If you’re like me, the adults in your life taught you early on, “Don’t talk to strangers.” You may have even heard the phrase, “stranger danger.” The idea is that strangers can harm you in some way. Staying away from strangers kept you safe from kidnapping or something else bad.
I whole heartedly agree with this idea for children. As a child, avoiding strangers helped me to keep myself safe in a number of potentially dangerous situations. Frankly, I still sometimes avoid strangers in public places for fear that “something” might go wrong. It’s like a residual reaction left over from childhood.
In reality, as a professional, strangers are the very people you want to talk to. I don’t mean the random people you pass in the street. I’m talking about the person you’re sitting next to at a professional conference. Or, perhaps there’s a new employee in another department you haven’t met. It could even be the person sitting next to you at a coffee shop.
I like to think of networking as making new friends. And, new friends are all around you. William Butler Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”
The same applies for LinkedIn. I’m often asked by job seekers whether or not to accept connection requests from strangers on LinkedIn. Most people prefer to only connect to others they have worked with before. But, if you’re in the business of looking for a job, connections are everything. Expanding your network means there will be a greater chance that you’ll know someone at the next job you apply for.
In fact, LinkedIn prioritizes candidates who have connections at companies where they apply for jobs. When you apply to a job on LinkedIn, LinkedIn sends your information (along with every other applicant) to the recruiter or hiring manager. LinkedIn has to decide who to rank first, and having connections with the company is one of the factors they consider.
On top of that, LinkedIn will let you contact strangers, if they are second and third degree connections. This means that you may be able to reach out to a hiring manager you don’t know – if you have enough first degree connections.
In real life, you may wonder what this looks like, especially if you don’t typically work to build your new connections. Take the time to introduce yourself to new people at events and parties. Ask the other person about themselves. Listen carefully. Afterward, follow up with the person on LinkedIn and set a time to connect again in person.
With enough practice, these sorts of interactions will become a bit more natural and less forced. And, with enough follow up, the strangers you meet won’t be strangers anymore. They’ll be business contacts. They’ll be friends. They’ll be people who you can turn to when you are looking for a new job at a new company.
Angela Copeland, a career coach and founder of Copeland Coaching, can be reached at copelandcoaching.com.