How To Utilize Your Network For Professional Growth

Upon starting my career with IBM, I was immediately advised by my mentor to schedule introduction meetings with managers and executives within the company. I heard two particular phrases many times throughout my professional career. The first being “It is not who you know; instead, it is who knows you” and secondly, “The more visible you are to decision makers, the more opportunities you have for growth”.

Looking back, I couldn’t agree more with my mentor’s advice. The majority of my promotions, career advancements, and business referrals have come about because of the influential people I reached out to early on. I built strong relationships with those individuals throughout my career, and today, I am happy to call them my cheerleaders.

In this blog, I will share top lessons on effective networking techniques and how to utilize networking for your professional growth.

Networking Tip #1 – Be a Learner + Be Curious

To many it is uncomfortable to initiate conversations, whether in person or over the phone. However, I’ve come to realize that in order to make networking interesting, fun, and successful, we must shift our mindset. We have to want to learn new things, we have to want to meet new people, and we have to be curious. Most people find it easier to talk about themselves. Instead, be curious about the people you are meeting, learn about them, and be prepared by asking well thought-out questions. If we can do this, we will be surprised by the amount of new information learned about the other person. They will begin to share their journey, lessons, mistakes, advice, resources, and even their vision for growth. All this knowledge multiplies the benefits of meeting new people and expanding our network.

To practice this, begin by picking three people in your current field that influence you through their work or journey. Create an opportunity to learn from them by writing out a list of questions you can ask. Then, reach out to them and schedule an in-person meeting or phone call. 

Networking Tip #2 – Be Prepared for the Conversation

For my first introduction meeting at IBM, I had the opportunity to speak with the Chief Procurement Officer; an executive responsible for ten plus thousands of employees and billions of dollars spent for the company. Needless to say, I was intimidated and also surprised that he agreed to talk with me. I called, thanked him for his time, introduced myself, and was received with his reply of “What questions can I answer for you?”. I paused and realized that I had been so intimidated by the call, that I had not prepared questions or thought about what I wanted to get out of the 30 minutes of his time I had requested.

Our conversation lasted only five minutes and was not effective for either him or myself. This was clearly not the type of visibility that I wanted to have associated with my name. No matter what type of networking opportunity you have available – be it a call, meeting, or event – it is critical to ask yourself, “Why is this important to me?”; “What do I want to achieve?”, and “What challenges do I need help on?”. Be prepared ahead of time by researching that individual, reading their LinkedIn profile, and preparing a list of questions to be asked. This applies to sales meetings, interviews, business meetings, etc.

Networking Tip #3- Branch Out + Let Your Curiosity Lead the Way

It is important to think of networking in tiers: 1) trade and 2) expansion of our skills. Trade means attending events and participating in organizations that are aligned with your field of work. For example, attorneys typically attend events planned by the Bar Association; CPA’s will typically attend events specific to accountants. These events are filled with individuals who have similar educational and professional backgrounds and are beneficial to your career.

But it is equally important to expand beyond our “trade” network and attend events in other fields. This allows us to let curiosity lead the way and enables us to branch out into groups or organizations uncommon to our daily activities. For example, the same attorneys and CPAs we mentioned may find interest in joining the Advertising Association to learn new topics such as branding, marketing, and communication. We can benefit from these “expansion” events by developing new skills, creating opportunities for collaboration,building up our network, and connecting with potential clients.

What topics outside of your daily work are you curious to learn more about? Are there any organizations outside your trade you would like to start attending?

Networking Tip #4 – Observe How Others Introduce You

How do your mentors, co-workers, managers, and business connections introduce you? What words do they use to describe you and are they clearly defining what you want said about yourself? The way others introduce us is directly linked to the way we introduce ourselves, how we are projecting ourselves, and how we are perceived by others.

A colleague recently introduced me to a coach that he recommended to help promote my book. My colleague’s introduction read, “Mike is a guru, he is an expert in his field, he has helped authors for years to become bestsellers.” My colleague then introduced me to Mike by saying, “Dima is super sweet and is a speaker pal.” I realized immediately that I had been projecting this singular image of being “super sweet,” and that is how he perceived me. I was not happy about that. In a business setting, I do not want to be perceived only as “super sweet” but on my skills and expertise.

It became clear that in my previous discussions with my colleague, I had not clearly communicated what my specialty of work was, how I was making positive changes in my field, was helping my clients achieve success, or even what my book was about. If I had been better at conveying my story and achievements to him, then he would have included that information in his introduction of me. So, I took it upon myself to practice and be more confident in what I say about myself and how I talk about my business. Because, I know this will directly be translated into what people say when they introduce me to others.

What are common words or phrases people typically say about you during an introduction? Are you happy about what they are saying and can you give them more information to better describe you in the future? 

Networking Tip #5 – Nurture Your Cheerleaders + Be a cheerleader

Our cheerleaders are the individuals who show up in our lives and take notice of our potential, even when we do not realize it. They help us by opening doors to new opportunities, listening to our frustrations, and believing in our dreams. Some of our cheerleaders have been cheering us on for years, while others may have been there through certain transitional periods. It is important that we show them our appreciation, as the more we continue to nurture our cheerleaders the more they will continue to cheer for us in our journey.

Who are your cheerleaders? Write out a list of their names, and think of ways to show them gratitude. It could be as simple as sending a card or giving them a call.  Whatever method we use, what matters is that we continue to nurture the relationship we have with them. 

Now, who could you be a cheerleader for? Who could you intentionally elevate in business and be of assistance to in their professional career? Write down a list of three people, and be intentional in helping them by opening doors of opportunity or cheering them on in their journey.