If you’ve had a career for more than say–30 minutes or so–you’ve probably been told how important a professional network is to your success. The stats back that up: 50-85% of all job placements are from referrals as the main source, up to 20% of new business leads come from conferences and tradeshows, or that mentors and teachers can accelerate growth and advancement by an immeasurable degree as well as statistically make you happier at work.
So yes, to say that having a professional network is important is an understatement. But for all the advice and statistics on why we should network, very few people have really been taught HOW to network.
This guide will helpfully provide a roadmap on how to plan your network, how to cultivate new relationships, and how to maintain those relationships for the long haul.
Step 1: Identify the Types of People You Want on Your Team
When you’re learning how to network, you need to consider the different areas of your professional (and personal) life that you want to enhance and support. Why? Different people are at different stages in their life and have different areas of expertise.
Here are some typical communities that should consider as you plan your network:
- Cohort: professionals at the same level, with the same or similar titles: able to share experiences, learnings, support, create community, and refer for positions.
- Mentor: professionals who have advanced beyond where you are now: able to give advice and guidance for career development, have extensive experience, and are looking to give back to community via protege.
- Customer: those folks you serve (either actual customers or “internal” customers like different departments or vendors) can give you outside perspectives on your field.
- Thought Leader: People who you think are very smart and influential within your field, company, etc. You can learn a ton by simply asking a few questions and soaking up their presence.
- Social Circle: These are the folks you met through church, daycare, book club, at the gym, etc. Although less strategic, they definitely have a place in your professional network as they are the least insular and therefore, have the greatest reach to new resources and ideas.
Step 2: Identify What You Want and What You Can Give to the Relationship
Conversations, especially conversations with (gulp!) strangers, tend to go smoother if you have an objective to help you navigate the waters. This is where most people HATE the idea of networking; there’s nothing worse than standing in a room with a bunch of strangers being forced to make “small talk”.
My recommendation is pretty simple: never make small talk – instead, have a decently thought out “communication plan” to drive the conversation to meaningful territory and begin relationship building.
The execution of this plan is pretty straight forward. It’s a series of questions you can ask anyone in the room to give you a pretty decent insight into where they land if the network your cultivating.
Here’s my 1,2,3 method for how to network in conversation:
- Introduce yourself (they’ll tell you their name)
- Ask the person what they do (they’ll tell you their title and maybe their company)
- Ask why they’re here (they’ll tell you their objective)
The other person’s objective is the most critical thing for you to focus on when meeting a new person. The best way to become interesting and memorable to others is by being of service, bringing potential value, or showing interest in them.
That’s typically enough to drive the conversation into actionable waters. Whether your speaking to a job seeker, someone looking to network, a potential customer, or the keynote speaker, you can carry on a conversation as a few more probing questions to carry on a heavy conversation at a later time.
When you’re ready to wrap up, do so by telling the person you’re speaking with what you can provide them or why you’re interested in them and then make the ask for their contact information so you can carry on the relationship later:
“Well, so and so, it’s always nice to meet someone in the same line of work. I’d love to meet with you again sometime to compare notes on _____”
“Name, I think the topic of your presentation was fascinating and I have a few follow up questions. Would you mind if we could have a chat soon to discuss further?”
Then, after the event, write a nice email to that person telling them how great it was to meet them and to set up that second appointment.
NOTE: what if this person isn’t really a good fit for you? Sometimes when networking, we meet people whom we immediately dislike or are way out of alignment with the relationships you’re trying to cultivate. This is okay. Once you follow your strategy, you can simply smile at them and say “Thanks so and so, it was great meeting you!” and move on.
Step 3: How to Network for the Long Haul
This is where most networks fall apart. Even if you’re good at meeting new people, you likely are terrible at keeping up with them. Just because someone is within your network on social media or you know their email doesn’t necessarily mean your are pals.
You need to build a long term plan to keep up with your network. This is how you keep relationships strong. Here’s how to get it right:
Be Social on Social Media – taking 10 minutes daily to like/comment/share social content is a great way to not only show your receptiveness to people within your network but also helping them (and in turn yourself) gain exposure within platforms. While you’re at it, if you find content from someone new that is interesting, begin following and engaging with that person as well (more on that in a bit).
Create a social schedule – identify how much time you can dedicate to networking. What your purpose is with that time? How do you ensure that you are giving yourself the best opportunity to grow existing relationships AND building new ones? Can you handle a 15-minute phone call once a week? How about brunch every other week? A networking event once a quarter? Set small, achievable goals and STICK TO THEM.
Here’s a sample networking schedule:
- Daily – Social media update (10 min)Objective: engage with posts. Take note of any life events to send a card snail mail – this goes a long way in showing you care
- Weekly/BiWeekly – Catch-up call or coffee date (15-45 min). Actual phone call or coffee meeting with your contacts.
- Monthly – Check-in email (30 min). Create an email or social media message to reach out to your contacts, asking how are things going and if they’d like to chat soon.
- NOTE: I actually label the emails of folks in my network and reach out to by calendar. A-D in January and July. E-G February and August. H-L March and September. M -P April and October. Q-Z May and November. Everyone gets a note or Holiday card in December.
- Monthly – Personal Development meetings for yourself (30-60 minute). This time is to help YOU grow and develop.
- Quarterly – Networking Events (60-120 minutes)
Quality time over Quantity time– it’s important how you spend time with your network. Understanding and identifying common interests and moving the relationship away from the formality will make networking feel more authentic. It’s perfectly okay to go for a beer or invite your cohort buddy to a game night if that’s what you’re both into. It’s also very helpful to link like-minded people together to begin building their community as well.
With dedicated time, effort, and a mindset of providing service, your network is going to flourish. Start now to cultivate your community, grow your career, help you get access to more opportunities, and find a port in any inevitable storm.