“Build It Before You Need It” – 5 Tips for Cultivating Your Network
Networking is a powerful career tool – arguably THE most powerful – but it can also be one of the most challenging strategies for a job-seeker to implement. How can you go about developing relationships that will help you achieve your goals without feeling like you are asking for handouts?
The answer to that question is the age-old adage about networking: “Build it before you need it.” And while the saying is common, it rarely comes with sufficient elaboration on how exactly one can go about cultivating a useful network.In that spirit, I’ve put together a short list of ideas that can be used to nurture your network, regardless of where you are in the job search process. Here goes:
Develop Relevant Connections
The first (and most obvious) step in developing your network is connecting with the right people. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways, including interning with the right company or industry, conducting informational interviews, or joining a professional association.
You should also think about people you currently know who might be good networking contacts. Do you have any family or family friends who work in your industry of interest? Are there any acquaintances from school or past jobs who might be able to provide career support? Spend a little time browsing through your Facebook contacts and reflecting on who you might already know. Strengthening a current connection – no matter how distant – is often easier than starting from scratch.
Share Your Story
The second step to cultivating your network is being prepared to share your story with people you meet. Whether you are chatting with extended family members during Thanksgiving or meeting new professional contacts at a conference, you need to be able to explain your career aspirations. Without some knowledge of your goals and needs, networking contacts have no understandable way of helping you.
Start by figuring out what your goals are – which is sometimes easier said than done. You don’t have to know everything, but you should at least get comfortable describing your interests and be able to discuss 2-3 next steps for your near future. Even if one of your biggest career needs is more information to help you clarify your vision, that knowledge at least helps others to understand where you are at in your journey.
Next, craft your elevator speech. The elevator speech is a 2-3 minute pitch describing who you are as a professional and what your vision is for your future. Tips for crafting your pitch can be found in one of my previous CareerThoughts submissions.
LinkedIn is a fantastic tool that modern job seekers can heavily use to their advantage, especially for cultivating a network. Not only can you use the platform to keep track of your contacts, but you can also create a professional brand for yourself and check in regularly to see what others in your network are doing in their careers.
Begin by creating a strong profile and keeping it up to date. You should also add all of your present contacts into your network and be diligent about keeping your LinkedIn network current with any new connections. For every job, internship, or experience that you have, take the time to connect with your supervisors, coworkers, and friends on LinkedIn. The more LinkedIn connections you have, the better – and it can prevent you from awkward situations down the road if you decide you want to re-establish contact with someone.
I also encourage people to request recommendations from supervisors and coworkers as soon as they can. Recent recommendations will be much better than ones you request years after you have left the organization, and coworkers are usually much more willing to submit their feedback for recent work experiences.
Finally, update your status on LinkedIn regularly (once a week or so), and engage other people in your network through the newsfeed. Keeping others current on your career path helps to involve them in your journey and spreads awareness about your professional brand.
Touch Base Regularly
Once you begin to develop some good connections, you must make a concerted effort to maintain regular contact. Even if you only do so once or twice a year, take some small steps to touch base with people in your network and show genuine interest in their own lives and career paths. This could take the form of a holiday greeting card, a phone call, sharing a relevant blog post (ahem), or extending a lunch invitation. Reaching out to your contacts regularly shows them that you have a sincere interest in establishing a relationship and that you are not just someone who reaches out when they need a favor.
For more on this topic in particular, I highly recommend Keith Ferrazzi’s book “Never Eat Alone,” which provides a great introduction to building and maintaining a network in just this manner.
Say “Thanks!” (and return the favors)
Last but not least, remember to say thank you to people in your network as often as you can. Showing gratitude for the support you have received is not only courteous, it’s good networking. Furthermore, you should strive to help others in any way possible. For example, if you see a contact on LinkedIn who posts a status update about their interest in advertising and you have a family contact in that industry, consider facilitating an introduction. The more people you help, the more networking capital you will have when you need it the most.
As I tell students, networking is a process of establishing “mutually-beneficial relationships,” not just getting what you need, so always seek ways that you can build lasting connections and help others achieve their career goals as well.