Professional Networking 101

Board game pieces on a table interconnected with lines (Pixabay)

Whether you’re a student, professional or entrepreneur, having a strong network can make a world of difference when it comes to achieving your goals. While professional networking is often associated with job hunting, its benefits are numerous: in addition to career opportunities, your professional network may offer business leads, knowledge resources and even lasting friendships.

So what exactly is professional networking? Put simply, it’s the process of deliberately building and maintaining relationships with others in your professional sphere. In the “Networking to Get Ahead” lesson, Sadhana Hall of Dartmouth College shares this insight:

To be the best at what you do, you need to surround yourself with people who inspire you, who motivate you, and who challenge you. People who ask you difficult questions and provide honest feedback. Networking is the practice of intentionally seeking out these people…it’s just as tangible and necessary as your technical skills.

Professional networking involves meeting a variety of people you may not otherwise meet or socialize with. The key is to keep an open mind: even people with whom you have little in common could turn out to be some of your most valuable connections.

HOW TO BUILD YOUR NETWORK

Keep in mind that building your professional network is a process that requires sincerity and dedication; it can’t be done overnight. That said, there are many opportunities to establish useful relationships. For example:

  • Reach out to your personal contacts: While they may not share your career interests, your personal contacts are extremely valuable when it comes to networking. Start by creating a list of everyone you know: friends, family and neighbors, as well as current and past employers, coworkers, teachers and classmates. Reach out to these people and share your goals, plans and questions with them; chances are, they can refer you to others who may be helpful.
  • Request informational interviews: An informational interview is a meeting to gain insight and/or advice from someone with experience in your field of interest. Unlike a job interview, you initiate and conduct the interview with someone you hope to learn from.
  • Attend conferences or formal networking events: Industry and/or professional events present a ripe opportunity to build your network: it is perfectly acceptable to strike up a conversation with a stranger in this context. Hall recommends the following approach: “Begin your conversation with what you know about the person or the organization, talk about your common interests, and build your conversation from there. Let them know how you can possibly help them.”
  • Leverage digital networks: Social media, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, are optimal for connecting with people who have similar professional interests and goals. A good way to start is by asking people you already know to make “digital introductions” with people you would like to network with (e.g., by email or LinkedIn message). You can also join online groups or forums to build relationships with people who share your interests.

HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR NETWORK

Hall reminds us to think of a professional network as “something that is alive and requires time and attention to stay healthy and relevant.” It is not enough to call upon your contacts only when you need their help: you must also think about how you can help them. For example:

  • Pass along relevant information: Reach out to your contacts when something reminds you of them, such as an article or event they might like. Simple gestures such as these clearly demonstrate that you are thinking of others’ needs.
  • Facilitate mutually beneficial introductions: If you know two people who share similar interests or goals, connect them! You can facilitate an introduction in-person (if you have the opportunity), use social media such as LinkedIn, or send both parties an email. Be sure to mention how you know each person and how they might benefit from connecting.
  • Reach out in advance of a job search: In the event that you are looking for a new job, it’s appropriate to call upon your professional network to help you. You can request job leads or relevant contacts for informational interviews, and/or seek advice from your network. Keep your contacts informed of your progress, and always acknowledge their assistance with a note of thanks.

Though building a professional network can be challenging at first, your efforts will be worthwhile in the long term. And remember: the best time to build relationships is before you need them. Good luck!

For more information and tips for your professional development, visit the YLAI Network’s Tools & Resources page. You can also take a free online course through YLAI Empowers.