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Identifying and Working Your Network

Professional networks aren't just for people working in the business world. Everyone needs a circle of people they respect and trust when they are making important decisions. Whether you're choosing a college, considering several different career paths or looking for a job, the people in your network can help guide you to the right decisions.

Even teenagers have networks - and not just social networks.

"I bet teenagers know they have networks, just not the type of networks they think they need," says Wendy Marcinkus Murphy, associate professor of management at Babson College. She's also the co-author of Strategic Relationships at Work.

"Most teens are already on Facebook, so they understand a bit about how social networks work. They just haven't thought about how it might help them get through the next stage of their lives."

Your parents and their friends, your teachers, neighbors, scout masters and coaches are just a few examples of adults who may already be part of your network. But it's up to you to ask for their advice.

"People want to be helpful," says Phil Blair. He's the executive officer of Manpower in San Deigo, Las Vegas, Temecula, New Mexico and Spokane. "You might ask to call them later to make an appointment to come by their office, or to meet them at the soccer field early next week, or after work one day next week."

Blair says it's fine to say something like: "'You're an accountant and I'm thinking of studying accounting. I really like math and I like finance, and I want to know what an accountant does all day.' You might be surprised. 'Well, come to the office next week. I'll walk you around and show you what we do.' It's called an informational interview," Blair says.

It might feel awkward to approach successful adults that way, even people you already know, but having a network won't do you any good if you don't use it. So don't be shy.

"When you're a student you have permission to ask questions," Murphy says. "People are happy to help students, particularly when they see a genuine curiosity. The rejection rate is very low. Most adults love to talk about themselves. It's usually easy to get someone talking if you're prepared with good questions."

Murphy suggests starting with open-ended questions, like these:

- Could you tell me about your career path?

- What are the best and the worst things about your job?

- What do you wish you knew or had done at my age?

Think of yourself like a journalist trying to uncover helpful information.

But how do you expand your network beyond people you already know? "Join the debate team, play sports - I don't care what the sport, it can be bowling, it can be anything as long as you're involved in teamwork," Blair advises. Get involved with clubs and student government, and volunteer to chair committees. "It can be your church. It can be the YMCA. It can be the Boys and Girls Club. It doesn't have to be school."

Murphy adds high school alumni to that list. Both say it's also okay to contact a local business person you admire to ask about their profession. Sometimes that can even lead to a mentorship.

"If you're active in high school, you interact with adults a lot, with teachers who might not be teaching your classes" Blair says.

He says teachers are the best references for landing your first job: "It's not your mother. It's not your neighbor. [To get that reference] you've got to know the teachers and they've got to know you."

Once you have a group of trusted advisors, Murphy says you need to evaluate their advice to discover what's right for you, especially if one source's information conflicts with that of another.

"There's room in that circle for the different perspectives," Murphy says. Listen to all viewpoints and ask more questions if something doesn't sound right. Then trust your instincts to narrow it down to what makes the best sense for you.

"It's going to take time to figure out what information to weight, and how," Murphy says. "So the earlier you start having these conversations, the better."

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