Your Career Network Matters More Than Your Resume


Trying to land a job without a career network is like trying to win a war without an army. But to field the positions that are right for you and your career path, you need an active network that is organized and prioritized to serve you best.

Your Rolodex is Not a Network

Most people have a fuzzy sense of what it means to have a working network of contacts. A network is not simply:

  • Your contact list or address book
  • Your Facebook friends
  • Your former colleagues
  • Your college classmates
  • Your union, guild or professional association

Sure, these are all important people, and many of them could help you get a job.

Yes, taken together, they are part of your overall contacts, but the fact that you know them and that you know how to reach them does not necessarily make them part of an effective career network.

Why Resumes No Longer Cut It

I am constantly amazed at how many people continue to focus on their resumes, and obsess over formatting them and cramming as much content as they can into two pages. While resumes are still an important part of the job search process, they are no longer the primary career tool we should use to get a job.

Submitting resumes is a trap, particularly for older and more experienced workers. Resume submissions at large and small companies are likely scanned by screening software. These scans weed out candidates who do not have the right mix or placement of skills as reflected through keywords included in their resumes.

As a seasoned, strategic, and experienced worker, you are so much more than your skills! Why do you want to work for a company that can only see you through a filter that reduces your value to something as ephemeral as today’s “hot” skill sets?

And let’s say you do get through the obstacles, and your resume does land on a real human recruiter’s desk That recruiter will spend about 7 seconds skimming over your resume to decide whether or not to follow up with you.

The goal of your job search process should be to get above the noise, and figure out a way to stand out from the crowd. You’re not going to do that by joining the onslaught of resume submissions for jobs posted online.

In Flatter Organizations, Hire Who You Know

In any event, by many estimates, only 15- 25% of job openings are filled through resume submissions. The majority of jobs are filled internally, or (and this is key) by referrals.

Especially for jobs that require and benefit from experience, most hiring managers today are going to want to reach out to their established career networks to fill these open positions. They’re going to want to meet people through referrals from friends and colleagues whose judgment they trust.

In an increasingly team-centric work environment, collaboration with co-workers is essential, and agility, responsiveness, and adaptability are more important than ever. A hiring manager is under greater pressure to hire the right people, and that means turning to trusted colleagues to refer the most appropriate candidates who will be sure-fire performers.

Where Your Resume Actually Fits

While your resume no longer gets you in the door, you still need one. It is a valuable record of your accomplishments. A well-organized, readable and properly-drafted resume is a great asset AFTER you have gotten a company’s attention.

At that point, your resume becomes the script that an enthusiastic recruiter or hiring manager will use to promote you and explain your value to the rest of their team – and to the higher-ups who are going to have to approve the decision to hire you.

Your resume is effectively your “leave-behind.” It’s the brochure that can help advertise your value after you’ve had your interview.

How to Activate Your Network

But how do you get into that interview?

If 75-85% of jobs are filled by referrals, you need to be one of those referrals. And the people who are going to refer you need to know you and believe in you. So your task is to make sure that the right people in your network know what you do, understand the value you provide, and are willing to go to bat for you.

That’s what I mean by activating your network.

You need to decide who to focus on and how to interact with them. This takes time to strategize, and you need to figure out who you’re going to prioritize, and how you’re going to interact with them.

Staying on top of your network is a process, it’s not a project. It’s a pump that you need to be constantly priming for it to continue to deliver results.

Always be giving to your career network

Always Be Giving

The most important key to an active career network is that it’s a two-way street. On one hand, you are seeking help from the people who can and will support you. But you also need to support them in whatever they are doing, whether it is achieving milestones along their career path, at their existing job, or in pursuit of a new one.

By giving, you will receive. Just like a good coach for a sports team, the amount of encouragement, expertise, empathy, and insight that you offer to your career network will be returned to you many times over in leads and introductions. In fact, I encourage you to engage with your network primarily as a giver of encouragement, expertise, empathy, insight, support, and information, and only secondarily as a receiver of help (including job referrals).

If you are perceived as someone who is giving of their time and focused on giving back, people will be uplifted and inspired to return the favor when they come across an appropriate lead. When you call them up or email them, they will look forward to hearing from you because you will usually be offering them something: an article you just read, a valuable experience you wanted to share, a suggestion based on a conversation with a colleague, or an introduction to someone they might benefit from connecting with.

Contrast that with someone who only gets in touch when they need something: they want to know if you’ve heard of any job openings; they are looking for the names of people who might have open positions and want you to refer them. It’s all one way – their way. They never have anything to offer. Their attitude is a bit desperate. They come across as needy.

