We’ve all heard the advice that networking is important for our careers. And regardless of your profession, your industry or demographic, the message is loud and clear. If you want to be successful, you need to spend time networking. It’s great advice. But the critical missing piece to this advice is exactly how to network.
There’s an old adage that if you throw spaghetti against the wall and it sticks, the pasta is done. Over the years, this phrase has evolved to mean that when you throw enough activity or ideas at a situation or problem, eventually something will stick; eventually you will find the answer. So when we’re told we need to network to help us be successful, those of us who are ambitious, tackle the problem with this approach. We throw a lot of activity at the issue and hope for the best. We go to lots of networking events and conferences, collect and hand out hundreds of business cards. We establish an online presence and build a large group of followers. Unfortunately, this doesn’t result in the type of network that supports our career advancement. It has no purpose or intention.
It takes a village to have a successful career; people who provide you with information, connect you to others, help you get your job done, advocate for you, mentor, guide, and sponsor you. And to build this type of network, your networking activity needs to be strategic. To create the type of network that supports your ambition, your efforts must be intentional and purposeful.
What holds you back?
Your mindset. The first thing that prevents us from building a strategic network is our mindset that networking is self-serving. And when we believe that any attempt to establish relationships is only for our benefit, we are less inclined to pursue these conversations. “It’s all about me and I’m uncomfortable asking for help.” A strong network, however, is built with mutually beneficial relationships; where both parties benefit. In the process of getting to know someone, you understand how you can add value and help them, and they are then willing to help you.
You limit your network. Our comfort level is to network with people we know and like; people with similar backgrounds and points of view. Research shows us that this type of closed network, limits our exposure to people who can offer new connections and ideas.
You aren’t strategic. We use the ‘spaghetti against the wall’ approach and don’t build a network focused on our career goal and ambition. We spend our time meeting random people and hope that this effort will deliver an important contact over time.
You aren’t proactive. We wait until we need help for a new job or assistance selling a new concept or idea. We wait until we have a need and then discover that we no longer have much of a support network. We haven’t reached out to our contacts or nurtured the relationships and now we feel uncomfortable asking for help.
You don’t schedule time to network. I hear the excuse that there’s no time to network from many women. They can’t go out for drinks or attend networking events after work most nights. My answer is to schedule time on your weekly calendar for a coffee or lunch and then reach out to people to meet you during the work day. Be strategic about which evening events are worthwhile for you and try going to one or two meetings to assess if that organization is one that will expose you to new people.
You don’t leverage relationships. We meet a lot of people and take their business cards and have an initial conversation but never follow up. The result is that we don’t have real relationships. We don’t know these people and they don’t know us. Be strategic about your connections and take the time to get to know people with the potential for mutually beneficial relationships.
How do you create a strategic network?
Start with your career goal. What are you hoping to achieve in the next 3-5 years? Then ask yourself, who do you know and who do you need to know to help you reach that goal.
Understand your value proposition. How does your work contribute to positive business outcomes? This value proposition positions you as credible and helps you build influence. Your value proposition helps you create mutually beneficial relationships because you understand how you can help others. Once you get how you can help others, you eliminate the limiting belief that your networking activity is self-serving.
Build mutually beneficial relationships. As you meet people, ask them open-ended questions about their work. What are they working on? What are some of their current challenges? If there an opportunity for you to help by connecting them to a resource or guide them based on your value proposition and/or experience? This is how you create strong relationships.
Find allies and champions. A strong network supports and advocates for you. It helps you sell your ideas across the organization, promotes you for new opportunities. Once you make connections and offer to help others achieve their goals, your contacts will respond in kind when you have a need.
Be strategic. Be thoughtful about who is in your network and the best way to connect with these people. Spend your time wisely by focusing on these relationships and nurturing them over time. Be deliberate about what organizations and events you attend to help you connect with potential contacts. And take action!
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