Russell Henry, 35, dreamed of a career in IT, but he didn't have a college degree or the appropriate job experience. By day he worked as a manager at a local theater, and, in his free time, he spent hours tinkering with computers as a hobby.
"I enjoyed the technical and problem-solving aspects of working with computers and thought I might excel in IT, but I had no training, education or contacts," recalls Henry, who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland. "I really had no idea of how to break into the industry."
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Little did Henry know, he had one thing going for him that would eventually open the door to his dream career: his love of alt-rock. Through a music listserv, Henry, a keytar player, met a bass player named J.*, and the two of them, along with one of Henry's high school friends, decided to start a band.
"J. was working at the Democratic National Committee at the time and knew that I had an interest in IT," says Henry. "When an entry-level computer tech job opened up, he put in a good word for me and facilitated me getting an interview. The IT director decided to give me a chance."
That was 13 years ago. Henry is now an IT coordinator at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Call it accidental networking: the auspicious run-ins, surprise connections and unlikely relationships that lead to big payoffs in a career. It’s the chance encounter on the street that brings on a “So where are you working these days?” which then leads to an interview and, ultimately, an offer. Or the passing conversation at a dinner party that ends with a choice gig.
Life is filled with lucky breaks, and sometimes the best employment opportunities come in the most unexpected ways. After all, networking isn’t just something that happens at so-called networking events and business mixers. The true spirit of networking is a connection that happens naturally.
Stacey Hawley, a professional development coach with The Credo Company, says getting a job through less-direct connections (a friend of a friend of a friend) may be more common than you think.
"My guess is 70 percent to 80 percent of professional jobs are secured through [this kind of] networking," says Hawley. "It is all about working your connections. A friend might not be able to help you link with someone at a desired firm, but your friend's friend might be able to help make the connection."
So when those unlikely connections occur, how do you make the most of them? Henry, and other people who had serendipitous job experiences, share how they leveraged their unexpected opportunities and a few of the principles that helped them get lucky in the first place.
Principle #1: Know What You Want
When it comes to accidental networking, knowing exactly what kind of job you want is the first step in the right direction — even if you don't have the experience in a particular line of work.
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Take Ashley Poisella. Five years ago, Poisella, 29, already had an inkling that her job as an advertising executive wasn't giving her everything she wanted out of life. The longer she spent in the role, the more she realized it really didn't fulfill her need for something with depth, something that helped serve other people. Then Poisella got a true wake-up call telling her it was time to take a big leap and find more meaningful work.
"I was kind of at a great place in my career, and I should have been happy, but I was actually miserable," recalls Poisella, who lives in Trumbull, Connecticut, with her husband and dog. "Then my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer and my stepfather was also battling MS at the time. I remember coming home one day and seeing my two very sick parents and thinking, 'Life is way too short.' "
Poisella and her then fiancé, Chris, started brainstorming new career ideas, coming up with things she was good at and enjoyed doing that could earn her a living.
When Chris suggested photography, she felt like he was onto something. As a child, Poisella walked around with boxes of disposable cameras in her pocket; she always loved taking pictures. The only problem was that she, like Henry, had no related job experience or education. Sure, her fiancé had bought her a professional-quality camera six months prior, but she hadn't even really used it yet. Still, she decided that it wasn't too late to pick it up. So, Poisella started traveling with her camera, taking shots of nature and people.
"I would practice on the camera every chance I could—in the morning before work, during my lunch hour and after work," she recalls. "I would read the owner's manual and research articles online on lighting techniques and composition. I was determined to figure out how to capture things in the world the way I saw them in my mind's eye."
Then, a few months before her wedding, in June 2009, her fiancé casually mentioned to the couple's videographer that Poisella was a natural shutterbug. Days later, the videographer reviewed her amateur digital shots of flowers and leaves and decided to take Poisella under her wing as an assistant, telling her she thought the budding photographer had "a good eye" and an obvious enthusiasm for the craft.
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Experts say that big breaks sometimes come from getting small breaks first – such as Henry's entry-level IT post, or Poisella's photo assistant gig. Always keep in mind, they say, the old adage about how there are no small roles.
Allyson Willoughby, a senior vice president at career site Glassdoor, where she oversees the human resources and recruiting practices, recalls a story of a front-desk receptionist at Facebook who did such a great job at her location that, as the company expanded offices internationally, she was tapped to travel around the world to help train front-desk receptionists in other offices. She also now helps welcome celebrities and special guests to Facebook.
"What's most important is keeping an open mind to opportunities that come your way, small and big," says Willoughby.
