Here’s a secret: I haven’t applied to a job in years. Why? Because, at least in my line of work in politics, your next opportunity is all about your network.
Almost all my jobs in politics have come from talking to someone in my network. I know every field is different, but I also know this: no matter where you work or what you do, your network is your most powerful tool. And it can be especially important for women of color like myself, because our networks help lift each other up in the face of an economy (and a society) that continues to underpay and undervalue us.
But networking doesn’t have to be a transactional extraction of goods and services. You can create a network that is authentic and not only lives up to your values, but furthers them, too. Here’s how to cultivate an authentic network while living your values:
Keep a rolodex
Seriously! My rolodex is my biggest weapon. I’ve had it since my first job in New York City politics in 2004, and I’ve never looked back. It contains everyone I’ve ever worked with, and reminds me how many people I have to support me if I need them.
And it’s not just for show: it’s paid off many times. I once had been promised the opportunity to work my way up and serve as a lawmaker’s chief of staff, only to find out after a lot of hard work that the position would never be open to me because of office politics that had nothing do with me. I was devastated, and suddenly the career path I had planned was thwarted.
I wallowed, and then I opened my rolodex. I flipped through it maniacally, and within a few weeks, started a new job, making the leap from New York City to Washington, D.C. My rolodex helped me transition into national politics and it’s helped me countless times in the years since then, too.
Treat people the way you’d want to be treated
Treating people the way you’d want to be treated is the golden rule for a reason! It applies to life and to networking. Here’s what I mean by that: If you were invested in someone’s career — let’s say you were a former colleague, or maybe someone’s former boss — wouldn’t you want to periodically hear updates on how their career is going? If you just helped a friend get an interview, wouldn’t you want a quick thank you and to know how it went? If you were a mentor to someone, wouldn’t you like to hear about their next big life change over coffee?
Your network is a group of people who have invested in you and your career. It’s up to you to invest in the relationship, too. I make sure to periodically reach out to people in my network to grab coffee or just catch up over the phone. If someone helps connect me to someone I’m trying to meet, I always send a thank you after.
Networking is a two-way street, and being thoughtful about how to give back to those in your network who have looked out for you is a critical part of maintaining a relationship.
Don’t be scared to ask for help
Here’s the biggest thing people forget about their networks: Use it! Think about it this way: You’ve spent years cultivating relationships. You have a literal list of people who want to see you succeed and are ready to help you at the drop of a hat. Why wouldn’t you reach out to them if you need help?
It can be really hard to ask for help when you need it, but that’s why you have a network of supporters! They’re there to support you. Let them.
But your biggest cheerleaders can’t know you need support unless you tell them. So, my last piece of advice after building up a network: Don’t be too scared to ask for help. Everyone needs help sometimes, and the people you’ve worked with and kept contact with for years will more than likely be happy to help be a part of your journey.
Karine Jean-Pierre's roots are in politics, from grassroots organizing to working on presidential campaigns. She worked in the Obama White House, managed political campaigns nationally and locally, and now serves as a political analyst for MSNBC, the chief public affairs officer for MoveOn, and teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Her book "Moving Forward" is out now.