, events, etc.).”
All agreed – authentic relationship building is a master accelerator for your career. She continues:
“I do like your advice on building relationships and agree with 99%, but I still think it warrants a great deal of attention. You definitely do have to compete for staff positions, but you are far more competitive if you already have UN (or similar) experience, and to get that experience you usually need the right connections that are willing to take a chance on you and offer you unadvertised assignments.”
The right connections + your preparation + your communicating your value + the right timing = new opportunities
But how do you manage your relationships in a genuine and authentic way that leads to a breakthrough career?
My Break Into Development student reached out and asked:
“Do you think you could share one or two samples of how you would go about or what you think is the most effective way of reaching out to contacts?”
Here’s what I shared back with her – detailing specific strategies, tactics and scripts – on how exactly you can use authentic relationship building to accelerate your career.
When it comes to building authentic relationships, let’s start by looking at two situations.
1. When you know people.
Of course, it’s generally easier to connect with people with whom you are already connected.
These are colleagues you work with now or have worked with in the past. But these can also be former classmates from your degrees, people you met at a conference or workshop, or people who know people you know.
It’s important to keep wide open eyes on each of these groups – because you really never know where people will end up!
My general approach has been to always KEEP IN TOUCH.
People move on to new assignments. They go to new countries or start to work on new issues.
Use your connections to learn about those issues.
And to see how you can add value to their careers.
Over the years, I will make sure to write my professional connections at least 1-2 times a year just to say hi.
My focus is always on learning more about THEM.
For example, if I see they changed their jobs on LinkedIn – I will make a note of that, and follow-up with them in 3- or 6-months to see how they like it.
** CONSTANT CONNECTING SCRIPT **
It’s great to connect with you again since the last time we worked together in Kabul!
I saw you recently moved to UNFPA in Laos. I know they have been going through a lot of new changes with the implementation of the new RC system.
Just like you used to say in our conversations, that change will have a heavy short-term cost in getting things done. When do you think it will payoff?
How are things going there for you? Would love to hear how it is!
Because I know them, I’m looking to continue a conversation with them.
As development professionals – we tend to be pretty excited and passionate about talking about the ISSUES and the PROBLEMS.
So in my email to them, I recall back to some ideas of interest to them – and try to take the conversation forward to see what they think now.
Then I also bring in some of the problems in the work – because let’s face it: we often enjoy nothing more than to discuss what’s wrong and how we think we can fix it.
Take note: I wouldn’t write them just as they start the job – because you can be sure they will be busy. But writing them in 3- or 6-months gives them time to settle, learn the new job, and get ready to actually share something that may be useful for them to discuss – whether the job meets their expectations or not.
You will see, no where am I asking about a job or even talking about MYSELF.
I am collecting more information that can prove invaluable in my career.
I am trying to learn more about:
- the organization and country they are now in;
- a really important issue affecting the UN system; and
- about this person and what their changing interests might be.
In time, when the right opportunity comes up – I can use this information in countless ways, or even directly get an offer from this contact.
This takes time and is no magic solution. That is why I always say it’s about authentic relationship building rather than “networking” – but it’s the main way connections can pay off in global development.
Ok, so much for when you actually know people already. What about when you need a connection from scratch?
Let’s turn to this situation now.
2. When you don’t know people.
Throughout each of my jobs, I would receive several times a week a message from someone ASKING FOR A JOB.
This would often be friends of friends, connections on LinkedIn, or students at schools that I graduated from.
Usually their emails or LinkedIn messages look something like this:
*** BAD NETWORKING BUT ALL TOO COMMON SCRIPT **
Dear Mr. Kuonqui,
I am a senior at Vassar College studying international relations and economics.
I have a strong interest in working for the United Nations. I am currently finishing my thesis on the crisis in Syria and how different international theories have approached the problem.
I would like to work on issues of human rights and monitoring of peace.
Since starting my studies, I have been passionate about working for the UN and want to start a career working internationally.
