A job search is not the ideal time to learn how to develop a professional network, but that is the time most people think of it.
I always ask about your professional network as a resource for helping you land your epic next job. Maybe you have a robust network of professional relationships, both internal and external to your current company. But if you sigh and admit you’ve neglected to build or maintain your professional network, don’t despair.
It’s not too late to learn how to develop a professional network to boost your career.
How Networking Can Boost Your Professional Development
Aside from job leads, there are many good reasons to build and maintain a robust professional network. Here are a few to consider:
- Finding suitable candidates – if you’re on the hiring end of the job search equation, your network can often put you in touch with prospective candidates.
- Experience and advice – if you’re taking on a project for which you have no experience, your network might have someone with experience or put you in touch with someone else who can advise you. Just make sure you don’t share any confidential or proprietary information in the process.
- Research potential employers – when preparing for job interviews, your network can be invaluable in helping you research the companies you’re considering.
The more connections you make, the more resources you have when you need them. The more diverse your connections are, the better.
What Is a Professional Network and Who Should Be In Yours?
A professional network is the group of people you have connected with for career or business-related reasons. These people can not only share valuable job opportunities, but they can help you solve business problems, recommend vendors and resources, and give insight into other companies, employees, and clients.
Your network can include almost anyone you’ve ever met. And all of those people could lead to new connections, as well. Here are suggestions for brainstorming a list to get you started:
- Executives at or above your current level in your company
- Executives in other companies at or above your current level
- Current and former coworkers
- Members of professional associations
- Friends and family
- Former instructors, trainers, and professors
- Former classmates and alumni
- Service providers and professionals
- Industry peers and executives
Certainly, you want people in your field or industry, but don’t discount people from other fields, too. Seek out people who think outside of the box, no matter their industry. And don’t discount friends and family or others you meet through non-business means. You might find out that your cousin’s wife’s brother is the hiring manager for your dream company. It’s truly a small world! Learning how to develop a professional network will pay dividends over the course of your entire career.
8 Professional Network Development Tips to Get You Started
Before I get into tips, let’s set some expectations.
The real value of your professional network is the relationships that exist within it. So, we’re not talking about a race to see who can collect the most business cards at an event or the most connections on LinkedIn. Your professional network is a living thing, and it requires attention and nurturing from you.
The quality of your network will depend on the effort you put into it.
Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, new or experienced with networking, dread meeting new people, or get excited about making new connections, these networking tips will help you get the most out of the effort you put into building your strong network.
- Put your best self forward. Google yourself and see what comes up. Update your LinkedIn profile and other social media accounts. Make sure the content you put out into the world is consistent with your professional brand.
- Connect and share. Online or in person, make a habit of sharing your story with others and making new connections. Post about the work you’re doing, or questions you’re thinking about. Reach out and connect with people who have mutual interests. Catch up with friends and former colleagues and talk about what you are doing, goals you have, or ideas you’re contemplating. A casual conversation can often be just as effective for networking as more formal meetings and gatherings.
- Get out of your comfort zone. Go beyond the people you know well. Ask to connect with someone you’ve never met. Start by making a small but specific request. Most people love to talk about themselves, so asking for a quick chat to find out more about what they do so you can refer people to them is irresistible for most.
- Expect rejection or to be ignored. People are busy. If the person you’ve reached out to doesn’t respond, don’t take it personally. Follow up, sure, but don’t badger. Just keep reaching out to people you find interesting, knowing that some will, some won’t…next!
- Remember to be authentic and kind. It’s all too easy to make networking a numbers game. But these are real people with problems, joys, and feelings of their own. Your goal is a mutually beneficial relationship, not just another name in your contacts list. Be yourself and be kind.
- Nurture your network over time. Social media certainly makes it easier to stay in touch over time, but it’s definitely not the only way. Reaching out with an email or a phone call is good, too. People grow and evolve so if it’s been a few years since you spoke with a former coworker, reach out and find out what they’re up to now. Genuine interest is the only “reason” you need to reconnect.
- Consider getting or becoming a mentor. Regardless of which side of the relationship you’re on — mentor or mentee — there are benefits. As a mentor, you get to share your experience and help your mentee skip the mistakes you made. Offering your guidance helps you build strong relationships because your connections can see that you value them. Plus, you establish yourself as an industry expert. As a mentee, you get to learn from someone ahead of you on the path, get exposed to people and ideas, and fast-track your growth and development.
- Make the first move. You don’t need to wait for someone to reach out to you. If you see an opportunity to help someone, do it. Share your expertise with others. Giving is powerful and helps to improve the strength of your network.
Some of these tips may be challenging for you, but they’ll all work if you are brave enough to adapt them to your personality and situation.
Leaders Are Networkers
Have you noticed how leaders always seem to be so well connected?
That’s because they usually are! Leaders understand the value of a professional network and devote time, effort, and energy to creating and maintaining their network and networking skills. They practice the art of the win-win and leverage that to lead more effectively.
Just like a retirement account, the best time to learn how to develop a professional network was years ago. And the next-best time is now.