Strategies for Professional Network Building

career advancement networking Nov 26, 2023
concept of a professional networking

Networking is often touted as the number one way to advance your career. And while opinions vary on whether networking actually is or should be so important, one thing is clear – networking counts.

Building a professional network, however, isn’t always a straightforward process. It can be intimidating trying to build a network from the ground up, especially when you don’t have a solid jumping-off point.

One thing that puts a lot of people off of networking is feeling like it’s gross. Usually, people who feel this way have been on the receiving end of spammy messages from people who are trying to get something right now rather than build a mutually beneficial relationship.

People. That’s not networking being gross, that’s rude people with bad social skills being gross. Big difference. No matter what you do, you’ll want to consider how all parties can be helped through networking.

Luckily, there are ways to leverage your pre-existing relationships and build a functional, glowing network that supports everyone’s career growth.

In this post, I’m covering 6 key strategies for building a network of professionals, with advice that fits many personalities and goals.

1. Decide which methods work best for you.

Some people avoid networking because they feel like the only way to do it is to attend some lame user group at a bar with 50 other people and too-expensive cocktails. Some people avoid it because they equate networking with forced conversations, whether it’s small talk at a conference or awkward LinkedIn outreach attempts.

Instead of these unappealing preconceived notions, I challenge you to ask this question.

“How do I like to meet and relate with people in my personal life?”

Take your answers to that question and follow it up with brainstorming options for professional network-building activities that align with those preferences.

Some like huge professional conferences where they can hobnob with hundreds of people, while others like one-on-one casual meetups or more structured settings such as professional associations or user groups that meet monthly.

Which container works best for you? Figure that out first, THEN figure out a way to do it.

The best way to sort out the most effective method of networking for you is not to feel pressured to settle on just one thing – try out a mix. I encourage my friends and clients to choose something that seems very well aligned with their preferences as their main method, then pepper in something a bit out of their comfort zone every so often.

For example, I really prefer informal, one-on-one, virtual networking, because it gives me a chance to connect at a deeper level with someone in a time-efficient way. This doesn’t stop me from going to one or two conferences a year - often as a speaker! Stretch yourself, and you’ll benefit - I promise.

2. Think about groups to interact with.

Once you’ve sorted out what settings you want to use for your networking, it’s time to think about the groups you’d like to interact with.

A basic model is simply seeking people or groups that align to your basic geographic area, your domain or role, and your industry. I often recommend that people who want to leverage social media as part of networking look for at least one group in aligning to each of those domains.

In my case, that means being a member of the Women in Product Facebook Group, the Career Thought Leaders Consortium LinkedIn Group, and the IIBA Kansas City LinkedIn Group.

You can also lean into alumni ties. Some companies, specifically large tech or consulting firms, maintain ties to company alumni through social media groups. The same principle applies to school ties, whether it’s high school, trade school, or university, and it’s one of the easiest places to find friendly faces willing to help.

When thinking about groups, you also want to consider levels.

You don’t just have to interact with people at the level that would hire you. Look at people at a peer level and those who are a level or two above or below you on the org chart.

And, don’t be afraid to make your “moon shot” and try to connect with a few folks high on the food chain. A lot of people get intimidated by title or assume that the person who is VP in charge or whatever you want to do won’t want to hear from little old you. They might not have time to talk to you, sure - but if you never ask, the answer is definitely “No.”

3. Consider new vs maintaining relationships.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The best time to plant an oak tree was 100 years ago? And the second best time is now.”?

This quote applies to many things, including networking and building relationships.

Lots of people feel like they have no network and are extremely focused on meeting new people, forgetting that they have current relationships. They might not have talked to their favorite former boss or colleague in a while, but that doesn’t mean the relationship is dead.

This gets a lot easier if you focus on maintaining your network over the years. Take care of the relationships you already have, you will be in much better shape.

Think about the people you’ve worked with positively in the past, reach out with a short, sweet message to say hello, and turn these dormant ties into renewed relationships. 

4. Follow-up is king.

A big marker of success in careers with strong sales components is whether or not they create a system for their follow-ups.

The secret to the art of follow-up is really quite simple – calendaring.

For example, if you meet three people at a conference and want to follow up, mark down when you plan on doing that.

When you develop a follow-up cadence, you can nurture the people in your network, even if you don’t talk to them all that often.

I follow what I call the orbit model to nurture and maintain these relationships. This involves thinking about people you want to stay in touch with, deciding how close you want to keep them to you, and setting timelines for contact or meetups accordingly.

For example

  • Your best friends and closest family might be Mercury - you see them every day and sometimes live with them.
  • Your significant other of 6 months, or your work spouse might be Venus - you contact them multiple times a day.
  • Your day-to-day colleagues might be Earth.
  • The person from another department you did a big project with a few years ago might be Jupiter - you might have lunch with them once every couple of months.
  • A former boss who was an important mentor might be Saturn, and you might have lunch with twice a year.
  • A former colleague from several years ago might be Neptune, who you check in with once a year via phone.
  • And that one guy from college who you respected but lives in another city might be Pluto. You might have good feelings about them, but maintain ties by being social media pals who liked each other's silly Reels, but only reach out when there’s a strong reason.

Bottom line - you don’t need to be best friends with all of your contacts (introvert terror!). Simply lay out who you want to keep in contact with and how often you want to check-in. Then, calendar it, follow your calendar, and move on.

5. Look for warm intros where possible.

A lot of times, people hear about someone they should meet, but totally forget to ask for an introduction.

Simply asking, “Hey, would you be willing to introduce us?” can be a helpful gateway to a meaningful connection. It also dramatically increases the likelihood that you’ll get to make a real connection instead of having your cold LinkedIn DM go into the bowels of cyberspace.

Personally, I love to give people introductions to help people. I do it frequently, whether it’s to introduce people to someone for a meet-and-greet, to hook up people for business or job opportunities, or to foster a personal connection.

Never be afraid to ask for that intro - worst case is your common connection isn’t open to it or forgets to do it and you send a cold message.

6. Don’t forget to keep networking with people internally.

We can get so focused on branching out and expanding our professional circle, we forget to make connections with people close by - even in the next cube over!

I encourage you to do more than work on projects with your colleagues - take an interest in their professional development and in personal details. Look for opportunities to connect outside the staff meeting or your scrum team.

Here’s an example - I once asked a colleague if she wanted to submit a joint presentation proposal to a conference. It didn’t specifically relate to our work at the office; I just thought it would be cool to work on together, and that she’d be a great partner.

Final Thoughts from the No BS Career Coach: Strategies for Building Your Professional Network

Professional networking from the ground up can be daunting - especially if you haven’t built a habit. But there are actually several ways to get started; some of which are pretty easy when you really think about it!

With these six simple networking strategies, you can build the professional network you’ve always wanted – one that will greatly help your career path now and far into the future.

If you need help coming up with a networking strategy to enhance your career, a single strategy coaching call could be a big win for you. Click here to book and pay for a session today.