Career guidance professionals often trumpet the benefits of a professional network that includes friends, peers, mentors, coworkers, and colleagues. Many executives consider a strong network a must-have and devote time and effort to sustaining it.
Fortune magazine quotes Tom Farley, ex-president of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), as saying, “I owe every job I’ve ever had to networking.”
A robust and extensive professional network not only opens up a range of opportunities, it’s also a source of knowledge and advice. For an IT professional, networking also helps one stay abreast of new developments and emerging trends in the industry.
A relevant and well-served network has much to offer: friendships, job openings, career-related advice, solutions to problems, tech news, developments and insights.
According to Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School, “Research shows that networks give people access to information.” Over time, Gino contends, “this information access helps people acquire the knowledge and competencies that are necessary to succeed at work and better handle challenges.”
Create your own network
The sooner you get started creating a professional network, the better. Don’t wait until you need contacts to embark on building relationships. Start early and nurture relationships consistently for the sake of connecting with others and deepening ties, not for reward.
We can never forge strong relationships if we approach relationship building from a transactional perspective. Most people can tell when someone is being insincere.
A professional network can consist of people with whom you have solid and longstanding relationships, as well as those with whom you have purely professional associations, or have connected with recently. Whatever the connection, one’s motive should be sincere.
Where do you start when you have no experience? Look for relevant contacts among college alumni, family members, friends, and common-interest groups. Grouping contacts is useful because that makes it easier to get in touch. You can quickly identify those you want to contact at any given time.
Build up your contacts
Once you start working, you will have the opportunity to add colleagues, mentors, clients, associates, and people you meet at professional events to your network.
Your network contacts don’t have to be just people in the same industry or the same city or the same profession. People you like to be with or those with whom you share common non-professional interests are good to have in your network. A diverse group of contacts means more exposure.
Early on, one is likely to build relationships with peers as well as managers in the same company. When contacts move to other organizations, you want to stay in touch with them. All you need to do is call or e-mail now and then to communicate something of specific interest. That shows you care and are interested in how they’re doing.
When you change jobs, don’t lose touch with ex-colleagues or past clients and associates. People you’ve worked with in the past can be a valuable source of helpful advice, referrals, job opportunities and, of course, more connections.
Don’t shy away from connecting with people who are of higher organizational standing in your workplace. There’s no harm in reaching out to those a few levels above you, if you consider them relevant. Many are happy to guide junior associates and their advice can often prove invaluable.
When you approach people you only know of, but haven’t interacted with, you need to do your homework to find out about each potential contact’s recent career developments and interests. Then tailor your message to the individual. Short, specific, and personalized introductory e-mails are much more likely to elicit a response than a generic message.
Attending to your network may be somewhat difficult at times, especially when you’re weighed down with professional and personal responsibilities. Time and resources spent on network-building in the right way, however, are never wastes.
Maintain your network
Once you’ve built your network, you want to nurture these relationships over the long term. A network is most effective if you invest time and thought in maintaining it. Reaching out to a contact only when you need him or her can make you appear insincere. Instead of thinking of your contacts as people who owe you something, think of what you can do for them.
Keeping in touch with your contacts every now and then helps ensure you remain fresh in their memory. Today, there are so many ways to connect — e-mail, phone, messaging apps, and get-togethers. If you’re in the same city, meet for lunch or a cup of tea. Show them you care, and that you have a genuine interest in their development and well-being.
Don’t be overly dependent on social media for networking. Use it judiciously and in moderation. Social media is useful in that you get to know how your contacts are doing through LinkedIn and Twitter. If you come to know of a significant development in someone’s professional life, you can call, e-mail or send a direct message.
How often should you connect? You may get in touch every few weeks or months, or even once a year. This differs from contact to contact, and also depends on the situation. What you want to avoid are generalized, “Hello, how are you,” emails sent mechanically every month or two.
The organic approach works well. Be specific and natural. Whenever you hear someone in your network has moved to another job or won promotion, congratulate them. Every time you come across an article that might be of interest to one or more of your connections, send it to them. And, of course, people like to be remembered on birthdays and anniversaries.
Here are three specific tips to help you in strengthening and maintaining your network:
Extend a helping hand
If you learn a contact is going through a trying time on the professional or personal front, try and help as best as you can without expecting anything in return. When you have a genuine desire to make things better for someone, whatever you do, or even just offer to do, is likely to have positive effect.
Nobody likes a windbag. One should never brag about one’s accomplishments. In a conversation, spend more time talking about (and listening to) your connection than talking about yourself.
Review your list periodically for relevance
Your network needs to keep changing according to your career and situation. Go over your list every few months in order to maintain currency and efficacy. Ask yourself whom you need to add to your list.
Delete contacts who have stopped responding. You can’t force interest from people who are no longer interested. More than the number of connections, it is the quality that counts. You don’t need a slew of superficial relationships.
Prioritize according to relevance. For example, regroup contacts with whom you need to be in touch more often. You’ll also find that some contacts are no longer as relevant, in which case you reduce the frequency of communication.
A career necessity
Don’t let yourself be distracted from building up a network of contacts by the perceived difficult of doing so. Networking is not a chore if you adopt an organized approach and maintain a balance between old and new contacts.
Remember that any person in your professional network could be the one who provides a vital link to your next employment opportunity. And remember that you might provide the same thing to someone else. If the people in your network become true friends, then you and they will both benefit from the association.