How Much Time to Spend Networking as You Plan to Exit the Military

(Airman Eugene Oliver/U.S. Air Force photo)

Question: I'm separating from the Navy in four months. How much time should I be spending right now on networking? And does that time increase or get less as my separation date nears?

Answer: This is such a great question. Many people think that networking should be measured in the number of hours devoted to cultivating relationships. While an investment of time and effort is warranted, it's more about the quality of the time and connections rather than the minutes or hours.

In the past, when we'd want to meet someone and share our business or services and learn about theirs, we made a phone call, perhaps sent some information (a brochure, resume, follow-up letter), hopefully arranged a meeting and then had the conversation in person. Today, with social media, websites and remote work, we have created networking efficiencies that are both positive and negative for our career growth.

On the positive side, these efficiencies allow us to become more visible with more people. For example, a well-developed post on LinkedIn that highlights your expertise can get the attention of numerous employers, allies, colleagues and networking contacts who might want to learn more about your work. This saves a lot of time.

On the negative side, many individuals are relying too heavily on online tools and forgetting to connect with people in person (or on Zoom). They've forgotten how to have small talk, to ask good questions and to show others they care about their goals and needs.

Instead of quantity (how much time), let's focus on quality networking. With that said, here's a good way to estimate the types of networking efforts and results you can plan for.

12 Months Before Separation

With a year until you exit the military, networking should serve two distinct purposes: Your network should be increasing your visibility and teaching you. To increase your visibility, connect and nurture relationships with people you meet in your current work, community and life. Friends of friends, church members and fellow service members can begin to form your network. As you can, clarify and promote what you're looking to do after you separate, so these individuals can become your referral sources and endorsers.

You'll also want to begin doing informational interviews with your network. Connect with people who are in the industry, company or career path that you're exploring. Then, when you meet with them, discuss how they got into that career, company or industry, what they like best about it, what the pitfalls look like and what you can do to learn more. This form of networking is critical for a successful transition from the military into the civilian sector.

4-6 Months Before Separation

At this point, your networking efforts should be in full swing. You are likely in the middle of planning for your exit, prospecting and interviewing for jobs and considering your relocation. Reach out to new contacts you meet at job fairs, in transition programs and in your internships, as you work them. Perhaps you start by initiating contact, connecting on LinkedIn and then inviting them to a phone or video call to explore synergies.

You also can refine your informational interviews. Move them from being fact-finding and research-based to being more targeted in your career focus. You can begin doing more detailed informational interviews with people who work for your ideal employer and ask for their guidance for networking your way inside.

2-4 Weeks Before Separation

Here, your networking efforts should relate to your new position or employer (if you've secured a post-military job), your relocation or your job search. If you have a job lined up, begin reaching out to people who work there and introduce yourself. Ask your new boss who'll be on your team and initiate contact online, sharing some of your skills and experience with them and letting them know you look forward to working with them soon.

As you plan to relocate, begin setting up in-person meetings with key networking contacts. If you are comfortable, arrange for coffee meetings so you can put a face to their name. This will strengthen the relationship.

If you are in a job search, also ask for in-person networking meetings where possible. This will give you more opportunity to build deeper relationships and share more of your skills, experiences and goals, as well as solicit more advice and guidance. Increase your online activity by connecting and then conversing with people who can provide endorsements and referrals for your career.

There shouldn't be a set number of hours or minutes a day you spend on networking. Think strategically about the people you need to know, how they can serve you and how you can reciprocate. The quality of your network should be more important than the number of contacts in your phone.

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