I saw through the alumni network that you work for the UN.
I wanted to ask if I could have a call with you to discuss if there are any opportunities with your organization. I would be glad to start as an intern and build my career from there.
My cell phone is 12345 and I would be glad to speak anytime that is convenient for you.
Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you.
That’s basically the kind of emails we all get from people we don’t know.
If I had time, I would respond politely that I don’t have a job for them.
But most often, I just don’t have enough time during the day to get in touch with everyone who writes asking for work in this way.
The problem with this type of email is…
You didn’t build a connection with me!
It is usually “I-driven” – they want to tell me about THEIR interests, what THEY studied and what THEIR passions are.
Go back and read the email again – and you will see how nearly every sentence starts with “I”. This is a serious problem.
Build a relationship instead by getting to know me and finding those points of connection that will add value to a mutual conversation on the issues shaping our careers.
Here’s a sample email taking a different approach.
*** BETTER AUTHENTIC RELATIONSHIP BUILDING SCRIPT ***
Dear Mr. Kuonqui,
I saw that you graduated from Vassar and studied international politics. I am currently a student with Professor X, who recommended to me that I write to you.
I was excited to learn you work for the United Nations and have experience in women, peace and security issues, and have worked internationally in many contexts.
How did you use your Vassar education to get started working on these issues?
I would enjoy the opportunity to learn more about your work through a brief call.
I have also been studying the latest literature on the situation in South Sudan and can share more about this research and potential ideas for what the UN can do.
I could be available at the following times:
– Tuesday at x
– Wednesday at y
– Friday at z
Would one of those times work for you?
Let’s look at what’s different.
First of all, the second person put in a lot more effort to look into my background, learn what I studied and to know some of the specific issues I worked on at the UN.
They got to know me and my interests.
It wasn’t just a “Hey, you work at the UN – give me a job!” (I promise you, that is how most “networking” really feels for the person on the receiving end.)
Instead, this person found hooks in my background and areas of interest and connected to those.
Secondly, the person mentions something in common.
Aside from also sharing a connection by studying at the same school, the person went one step further to find a mutual connection. They had to invest the time to find out about this mutual contact, speak with them about me, and to make the connection clear to me.
Then, they asked me a direct question that was INTERESTING to me.
Of course, I would LOVE to talk about my thoughts on how my academic studies helped me – or didn’t help me, as the case may be – in pursuing my professional work.
Then they had a clear “call to action”: their request as to what they wanted me to do.
Whereas the first person expressed that they wanted a job from me…
The second person expressed that they wanted to learn more about MY WORK.
But not only that…
They took a good guess at what I might find useful that they could contribute to the conversation.
For one, they found a country situation that I have invested a lot of time in working on: South Sudan.
That means they did their research and saw that I worked there twice and have publications on issues there.
As opposed to the first email, I have never worked on Syria, so while I may have an interest like many other development professionals, the connection is just not as strong to grab my attention.
Then they tease my interest by sharing something of value to me — saving me time in reading the latest academic research on South Sudan or at least telling me about something new that I likely haven’t considered.
Finally, they gave me a few options to choose from in scheduling the call. This makes it easy for me to actually take the action they want me to take.
Common to both: connecting on the ideas.
The trick is always to lead the connection with building value – and NEVER let it be about finding work.
Do your homework on the person – whether you know them or not.
Understand what makes them tick, what they find interesting, and then make connections to those issues.
Make the extra effort to learn more about them, their work and what they would get value from. Then GIVE it to them.
But above all, practice this over time.
There is no single formula or magic words to say.
Using these principles on how to connect with professionals in global development will give you the chance to LEARN more about the sector first, and then see how you can use it in your own career.
Use and modify those sample scripts – but most critically, understand what works better than other approaches and why, so that you can adapt it to the contact and start building those connections that can pay off faster.
What are your key lessons in building authentic relationships in global development? Let me know in the comments!