A strong network is essential throughout your career, whether you’re looking for a new job or board seat, sourcing talent or vendors, seeking new business or speaking engagements – or even helping someone secure an internship. Yet, people regularly admit to us that they’ve let their networks lapse…
“I’ve had a demanding job and haven’t had time to focus on anything else.”
“I thought networking was only necessary if I was looking for a job.”
“I've done well in my career without a network until now – I didn’t realize how important it is.”
Growing your network and building relationships is a lot like growing a garden. A bed of soil doesn’t turn into a flourishing bed of flowers on its own. After planting the seeds, you need to provide regular maintenance – watering and pruning – to see it thrive. Similarly, a robust network, i.e., one that you can tap into when you need it (and often you won’t know in advance when that will be or for what reason), requires regularly building new connections, as well as maintaining and nurturing existing relationships.
All too frequently, people feel overwhelmed by the thought of having to incorporate network-building into their daily lives. Networking doesn’t mean that you must attend industry events every week, post and engage prolifically on LinkedIn or constantly schedule breakfast meeting, coffee or drinks with colleagues. What’s essential is that you prioritize cultivating relationships within the framework of your schedule, career stage and professional goals, rather than put it at the bottom of your list.
Regardless of how you meet others, what their title is, where they live, what organization they're with etc., people in your network offer a lot of value. Some of the things your contacts can do include:
Good contacts are invaluable assets and your relationships with them should be treated as such.
So how do you reinvigorate your network if you've let it lapse?
The good news is that a neglected network can be restored to fertile ground, and a great place to start is to get out there and attend some events.
If you catch yourself saying, “I’ve been meaning to join XYZ association, but (…),” stop talking about it and just do it! Not only are professional associations ripe with opportunity for network-building, they can also enhance your knowledge of hot-button issues, industry trends, technology developments and more. If you want to step it up a notch, join a committee or volunteer for an initiative/project.
Do you remember the last time you were at an industry conference? If not, then perhaps you should attend one. These events facilitate connecting with like-minded professionals to create relationships beyond your existing network and support your professional development. Don’t forget to see if your company will foot the bill for it – they'll benefit too!
Another avenue to build relationships is joining your undergrad and graduate alumni associations. Not only can you reconnect with classmates, you can establish relationships with people who were ahead of, or behind you as well. Check out special interest groups – many alumni associations have subgroups for different professions, industries and geographic regions.
Explore Other Areas
As you think about building valuable professional contacts, aim to go beyond your wheelhouse. Don’t limit your focus to networking exclusively with senior finance professionals or media executives, for instance, if that’s your world. Step outside of your comfort zone to make connections across industries and functional areas.
If you're not quite ready to get out there with purely a professional scope, social activities – not only on the golf course – also promote networking. Wine tastings, tennis and softball leagues, volunteer activities and charity events provide great opportunities to meet new people, build relationships and expand your network.
Just as growing your network is important, staying in touch with those you know already is critical. Start with the short list of your most important contacts. Then look to deepen relationships with those you don’t know well, but should or would like to, and get back in touch with select former colleagues and classmates.
Remember, effective relationships require a balance of give and take. As you consider how you engage with your network, make sure you’re not always asking for favors, referrals, advice etc. while offering nothing of value in return. Introduce colleagues who would benefit from knowing each other. Recommend someone for a job. Get a connection into a coveted event. Not only are you being helpful and reinforcing your own value – you're doing something that's quite fulfilling too!
While seeing people in person is the best way to cultivate lasting relationships, making time for it isn’t always feasible. Thankfully, you can maintain communication through periodic emails and phone calls. Check in with those you haven’t heard from in a while. If you lose track of when you were last in touch, set calendar reminders to reach out again in 6 weeks, 3 months etc. – the optimal interval will vary by relationship.
Social media also enables engagement and ad hoc communication with peers. Use it to your advantage by liking or sharing their content, starting or contributing to conversations and sharing valuable information that's helpful and promotes discussion.
While you may be tempted to put cultivating your network on the back burner until you “need” it, it’s most beneficial when it's ongoing and proactive and not in reaction to an opportunity or situation.
There’s no such thing as networking too early. The timing of leads from colleagues (especially for job or board roles) doesn't always align with your schedule or generate instantly once you begin to nurture your network. You’ll be better prepared and positioned by actively maintaining a robust network before relying on it becomes a necessity.
When you maintain relationships, others have a good sense of who you are now (vs. 5 or 10 years ago). This will increase the odds that you’ll be top-of-mind (or at least in a broader consideration set), should someone hear of an opportunity that may be fitting for you.
Additionally, leveraging your network is a great way to gain insight into a potential job, strategic partner, boss, new market/industry, vendor etc. and it can provide valuable referral sources.
Investing time and attention to grow and maintain your network will yield more fruitful returns – i.e., valuable relationships, business growth and career opportunities – than if you let your network “go to seed.”