In 2010 Poisella launched Ashley Therese Photography and is now living her dream as a wedding photographer. She hustled in her full-time ad job for nine months before taking the leap of faith: "I would shoot sessions after work, get up at 5 a.m. to edit photos, go to my advertising job, and answer emails and network during my lunch hour. After work I would come home and work until midnight and then get up at 5 a.m. and do it again. I was absolutely exhausted, but I could only hope that the hustling, effort and energy would pay off." Which, of course, it did.
"It breaks my heart that it took such a difficult experience to get me to this point," says Poisella, recalling the day that seeing her parents made her want to alter her career path. "I am grateful things aligned the way they did."
Principle #2: Put Yourself Out There — Literally
Sure, technology has come a long way. You can connect and reconnect with people through all manner of social media. (For example, no job seeker today should be without a tricked-out profile on LinkedIn.) But if you don't physically leave your home or office, you could be missing out on the chance of encountering new opportunities. That's what life coach and journalist Tracee Sioux, 40, of Fort Collins, Colorado, recently discovered.
"I had been working from home all summer long with my children," says Sioux, who was feeling stalled and cooped up with her stay-at-home work schedule. "I decided I needed to shift some energy around my work, so I went to a coffee shop, sat down with my computer, ordered some tea, and started working on an article for a local magazine. I was literally staring into space when a man walked up to me and said, 'You look like you're having the most fun of anyone here.' "
She and the man got to talking, and, as it turned out, he was looking for a business coach like Sioux to grow his real estate company. Now she's working on a business proposal for him.
"It was quite serendipitous, but it was born of the intention to put myself in the way of potential business," says Sioux.
Hawley agrees that just sitting in front of a computer doesn't always cut it.
"You need to make your own luck," she says. "Putting yourself out there is hard for some people but that is what is necessary to be successful. The connections won't come to you. You have to go after them." And, no, that doesn't mean simply adding 10 more people on LinkedIn, she says. "Contacting is not connecting," says Hawley. "To actually connect, individuals need to reach out and start a conversation. 'Contacting' on LinkedIn is a good first start, but then follow up with a more personal e-mail and actually 'connect.' It is even better if you can offer something in return, in terms of professional services."
Principle #3: Your Network is Bigger Than You Think
A chance encounter can happen anywhere, says Hawley: “A trip to the grocery store or Home Depot, or going to your kids' soccer games.”
“People just need to realize that their network is all around them,” she explains. “Sometimes the most overlooked networks are our friends and our friends' spouses. Your next neighborhood party might provide you the opportunity to meet someone who can help you expand your business, find a new role or connect you with someone who can help."
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But if you're not ready for those opportune moments when they come along, then they may pass you by, says Willoughby. “While it’s not every day that a chance encounter with someone can lead to your next great job opportunity, it can happen, so you want to be prepared," Willoughby advises.
There are a few ways she says you can prepare for the unexpected: First, be able to concisely explain your current job and how you add value there, citing some recent accomplishments. And, when opportunity strikes, “don’t forget to ask for a business card or contact information so you can follow up,” she says.
Enthusiasm also pays off, as Daphne Silver*, 37, proves. When she was a senior in college, she went back home to visit a good high school friend in Detroit, where she grew up. Her friends' parents asked her what she was up to that summer, and she told them about an internship she had in the Sales and Marketing department of an international publisher. Silver told her friends' parents all about how she was organizing the worldwide sales conference and in charge of flying in reps from all over the world and coordinating their schedules. "I was having so much fun getting ready to meet all of the reps I'd only known on email up until then—from Korea, Thailand, Israel, you name it," she says.
"Imagine my surprise when my phone rang the next week, and it was a recruiter from Chrysler, the automaker: "Francois told us that we should give you a call because we have a few openings for new grads in our marketing department," she says. "Francois" was her friend's dad. "I had never even thought about the fact that he was an executive at the company, or even to ask him for an introduction. But, by talking about the job I was already doing with such enthusiasm, he'd connected the dots for me. I went on an interview at the company the next week, though, ultimately I wound up taking another position in a different city when I graduated.”
The bottom line: Prepare for the best.
Russell Henry says that all those years of computer tinkering had readied him to jump into action when his friend set up that key introduction so many years ago. Though he no longer plays in a band with J., he’s still grateful to him for changing his career trajectory and his life.
When Henry later asked the director of IT why he decided to take a chance on someone with no training or experience, he mentioned that he was impressed that Russ had taught himself so much (including how to set up his own shared Internet connection, which, 13 years ago, wasn't the quick-1-2-3 process that we know it to be today).
"Luck is a frame of mind," says Henry. "You must become absolutely enthusiastic about everything you are doing, or hope to do, and display your infectious zeal to everyone you meet. Because you never know when an unexpected connection may be made."
*Indicates that name has been changed.