Don’t Lead With Your Need

While you may be feeling some of the same desperation as that person, don’t lead with your need. If you’re in dire straits, and someone asks you how you’re doing, you don’t have to hide or gloss over your predicament. You can address the question positively: “Well, things could be better. I’m still looking for a job. But I’ve been very active, learning a bunch of new things, meeting a bunch of new people, and I feel positive about my search. In the long run, I know I’m going to land someplace great.” We’ve all been there. Being candid, vulnerable, and open doesn’t have to come across as needy.

The Career Relationship Funnel

Here’s a simple way to organize and prioritize your active career network – a triage system if you will. This is a technique to groom the most helpful and responsive contacts in your network.

Divide your network into three groups. If you have a contact organizer that lets you apply tags or labels to your contact records, you can assign the appropriate one to each person.

  • Your “Platinum” Group is your smallest and most important group. They are your de-facto “board of directors.” They are the people you trust more than any others. They know you well, probably for a long time, and are the first people you go to with important decisions. You can be open and vulnerable with them. They are your mentors, your most trusted advisors. They also have the strategic vision and management skills to guide you effectively along your career path.
  • Your “Gold” Group is everyone with whom you have a good working relationship, but not necessarily the kind of open-hearted closeness that would be associated with the “Platinum” Group. This group includes current and former colleagues, people you went to school with, people in various businesses whom you may know socially, as well as people you know through professional groups and associations. People you place into this group should have at least some direct or indirect connection to your current job or career development goal. They may have their own great career network, but they may also have domain expertise you’re interested in. They may be where you want to be in five years, so they can be valuable guides for you. There are plenty of other criteria you can apply to this group that work for you. Whatever your reasoning, people in your “Gold” group have a current value for you.
  • Everyone else is in your “Silver” group. This is your “bench.” These are the people you know (or at the very least you met them at an event and have their business card) who could be important someday but don’t have direct relevance to your career path or your search at the present time. If you think that there is some “simpatico,” some shared points of view, and some potential areas of collaboration, they may move into your “Gold” group. If they change jobs – or lose a job – you may find yourself better positioned to help them or deepen the relationship in some way. In short, monitor this group for changes that could move them up the funnel.

Progressing Towards Your Career Goals

I call this a career relationship “funnel,” because, like a sales or marketing funnel, your goal is to cultivate your Silver group into your Gold group, and then cultivate your Gold group into your Platinum group. Over time, you are deepening the effectiveness, collaboration, and loyalty of your network. Simultaneously, you are reciprocating, and giving back (hopefully even more) to the network.

By regularly tracking the funnel, you can evaluate the quality of the evolving relationships you have with these people, how you can help them, and how they can help you, you facilitate positive momentum and the forward motion towards your goals.

This is how you will get on the radar of the companies you want to work with, how you will meet like-minded people who will understand you and support you in connecting to the kinds of roles and opportunities you’re interested in.

You may also find yourself participating as a “Silver,” “Gold,” or “Platinum” member of other people’s networks. This will give you the opportunity to share your knowledge and make introductions to help them out just as others are helping you out.

Always Be Networking, Even and Especially if You Have a Job

Maintaining an active career network is not just something that you need to do to get a job, it is something that you need to do to maintain a job.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is to think that once they’ve landed their new job, or raised the money to start their new business, they can stop networking.

This is a fallacy.

To sustain an active flow of opportunities, feedback, ideas, and introductions that can and will support your job or your business, you must continue to stay involved with your network.

Your networking needs will evolve as your career evolves. People will be going in and out of your career relationship funnel as time goes on. This is normal. But you have to stay involved with your network, and especially with your “Platinum” and “Silver” groups.

Your Most Important Career Investment

Your career network is not some external tool that you turn on or turn off whenever you want to. Rather, it is an integral part of who you are as a professional, and it represents a central aspect of your professional identity. If you keep maintaining, refining, and working with your network, you will always have the support you need to help you out when and if you lose your job, or have a downturn in your business. You will never again be in a position of having nowhere to go, or no one to turn to when things go south. You’ve survived and prevailed through many ups and downs in your career up to this point, and the likelihood is that you’ll survive the inevitable twists and turns that will crop up as your life continues to unfold.

More than any other skill or strategy available to you, your career network is truly the gift that keeps on giving.

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John Tarnoff is an executive and career transition coach, speaker, and author who supports mid and late-career professionals in defining, planning, and achieving more meaningful and sustainable careers.

Fired 39% during his 35 years as a film producer, studio executive and tech entrepreneur, he learned how to turn setbacks into successes in a volatile business. He reinvented his own career at 50, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology to share his career lessons with others going through similar challenges.

Since leaving entertainment in 2010, John has coached individuals, groups, and led career workshops for university alumni, including for UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Corporate coaching clients have included Bank of America, Bridgewater Assoc., Levi-Strauss, Softbank, TD Ameritrade, and Thrive Global.

He is the author of the best-selling Boomer Reinvention: How to Create your Dream Career Over 50 and has been named a Top Influencer in Aging by PBS/NextAvenue.


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