This feature first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
Let's suppose that you want to branch your professional network and grow your professional reach at the same time. There is a really good way to do this — all it takes is leveraging the people who are already in your network. Your connections to these individuals, people you already know, can boost your professional network or even take it in a different direction altogether.
Let's get together
First off, let's briefly refresh your understanding of what a professional network is. A professional network consists of the connections you’ve made and the relationships that you’ve built over your professional career. It's a living thing — these connections have to be maintained at some level if you want to leverage them in the future.
For example, if you made a connection with someone who works in your industry a decade ago at a trade event, then it will be challenging to turn to that connection if you never made any effort to keep in touch. On the other hand, if you've connected even just a couple of times since that first meeting, then possibilities abound.
You might find that your acquaintance has climbed the corporate ladder at a company that you’re looking to do business with, or would like to be hired into. Your connection could make it easier to build a working relationship that will bolster your IT career.
While you have to keep up your network, however, it isn't possible for most people to maintain every connection at the same level as every other connection. After a while, there are often too many people involved to fruitfully keep track of them all.
To help you prioritize your efforts to stay in touch, let's consider five different types of individuals likely to become part of your network and consider how each of them might impact your career: 1) supervisors, 2) coworkers, 3) industry peers, 4) mentors, and 5) friends and relatives.
I worked for you: Supervisors
First up is your boss or manager, someone who has directly supervised your work at your current job or a previous job. Some might say that if it’s a previous job, then the boss is now an industry peer, but I disagree. You may say “former manager” or “previous supervisor,” but that doesn’t really negate the fact that they were your boss. Their thinking and actions impacted you, for better or for worse.
How best, then, to leverage a supervisor for help in your career? First, figure out your objective. What do you want to achieve? Is it a promotion at your current job or a jump to another department? Do you want to go back to a previous job, or maybe get a letter of recommendation to facilitate a job hunt?
Before you can ask for something, you need to know what you want. Are you seeking a job offer? Sales leads? Career mentorship and advice? I once asked my boss for interview tips. It's also worth considering how well you get along with this person. If the two of you have a good rapport, and you go in with a clear sense of what you want, then you'll probably get a better result.
If there's not a solid relationship already in place, then it's not impossible to create one. I recommend getting in front of your supervisor often. Go out to lunch or dinner with them, or look for opportunities to engage them in casual conversation. If you can clearly articulate what you want to a supervisor who likes you, then you've enlisted a powerful ally in forging your career path.
I worked with you: Coworkers
Your relationship with coworkers is kind of an art form. You must carefully and deliberately establish your goals when it comes to forging relationships with coworkers. If you aren't sensitive and patient here, then you might end up hurting your career, not only at your current job, but at the job (or jobs) after that.
You need to have a clear idea of what you want out of your current job — or future jobs — and craft your relationships to support those goals, not undermine them. I call this “managing your brand,” and the more self-awareness you can muster here, the better off you'll be. In a nutshell, you want to be seen as a good egg: supportive, understanding, friendly, and helpful.
No matter how well you get along with your boss, you're more likely to connect and reconnect with coworkers down the line. Your strongest workplace relationships will naturally form with the people who work shoulder-to-shoulder with you. And because this isn’t 1980, and you don’t work for IBM or GE, chances are good that you and your coworkers will all move on to different, probably better jobs.
You may find that past coworkers have become key decision makers who could bring your company more business. Maybe a former coworker is a hiring manager (or knows the hiring manager) at a company that would be the perfect fit for your skills. Maybe it's the other way around: A former coworker has particular skills and experience the would make them a perfect fit where you now work.
A lot of people don’t think about the fact that bringing in a strong employee is a really good look for themselves. If you previously worked with amazing individuals who you have established relationships with, then don’t hesitate to take advantage of that and get them onboard with your current employer. Their success will become your success.
A word of caution: You don’t want to risk getting lumped in with the malcontents. If a coworker likes to complain, or isn't a team player, or doesn't put forth their best effort, then tread with caution. You can be respectful and polite without making such individuals a key part of your career future.
I met you through my work: Industry peers
Industry peers are people who you may have met at a trade show or industry conference. They often have a similar job, maybe in a different part of the company. You may not even have connected with them in person: LinkedIn and similar sites often pool such individuals together so that you can more readily meet and interact with them.
There's a degree of nuance in learning to leverage such individuals. You can lean on them for advice or commiseration, much like coworkers and supervisors. You can ask for job referrals and such, but for this group of people, my best advice is to turn to these folks for insight and understanding. They are in similar positions have probably faced similar trials and tribulations.
They may know how to fix or come at situations you haven't faced before. They can also be an excellent resource for other potential connections: business partners, vendors, and even clients. Networks build upon themselves, so the more people you know in this area, the better.
A small subset of these people are likely to be industry experts. Hitch your wagon to someone who fits that description and you will get a big boost in accelerating your career to the next level. Industry experts can not only provide their expertise in the form of advice and guidance, but they can also help you stay on top of industry trends.
Peers who are industry experts can often inform you of opportunities that may not be widely available to the public yet, and which can help give you an advantage over your competition. I am loosely connected to somewhere in the ballpark 30,000 industry peers on LinkedIn. I certainly don’t "know" them all, but I can figure out who I need to know because they are already in my network.
I learned about work from you: Mentors
This category of professional connection is one that is near and dear to my heart. There is often some crossover between people in this category and people in the "friends and family" subset of your professional network, but there are some differences. A mentor is someone with more experience or wisdom than you who helps guide and shape your career.
A mentor has your best intentions at heart, but can give you a mindset that isn’t your own. If they are a good mentor, they can also give you an honest assessment of your goals and desires. When it comes to mentors, use them to grow your IT career by telling them what you really want and where you really want to go. They can help you pick a rewarding career path, or steer clear of a problematic one.
You aren't connected to my work: Friends and family
This brings us to friends and family members. Sometimes an outside perspective can be helpful when it comes to your company or your career. Asking for advice from friends and family (and mentors) can help provide you with a different perspective, especially if you are too close to the problem to find a clear solution.
Even if your friends and family members don't have jobs that are relevant to your industry, those jobs may require them to have a certain level of expertise in specific subjects that could be beneficial to your company or your career. Also, if you've ever heard the phrase that getting a job is "not about what you know, but who you know," well, that sums up one your biggest reasons to lean on friends and family members.
Bear in mind that you may have some close friends and family who tend to tell you what you want to hear. It's not always the best thing to have a feedback loop that feeds on itself. Be careful that you are not too reliant for advice on a close friend or family member who shies away from being honest with you.
Best used in moderation
No matter who you leverage in your personal network to grow your IT career, don't lean on them too hard. Generally speaking, favors should be called in sparingly and followed by respectful expressions of gratitude.
One last tip is to keep growing your network. There are many ways in which you can expand your professional network. For example, reach out to already established connections and ask them for help getting into touch with other professionals. You can also meet more people to network with by attending industry conferences and events and by reaching out via social media.
No matter which way you choose to reach out to new people, make sure you’re prepared: Have a business card to hand out if you’re meeting in person, and have a few questions to ask. To ensure that your questions aren’t too general, do your research about the person and their profession before engaging with them.
Bear in mind that you can also foster good will and meet new people by playing the game yourself. You will become a key cog in other people's professional networks. Always be responsive and kind when other people reach out to you. When you play a helpful part in other people's lives, you become the kind of person other will want to help.