By Monica McCoy, founder of international HR consultancy Monica Motivates.
Your professional network is simply (and powerfully) how you connect with other people. Like computers networked to share resources and exchange files, people connected to one another gain access to greater resources too.
Research shows that people with stronger professional connections enjoy greater career success, higher compensation and an increased rate of salary growth over time. They also experience more career satisfaction.
“My colleagues and I found again and again that flourishing in your career depends as much on your relationships, both in and out of work, as it does on your job itself,” says founder of the research consortium, Connected Commons, and Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College in Massachusetts, Rob Cross, PhD.
So, what’s not to like about networking? Cue Barbara Streisand and start singing, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” Except that, despite all the positives, professional networking often falls to the bottom of your to-do list. Maybe there are too many burning priorities to address first. Or, you avoid networking because you think of it as schmoozing or imposing yourself on others. You may even fear it could make you look needy.
University of Manchester Lecturer in Education, Mark Carrigan, PhD, suggests new hybrid options can be particularly helpful for introverts, like him, who prefer more focused interactions and less “mingling.” Love it or hate it, it’s time to recognise networking as a critical professional competency built on forging mutually beneficial connections.
Get to your why…
Expanding and deepening professional connections can increase access to tangible knowledge and skill development, and the support to make the most of them. Connections with mentors and peers can help you learn about new opportunities, raise your profile in your organisation and industry, grow your knowledge more quickly, stimulate fresh ideas and make your career journey less lonely and more enjoyable.
That can be especially important for women and underrepresented people who can benefit from knowing they are not alone.
The best networks also help diversify your circle of support by connecting you with people at different career stages, in other industries, with varied functional expertise, and with cultural backgrounds and perspectives that differ from yours.
The importance of network diversity rests on the seminal work of American sociologist Mark Granovetter, PhD, whose paper The Strength of Weak Ties, is one of the most cited works in the social sciences. His theory holds that connections with people more removed from you (weaker ties) are more likely to expose you to new information, ideas and influence than people closer to you who are likely to be more similar.
…And then to the how
Once you commit to networking, you need a plan to make it happen. For extroverts, formal networking events and large conferences may be golden. Others will excel connecting one on one or online. Tailor your efforts to your needs and personality and you’re more likely to follow through. Here are some ideas to get started.
- Show genuine interest in others. Avoid making networking transactional and uncomfortable by focusing on others instead of yourself. Ask open-ended questions about their work and listen deeply. If you struggle to make conversation, this approach gives you time to warm up.
- Re-engage dormant connections. While we physically distanced out of necessity during the pandemic, you may not yet have fully re-engaged even online. Start with those you already know to reignite connections. Colleagues, customers, suppliers and others will appreciate being remembered.
- Offer help. Proactively search for ways to be of service to those you’d like to add to your network. You will build in reasons to connect and increase the possibility of further interactions down the road.
- Follow up. Many great conversations never convert to fruitful relationships because no one takes the next step. Be the one to reach out with an email or call to keep the conversation going. Even better, send an article on a topic you discussed or contact information for a vendor who could be helpful. Offer to introduce them to someone new.
- Make a direct ask. If there is someone you want to meet and you have a mutual connection, ask for an introduction. Most people will be flattered to be sought out for specific expertise. Or send a LinkedIn invitation and introduce yourself via the connection request and mention a shared interest or mutual contact.
Your career, business and life will grow when you build a web of connection that inspires you to reach higher and supports you in the process.