Back when I was in high school and college, my dad would often tell me, “Chris, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” repeating the adage almost to the point of ad nauseum. I would roll my eyes, give a half-hearted response and pay no mind to the sage advice he was giving me on establishing and growing my network. Despite only being a few years into my career, I can now admit – Dad you were right (but don’t tell him I said that). Making connections, cultivating relationships and establishing a robust, professional network is a useful tool, offering potential career opportunities, new clients, mentorship, volunteer work and career advice. However, reaping the benefits of a well-established network takes time and effort, and beginning the process can be a bit daunting and uncomfortable.
Those who delay building their network or choose to ignore it may miss out on opportunities for continued professional development and career advancement. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy for networking, the following tips can be utilized by professionals at all experience levels:
- Have a plan. Before you begin contacting your professional acquaintances or going to different industry events, create a list of goals you hope to accomplish through these opportunities. Making an introduction to a potential client? Learning more about a specific industry or sector? How often will you set time aside to network? Twice a month? Once a week? Identifying goals ahead of time will allow you to aim for tangible results and track your networking progress.
- Utilize groups available to you. One of the most accessible networks that you’re already a part of is your alumni network. Getting involved with a local chapter is a great way to start going to alumni events, making connections, and building a foundation for your professional network. You will also have built-in conversation topics about your graduate or undergraduate experience, sports teams or other campus activities, making it easier to break the ice with new people. There are an increasing number of colleges and universities offering virtual networking events, including my alma mater Bucknell University, creating a convenient way to attend networking events and make connections from my laptop.
- Practice. Building your network is a skill, just like training to run a 5K or taking a few strokes off your golf game. The more time and effort you put into networking, the more likely you will see results. Developing a habit of networking takes time, but continued presence at these events will not only increase the number of connections you make, it will also help you develop your personal brand and establish legitimacy within these groups.
- Follow-up. You’ve gone to a few events, swapped business cards, and met with other like-minded professionals – but now what? Taking the time to send a brief thank-you email shows you value the time you spent meeting that person and care about continuing that professional relationship. Additionally, adding these new connections on LinkedIn can serve as a virtual rolodex, expanding your online network and tracking the contacts you have made. But, it doesn’t stop there. Set a reminder to reach out to your newly-established connections about various things, such as congratulating them about their new promotions or sharing a relevant article. By showing that you care about their professional successes and interests, they’ll be more likely to care about your career, as well.
With some planning, thought, and a little elbow grease, establishing a professional network can be a useful tool that will serve you well in your career and help you grow professionally. Because, like my dad always says – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.