Successful networking means consciously building and nurturing your network, making sure that it is relevant, useful and a place where you give as well as get — the best relationships are, as the saying goes, a two-way street, including professional ones. But presuming you’ve nurtured your network, online and off, and built up a strong fabric of relationships, what next? How can you make sure you’re using this amazing and hard-won resource to its fullest advantage?
A network is a dynamic and living entity, not just an archive of all the contacts you have, and if you’re not actively looking at ways you can leverage the expertise, talent and goodwill within it to progress your career and express your potential then you’re missing the point. A strong network can help you progress in your career and reach your full potential, from finding a new job or winning a promotion to starting a side hustle or raising your profile. Recent data gathered by LinkedIn shows that women in the UK are still 27% less likely than men to have a strong professional network, something that underlines the importance of both continuing to build on and maximise the power of the network we do have. We look at five ways to boost your network savvy and tap into its power to impact your professional development.
Make yourself visible
As associate justice of the US Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor has noted, ‘To succeed in this world you have to be known to people’. While this might seem like an a priori function of having a network, the key is in reminding those you do know on a regular basis that you exist, so they can then amplify your profile exponentially with others — word of mouth being the best advertisement — and being proactive about increasing your visibility in various channels. Sincere appreciation is a good start: write a blog or LinkedIn post referencing others’ opinions and tag them in it; write your own opinion posts about areas that interest you or celebrating your wins to highlight your work to senior managers who might be reading; interact regularly with others’ posts on relevant LinkedIn industry groups. Networking isn’t just about online; there’s work you can do ‘in real life’ too: In person networking events can be leveraged to find mentors among more senior people at your company, to get insight from people in other areas of the business on a particular project, to find your way into special interest groups (or set up one of your own); and a simple request to meet for coffee can often start a conversation of possibilities and new perspectives.
Leverage your weak ties
It’s easy, especially if you lack confidence in your networking abilities, to stick to proactive contact with the section of your network that you know well and trust will not reject you. However, sociologist Mark Granovetter’s research on the power of ‘weak ties’ reveals that the majority of people get jobs and opportunities through people they occasionally or rarely see, rather than closer connections. So, it’s worth doing an audit of the outliers in your networks and tapping into the power and potential of these more ‘passive’ contacts. Create a regular practice to weekly reach out to someone you might not have spoken to in six months or longer — this could be to ask them a question, suggest a coffee, say hello, or to find out what they’re working on or introduce them to someone you think they might like to meet. In this way, you can maximise the knowledge and circles of a wider range of contacts and keep them active, widening the dynamic power of your network.
Make an ‘outrageous ask’
Make an ‘outrageous ask’ to someone you feel is ‘beyond your reach’ and learn to face your fear of rejection alongside. Fear of rejection leads people to say ‘no’ to themselves, and this includes using your network to its fullest potential. For inspiration, Jia Jiang, author of Rejection Proof put himself through 100 days of rejection and discovered some fascinating learnings on the way. These included ‘staying’ after any initial rejection to ask ‘why’ (‘don’t leave before the miracle’) and clarify the situation — in this way, he found that many ‘nos’ can be turned to yeses. Create an ambitious list of people you want to learn from and get creative about how to make it happen. Ask a trusted contact who the most interesting person they know is and try to arrange to meet them, email a contact you admire about a blog they have written, message a speaker before you go to their talk to say how much you’d like to meet them, reconnect with an old colleague, or ask a senior leader to share their inspiration with you. Some of these conversations will lead nowhere, but many will spur new ideas and connections that can lead to interesting opportunities.
Connect and learn…
A request can come with perceived pressure and lead to people feeling ambushed, especially if it comes out of the blue. A great way to get value from your network is to ask for information or insight instead. But before you connect, make sure that what you’re asking someone is in their purview and perhaps more importantly something they’re genuinely interested in — looking at their social media, blog or LinkedIn posts can give an idea of their focus or what they’re passionate about. And crucially, make sure you’re asking something you genuinely want the answer to and are open to the response. ‘Asks are best made from a place of enthusiasm, openness and confidence over whatever unfolds,’ says Hannah Braime of Becoming Who You Are consultancy. ‘No matter how high stakes the ask might feel to us, it’s important to remember that we don’t need the person to say yes. There will always be another way to move forward.’ This holds true of asking for a recommendation too. However, networks are a fabulous hive mind to explore, and few people aren’t flattered by a request for their discernment; need a specialist, a role model for a new phase in your career or even a mentor? Someone in your network will have interesting and often unexpected suggestions for you — and don’t be afraid to ask for introductions if the recommendation is made, with a reciprocal offer of help if and when your network connection needs it.
Plant more seeds
American author Zig Ziglar once stated, ‘You can have everything in life you want if you will just help other people get what they want.’ And therein lies the powerful foundation of all transformational relationships. Being generous, helpful and supportive to people regularly — just for the sake of it — may seem off-track, but true networking power is a long game and ‘planting seeds’ continually is the key to growing a bountiful network of good relationships and collaborations to harvest when you really need them. Tagging people into useful social media posts and articles, offering help to initiatives and groups at work or your expertise on a project, sending physical thank you notes or gifts, introducing useful people to each other unbidden, endorsing people online or to associated contacts, extending invitations and recommending useful events — these are all ways in which you can give back. But be sincere about your wish to add value to your network. Forcing quick wins by focusing on transactional relationships will only take you so far. ‘People will be able to tell your agenda is the only reason you’re helping’ says consumer psychologist Michael Fishman. ‘The most memorable people are the most helpful.’