A few years ago, my sister asked me to co lead a workshop to help a group of her fellow psychologists build their professional network.
Here’s how she opened the event: “I know most of us really don’t like networking, and I’m glad you’re here anyway. For most of us networking is worse than a sharp stick in the eye.”
I heard murmurs of agreement and saw heads bobbing up and down. These people hated networking. But I came to learn that a big part of it was how they defined networking and the approach they believed they had to use to build and nurture their networks.
I have come to learn that for many people, networking feels inauthentic and cheesy, and seems to take them away from the real work of helping clients and doing the work.
And yet, your network can be a tremendously powerful tool in “doing the work” and your investment in building your network can be among the most authentic and meaningful parts of your day.
In my work building engaged communities and forever transactions for all kinds of organizations, I have spent a lot of time teaching people how to build their networks in an ethical and comfortable way.
Here are some tips that can help you build yours!
Part One-Dive in
Day 1: Send a personalized, heartfelt, happy new year wish to 10 people who are important to your network–professional, personal or both. You can do this anytime in January.
Day 2: Define your networking goals: Networks are important for human connection, to get your kids into preschool, to learn something important in a hurry–not just for work. What are your goals for your network? Why is it worth your time to invest?
Day 3: Know the difference between communities (groups you’re a part of) and your network (people who know you specifically, and would help you). First, write a list of all the communities you’re part of. Next reach out to people in your communities to build your network. Remember, communities are groups you’re a part of either because of a shared goal (Running Club) or a shared experience (Family, Alumni Association). Your network is made up of people who know you personally and would help you–and whom you would help too.
Day 4: Tap into your social network by posting 3 thoughtful comments a day in response to what your network (or desired network) is posting–LinkedIn, TikTok, Twitter etc.
Day 5: Tap into social (part 2): Make a weekly (minimum) practice of posting your own updates and observations on your most relevant platform (LinkedIn, TikTok, Twitter etc.)
Day 6: Work a conference (virtually)–reach out via LinkedIn to others attending (or speaking at) the same event, and invite to virtual 15 min coffee
Day 7: Reengage your loose ties. Scroll to the bottom of your texts and see who you’ve gone a long time since connecting. Reach out. Do the same with your emails.
Part Two-Build a Balanced Network
Day 8: Make sure you have a well-balanced network, which includes seven types of people in a balanced professional network: Customers (Employers, Prospects, Mentors, Peers, Referral Sources, Support Sources, and Mentees
Day 9: Customers: Make time to nurture the Customers (and Employers) in your network–who already know you and the value you provide. Build these relationships, even when they’re inactive, because they may soon be in a situation to buy from you again—or provide a referral or a reference.
Day 10: Prospects: Build relationships with prospects, even if there’s no deal on the table today. There are likely many people who “could” someday be a customer, or who might one day hire you, but not today. Get to know them, so when they’re ready to engage, you’ll be top of the list and front of mind.
Day 11: Mentors: Mentors are people you can learn from. Just because you may have completed your formal education doesn’t mean you’re done learning. Seek out people who are ahead of you in their career, or who have expertise you seek to develop, and build a connection.
Day 12: Peers: Remember how important it was in high school to have study buddies in every class—someone who shared notes, helped you out when things got tough and kept you laughing? You still need people like that—these are people at about your level, in similar roles to yours, both inside and outside your organization. You can bounce ideas off them, ask them questions too mundane for mentors and compare notes.
Day 13: Referral sources (upstream): Some people will never be in a position to hire you, but know lots of prospective clients and have good relationships with them. Often they are upstream—meaning a customer buys from them before they would buy from you. For example, if you’re a decorator, it might be helpful to have architects and realtors as referral sources.
Day 14: Support sources (downstream): You will look better if you can anticipate future needs of your client and have the connections to help them. Decorators need to be able to recommend painters, carpet installers and handymen.
