Professional Networking: How to Build and Use a Network
Have you ever contacted a former coworker for help finding a new job? Attended a mixer at an industry conference? Posted on social media to get answers to a thorny career question? If so, you’ve networked. Building a professional network formalizes a process you’ve most likely engaged in naturally; it’s assembling a group of people who can help you navigate your career.
Networking involves more than simply gathering contacts. Effective networks are relevant to your career and populated with people you trust. Your network should have some relevance to your career and be filled with those you trust; the key is quality, not quantity. Approach networking prepared to offer help as promptly as you receive it; members of healthy and effective networks depend on each other for honest feedback.
Networks aren’t built overnight. Still, the time investment is worth it, as you’re building sources who will help you throughout your career. Read on for 13 suggestions for building, maintaining and using a professional network.
What’s professional networking?
Dedicate time to networking
“Most of us see the value in networking, along with all of the opportunities that come along with it,” said Devin Schumacher, founder of Serp, a digital marketing agency based in Pasadena, California. To make networking part of your routine, Schumacher suggests setting aside a specific time to expand your professional circle. Having an exact time, say noon to 1 p.m. each Wednesday, keeps you accountable and ensures consistency in your networking approach. “If you set time aside to network every day, you’ll create new and exciting opportunities for your career to take shape,” he said.
Lead with value
Networking isn’t just about how people can help you; it’s about how you can help people. Wanting to provide value in her network in order to grow relationships is now Kristen Bolig, founder of SecurityNerd, started her business. “I wanted to be of service to others,” said Bolig, who’s based in North Carolina. “It makes a huge difference and networking becomes simpler when you’re thinking of the other person before yourself.” Putting other people first “comes back, often when you least expect it.”
“Be authentic, care personally, and ask deep questions to understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, professional and personal goals, and ways we can help each other,” said Chris Ingate, enterprise account executive at Overhaul, an Austin, Texas-based real-time visibility and risk-management technology provider for supply chains. “Showing vulnerability is a great strength,” he said. “Share personal details on your values, experience, current challenges and motivations.”
Start with your peers
Resist the urge to reach out to top tech people; focus instead on your immediate peers, said Nick Drewe, founder of Wethrift, an e-commerce platform that helps online shoppers save money. “They’re the ones who are going to grow with you in the industry and provide opportunities as you go along, the ones who will hire you or you may want to hire them, and the ones you can swap ideas with about all things tech,” he said. Drewe also advises networking with people you like and with whom you have a natural rapport. “People want to work with their friends,” he said.
Choose quality over quantity
“People ask for a connection on LinkedIn well in advance of a strong relationship connection, and as a result your LinkedIn network is typically filled with people you don’t know that well,” said Ryan Pitylak, CMO at ZenBusiness, an Austin, Texas-based firm that helps businesses incorporate. If a colleague offers to introduce you to someone, accept the invitation, said Pitylak. That new contact might very well help you gain perspective on a situation or your career overall.
These people, who are natural networkers, get satisfaction from making introductions that end up being mutually beneficial. He also suggests keeping in contact with people who are in similar roles, even a rung or two up the ladder. “These people tend to have actionable knowledge about how to manage through your current problems and opportunities,” he said.
Finally, keep in touch with people from your past, including former colleagues, clients, partners, et cetera. “If you worked closely with them, they know you well and you’ve built up enough of a relationship that will justify a future call when you need some help.”
“Make yourself visible or people won’t know that you and your business exist,” said Fred McGill Jr., CEO and founder of Atlanta real-estate tech startup SimpleShowing. He suggests LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook as ripe platforms for forming a network. “Connect to people and share things about what you do and what you know about your industry,” he said. He seconds Bolig’s advice to share ideas, knowledge and expertise with those who need help. “You may not realize it quickly, but you’ll see that people will remember you later,” he said.
Produce content regularly
Fresh, engaging social media content will connect you with more people and strengthen your network, said Mark Hayes, head of marketing at Kintell, a platform for one-on-one tutorials and advice from experts. Given the high traffic on social media, it may take time for your content to gain traction, but consistency will eventually put your content in front of the right people, he said.
There’s another reason to create rather than passively consume content. As a creator, your contribution pops up on your network’s feed and gives them a chance to engage. If you’re only responding, it can get swallowed in a stream of comments. “Cultivate opportunities for important discussions to take place between insightful individuals to build your professional network effectively,” Hayes said. “You’ll be surprised at how many amazing people in your niche and industry that you’ll meet online.”
Join your college alumni group
“Starting conversations within the group is fairly easy because you share the same school,” said Max Harland, CEO of Dentaly, a global digital network that connects dentists with prospective patients. “It offers ease of communication and an excellent way to build your professional network.” Harland recommends organizing regular events and meetings to keep the group close.
Try the apps
Bumble Bizz and Bumble BFF have been good sources of networking relationships, said Nate Tsang, founder and CEO of stock research platform Wall Street Zen. “They’re free and worth a shot, particularly in our remote work era.”
Be a maven
Build relationships between the people you meet and suggest opportunities for further growth, Tsang said. “Networking is very much a ‘get what you give’ prospect — help others and they'll return the favor in turn,” he said.
Focus on one-to-one relationships
They’re more effective, if not quite as much fun, than mixers or events for real networking, Tsang said. “Research who’s active in your industry, what their approach to networking is and how you can best reach out,” he said. Research firms ahead of time, and if the person is a major influencer, buy and try their product or service to fuel a better conversation.
Update your social media profiles to show commitment to your professional development, said tech consultant Arthur Iinuma, co-founder and president of software development firm ISBX. He also suggested finding out what other professionals in your field are reading and what groups they belong to, then joining and participating in those discussions. “Build connections and keep lines of communication open by messaging them once a quarter,” he said.
“Growing your professional network does not come at once, and it certainly does not come easy,” said Kristaps Brencans, chief marketing officer at On The Map, a Miami, Florida-based digital marketing firm. Connecting with too many people too quickly comes off as “desperate, annoying and unprofessional, all of which will keep you from building strong business partners,” he said. The patient approach helps you find your niche, identify the exact people you want to connect with, and thus build an effective and long-lasting network.
Once your network is built, “the rest is a natural progression,” said Casey Renner, a partner at OpenView, a Boston-based venture capital firm focused on business software. Renner suggests going to your network for unbiased advice and an outside perspective on facing career challenges. Too, a genuine network will let you know when they see a job that’s right for you.
Finally, your network can help with career temperature checks. “This group of people are most likely not part of your company, so they can offer you an unbiased perspective,” Renner said. “It might not be what you want to hear, but isn’t that why you’ve built this group to begin with?”