Building a strong network is one of the most important things you can do to advance your career. What’s surprising is that many people have no idea how to do this effectively. Left with little information on the topic, they often waste a lot of time and energy, and fail to create the type of network that will support their ambition.
I’ve learned throughout my coaching career and as well as facilitating workshops on this topic, that many well-intentioned people don’t have a clue how to network. Assumptions that you need to collect lots of business cards from people with whom you’ll never develop relationships or that the size of your social media following indicates your ability to influence your career trajectory distract us from the purpose of networking. It’s not about quantity. It’s about quality. And a quality network doesn’t happen by chance.
Here are five tips on how to build the best network to advance your career.
Effective networking for career advancement requires a strategic focus. Start with what you’re hoping to achieve in the short term, long term or both. Once you confirm your goal, think strategically about who you know and who you need to know to help you reach that goal. Then identify people at all levels and positions in your company and industry who have the potential to help you in some fashion. Include in your network potential mentors and sponsors and devise a plan to gain visibility and credibility with them either directly or through others in your network.
The best network includes people who provide different functions for you. You want key stakeholders and decision makers, but you also need people you trust to provide information about the workplace dynamics and politics. It’s important to include people who can serve as connectors to introduce you to others you want in your network but with whom you lack a relationship.
Once you’ve identified your goal and potential contacts, be intentional and purposeful about your networking activity. One of the major challenges for women is to find the time to network when they’re trying to balance work and family time. My best advice is to dedicate time for networking. Networking for your career advancement should be considered as part of your work week. Look at your calendar and block out specific times for coffee or lunch meetings. Once you dedicate the time on your calendar, honor those time slots, and reach out to people. Don’t leave your networking activity to chance.
Any after work networking should be evaluated carefully. Don’t try to go to every industry event or women’s conference. Be selective. Look at the speakers, the agenda, and who is attending to see if it fits into your overall goal. Don’t join every association until you go to at least one meeting and determine if that group is worth joining.
Let’s face it. Our comfort zone is to hang out with people who are most like us in every way. They look like us, went to the same schools, have similar ideas and opinions. A diverse network, however, benefits you by extending your reach and information. It should include people in different departments with different functions and roles as well as different generations. Also, your network should go beyond your current company to include industry colleagues and experts, former college and graduate school alums, managers and co-workers from previous companies.
Look for people who can open up the door for you and make introductions where possible. Sometimes, however, you may need to reach out cold. In that case, it often helps to request a meeting and say that you’d like to learn more about their work and what they’re currently doing in the company. (People usually like talking about themselves if given the opportunity).
The strongest relationships are mutually beneficial, where it’s a win-win for both parties. Think about how you can add value and help your contacts reach their objectives. How different yet effective would it be to begin networking conversations with questions to learn more about what other people do and what their challenges are instead of making a request for yourself? Connect the dots and communicate how you may be able to assist them based on your value proposition and your work. (People usually want to know what’s in it for them). Reaching out and offering to help others makes it easier later on to ask for a favor in return.
The best networkers stay connected to their contacts over time. They follow up and look for ways to continue to add value. Maybe it’s a periodic check in or forwarding an article or information about an upcoming event. Find ways to inspire feedback or stimulate conversations around a topic you think they would find interesting. Bottom line: keep your network alive by staying connected.
In summary, strategic networking with focus and intention helps you create the best network to support your career advancement. Keep your network vibrant. Consider networking part of your work week and always look for opportunities to help others through connections and new opportunities.
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