Day 15: Mentees: It’s more than good karma that justifies finding people coming up in their careers behind you. Mentees force you to explain your logic and how you do things, which often helps you clarify your own strategy. You might be surprised by what you learn from them, since they are establishing their approach in a different time. And finally, people you mentor might be good hires one day.
Part 3-Understand the Network Lifecycle and Prioritize the Relationship Over the Transaction
Day 16: Building a network is an ongoing process. Exchanging business cards is the starting line, not the finish line for expanding your network. You need these competencies across the network lifecycle: Identify, Connect, Onboard, Build, Harvest, Nurture.
Day 17: Identify. Who are the people you need to have in your network to achieve your goals? What relationship gaps do you have today? Start with an inventory.
Day 18: Connect. How do you attract connect with people who will help you, and you can help? Are you attending the right events? Will you introduce yourself, in person or in writing? Direct, or through a friend? Find what’s comfortable to you.
Day 19: Onboard. Once you have met someone, be deliberate in how you establish a relationship, and build a habit to connect and support each other. These first few days or weeks, it’s important to follow up–it’s more than that initial meeting!
Day 20: Build. Continue to reach out, offering help or insights to everyone in your network. You can do this 1-1 for your top 100 relationships (one or two a day every 3 months). You can also use LinkedIn or Twitter to stay top of mind. Building a powerful network is all about habits.
Day 21: Harvest. When the time comes to activate your network, asking for something, be clear about what you’re asking. Are you proposing something mutually beneficial or asking for a true favor? And is it easy or a big lift for the other person? The scope of the ask should determine how you present it.
Part 4 Continue to Look for Opportunities to Improve
Day 22: Ask for help. Find an accountability group to help you stick to your networking goals.
Day 23: Volunteer. Look for a way to become more of an insider for your most valuable community. You’ll feel good about your contribution. You might also find it’s an easier and more authentic way to build your network in that group.
Day 24: Be Curious. Try to learn something new from or about each person you talk to each day. For extra credit, journal your learnings: “Today I talked to X and learned Y. I also talked to A and learned B” etc. Being interested is an underrated networking skill and way more valuable than being interesting. Besides earning you goodwill, it will provide you with valuable information you might be able to use later to help that person, or even to help yourself.
Day 25: Follow Up. If you ask someone for an introduction, advice or some other kind of help, don’t forget to circle back and let them know what happened. That’s the pay off for your mentors’ generosity, and provides the fuel for them to continue supporting others!
Day 26: Hone your Elevator Intro(s). Your introduction to new people should be crisp, differentiated and memorable. You don’t need a single elevator pitch–or headline–it might vary. For one person you’re “Anu’s roommate, the Mandarin-speaking graphic artist” and for another, you’re “the startup designer”…consider the context in which you met them, their objectives and of course your own goals at the team. The important thing is not to overwhelm with too much and not to be so vague that you’re name won’t pop up at the right time!
Day 27: Become a Magnet. Ideally, at some point, you will have as many inbound inquiries to meet as you will be requesting yourself, because you are an object of interest. Accelerate this trend by creating content which attracts the kind of people you’d like to have in your network–articles, videos, books or even just by participating in social media in a thoughtful way.
Day 28:If you’re having a hard day, do something nice. Just pick someone in your network who you can help and reach out. It’s often easiest to help people you are mentoring, but you might send a relevant article to someone, or think about a connection that could be helpful. Just ask yourself “who can I help today”? This is a great way to get yourself out of the dumps and also a way to deepen relationships.
Day 29: Help Others Network. Once you start to feel like a networking pro, keep in mind how hard it can be to get started. When you’re at an event (of any kind) notice the people standing alone, or pushing their way into a closed group–treat them like an object of interest, and consider making one good introduction for them.
Day 30: Be Kind to Yourself. Not everyone loves networking, and not every networker is at their best every day. Remember, networking is a habit, a way of life. If you make an effort to build authentic connections with people you can help and who might help you, you’ll achieve your goals, and probably have a richer, more meaningful life.