Professional Networking

Building Relationships for Mutual Benefit

Professional Networking - Building Relationships for Mutual Benefit

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It's not WHAT you know, it's WHO you know that counts.

Maybe that sounds unfair or calculating, but think of it another way: If no one knows about your skills, talents, and projects, who's going to help you make the best of them?

In today's world, where people often need to work together in loose partnerships to achieve their goals quickly, "knowing the right people" is more important than ever. So the ability to develop and maintain a broad network of "business friendships" is a critical skill for every career professional.

People with strong networks get more things done more effectively; they learn from others with different knowledge or experience; and are able to use their network as they seek to move on in their careers, whether in a planned way or if a crisis looms.

When it comes to our personal lives, most people actively develop and maintain their network of friends and family. They enjoy the social interaction and the support that such relationships can provide. The same principles hold true at work, yet we're often reticent about actively networking: Perhaps we fear we would be "using" other people, or we are daunted by the prospect of having to "work" a room of strangers at a conference or event.

The good news is that networking doesn't need to be difficult or a chore. It can be an enjoyable and rewarding part of your professional development. You're probably already part of more networks than you realize. It's a matter of recognizing the mutual benefits and building from there. Read on to find out how to build and make the most of your network.

What Is Networking?

Networking means getting to know other people, and their abilities and interests; and doing so in the expectation that this may provide mutual benefit.

Calling on someone in your network does involve "using" them but this doesn't mean that you're exploiting them in a negative way. So long as you're prepared to help others out when you're in a position to do so, most people will respond positively to a request from a valued member of their network.

Most of us have contacts in community groups; in departments or teams at work; with other colleagues; in professional organizations; with suppliers and customers; perhaps with an alumni group from a previous employer; (and not forgetting the Mind Tools community too). All are valuable, and each relationship you foster there can have mutual and lasting benefits.

Why Network?

If you're still in any doubt about the benefits of networking, consider for a moment the other kind of network in our daily working lives – the computer network. Few would dispute the advantages of having networked computers! Chief amongst these benefits is the ability to share information quickly and easily, even between different buildings in the same organization. Networks also allow a single point of data entry so that accuracy is improved and "reinventing the wheel" is avoided, and they permit sharing computing power such as printers or disk storage. All in all, computer networks increase efficiency and effectiveness. Personal networks can do the same.

Doing Your Current Job Better

By being able to draw on the knowledge of other members of your network, you can do your current job better. Information flows round organizations through the formal and informal networks of people within them. So, although communicating with other members of your team is obviously vital, people who have good relationships with individuals in other departments can generally achieve more. At the simplest level, having someone you can always turn to for information in the accounts and IT support teams will speed up your work.

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For many, their organization structure or team is constantly changing, and regular re-forming of your immediate work group can be the norm. In this kind of environment, your lasting relationships with people inside and outside your current organization or team are more valuable than ever. Project-based working and ever-changing structures create a greater need for a strong network, and luckily they also create the opportunity to extend your network wider and more often.

Managing Stakeholders

Managing stakeholders is an essential part of running successful projects, whether formal or informal, large or small. It involves identifying key people who have power and influence over the project; understanding what you need from each of them; and deciding which of them you need to consult and which you just need to keep informed. If you already have good relationships with your stakeholders through networking, they are more likely to help you and support what you're trying to achieve.

Personal Development

A great way of gaining the additional experience you need to get ahead in your career is to volunteer for projects or activities, whether at work or in your spare time. Having a broad personal network will put you in touch with far more opportunities to do this. For example, through your network you might hear about plans for a new working party or a proposed charity event, which could give you the chance to volunteer and get experience of something that interests and challenges you.

Looking Ahead

Networking also offers you a great way to advance your career. It is generally reported that more jobs are filled through word of mouth than through public advertising. So having a network of contacts who are familiar with your accomplishments and interests is invaluable if you are looking to make a career move, whether through choice or because your current employer is considering a round of redundancies. If you work freelance, this type of networking is almost essential.

How to Network

There are clearly no firm rules about who you should have in your network, or how you should go about building relationships with them, but the following process will guide you towards an approach that's right for you and your situation.

  1. Write down your networking objectives

    Look both at what you can hope to achieve from networking and what you have to offer to other people. Remember networking is a two-way process: It's just as important to think about what you offer, as it is to define what you want from other people. Networking where you have much to offer can open up many more opportunities.

  2. Map your network

    Write down a list of "communities" and individuals with which you have or would like to have professional contacts. These might include:

    • Your department or team.
    • Other departments or teams in your current employer.
    • Former colleagues or clients.
    • Local organizations such as a Chamber of Commerce.
    • Professional organizations.
    • Voluntary groups such as a school board or local political party.
  3. For each stakeholder group, brainstorm your "offer"

    You'll find networking much easier if you have something interesting and useful to offer to the the people you're networking with. This will differ for different groups of people. You can be sure that suppliers will be delighted to network with you! But you can also be sure that potential customers will steer clear if all you do is sell to them (also known as "trying to help them find ways of solving their problems.") Brainstorm other ways you can be interesting to them. And remember to be open and generous in your approach – people may find you selfish if you're transactional in the way you share information.

  4. Identify any gaps

    Go through your list of networking objectives and your offer. Look for gaps by asking the following questions:

    • Will your network or proposed network contacts help meet your objectives?
    • Are you making the most of what you have to offer?

    Who will help you meet your objectives? Which communities and individuals will most value what you have to offer? Do you need to widen your contacts in a particular field? For example, you might have a great network in your current organization, but if you want to gain wider recognition in your industry, perhaps you need to network through professional associations or industry interest groups.

  5. Plan networking actions

    Think about how you can plug the gaps and build a stronger network. What do you need to find out about the communities and other people? How will you go about meeting new people to fill gaps in your network? How will you help them get to know you?

    In the past, networking opportunities were largely face to face. Nowadays, technology has opened up a whole set of new ways to network: These include running your own blog, publishing articles or even mp3 videos online, or getting involved in online forums such as the Mind Tools Club forums.

Tips on Being an Effective Network "Hub"

You mostly get out of networking what you put into it. The more networks you're part of, the more you become a hub that people can turn to. This builds a network around you of people who will be eager to help you out in return.

Ensure that your relationship-building conversations are two-way and evenly balanced. Ideally, you should know as much about the other person by the end of any conversation as they know about you. Use open questions to help with this.

At the end of a networking conversation, do hand over your business card (if it's face to face), or drop an email. Make a note of where and when you met the person, and any other points to help you remember what they do and how you connect. Follow up initial encounters and take it from there.

Key Points

Having a strong network is an effective way of helping you to achieve more in today's working environment. Formal and informal networks can help you do your current job better, and can open up future opportunities. And it's always a question of give and take: Look out for opportunities when you can help others, and you're sure to attract new opportunities and a become valued member of your networks and communities.