Early on in my career, just hearing the word “network” would make my skin crawl. For a long time, I associated it with things like networking events, schmoozing and talking to strangers, which is an especially big ask because I don’t even like small talk with my own family, let alone someone I don’t even know. Honestly, the idea of networking was almost paralyzing for me.
To this day, I have never attended a networking event, but I have still managed to grow a fairly large and useful professional network. How is that possible? My humble roots started with personal relationships.
After undergrad, I moved 700 miles away to where my sister and her husband lived. In the first week after I relocated, I met a friend of my sister’s who owned a retail wellness clinic and offered me a job with full-time hours while I searched for a traditional 8-5 job. Then, it was my brother-in-law who mentioned my job hunt to the parents of kids he gave private baseball lessons to, which led to one of them passing my resume to her boss, which led to my first traditional full-time job offer.
All of this is to say, you probably already have network roots, it’s just about who is included and how to grow it from there.
Networking 101: What is it?
First, let’s talk about what networking is. As it turns out, it goes far beyond networking events and cold reach-outs (though, that can certainly be part of it). One of the best definitions for “networking” I have found comes from the Harvard Business Review. They define it as “creating a fabric of personal contacts who will provide [professional] support, feedback, insight, resources and information.”
Read more in The Study: Networking 101
Networking is about developing mutually beneficial relationships. Start building your professional network wherever you are, using the tools you have right now.
Who fits into your network?
Now, how you interpret Harvard’s definition of “networking” is up to you. To me, it doesn’t say anywhere that those contacts have to work within a certain industry, have specific job titles or need X years of professional experience. Your network can be made up of anyone and everyone.
Harvard Business Review says a professional network is made up of three separate networks, and they all “play a vital role” in a career. Think about the people you know, do they fit into any of these categories?
Operational network: These are people who work with you and help you manage internal responsibilities. They may be peers, superiors, direct reports or “key outsiders” that help you do what’s needed to get your job done such as vendors and customers.
Strategic network: People within your industry or career path who don’t have any control over how and if you deliver to your current company. These people are outsiders that share insight into new methods or industry standards, emerging companies or players that could affect your job and “plugs [you] into a set of relationships and information sources that collectively embody the power to achieve personal and organizational goals.”
Personal network: This group is made up of family, friends and connections you’ve made through personal interests (like sports clubs or other recreational activities). These are the people who will hook you up with referrals, will help you look at things from an outsider’s perspective and will play a role in your personal development, which will then influence your professional development.
Personally, I see my current colleagues and supervisors as part of my operational network, my strategic network is a little more removed and made up of past colleagues and supervisors as well as peers with similar job titles across industries even if we haven’t worked together before, and my personal network is full of family and friends.
Using your network to advance your career
The people that make up your network can definitely help you advance professionally, but you need to approach asking for help in a professional, respectful and possibly strategic way. Ask for too much at once or too often, or refuse to return the favor when the time comes and you may end up burning a bridge. Here are some etiquette tips:
Be courteous and respectful: Whether this is your former boss or your best friend, be mindful of their time and respect their boundaries or limitations in helping you. If they don’t feel comfortable giving you a referral because they don’t have enough experience working directly with you but they offer up contact information so you can get in touch with the hiring manager on your own, show appreciation. Remember, they don’t have to help you, they’re choosing to.
It’s a two-way street: Don’t ask for something from a contact without being prepared to give them something in return. They may not have an immediate request, but six months down the road they may reach out with a favor. If you are able to help them out, do it, and if not, explain why and offer an alternative solution so that you’re still showing your willingness to do your part in the professional relationship.
Stay in touch: Don’t go radio silent on someone and then suddenly pop out of nowhere asking for a favor. That’s equivalent to the person from high school who hasn’t spoken to you in five years suddenly sending you a private message asking you to buy something from them. Don’t be that person. Stay in touch with your contacts, and check in now and then to say hello and ask how they’re doing (however often is appropriate based on your relationship).
Share information: Have you heard about a new company coming to town? Do you have a lead for a prospective client or job? Is there a new trend they should know about? If you have information that would help out your contact, share it (as long as you’re allowed to, of course). This shows them that you’re invested in the relationship and what they’ve asked of you hasn’t fallen off your radar.
Show interest in their goals. Follow up with them to see how things are going with their job hunt or if whatever you helped them with before ended up working out for them. Remember, this is a relationship and showing interest in what they’re trying to achieve shows them that you’re not just in it for whatever you can get from them.
How you apply these rules depends a lot on who the contact is and your relationship with them. For me, I casually check in with my former bosses from time to time, whether it’s through a social media post or a quick email. A lot of them work in an industry I left years ago, but I don’t know what the future looks like, and I may need their help someday and they’ll be much more likely to offer help if we’ve interacted in some way in the past year than if I randomly send them a message out of nowhere.
Now, reevaluate the role of some of the people in your life. Do they fit into one of the three network categories? If so, make note of it so you know who to reach out to in the future (or now if you’re looking for some support). Don’t be quick to dismiss someone’s usefulness based on their career or title, either. When I landed my first two jobs out of undergrad, it was thanks to my sister and my brother-in-law; she was a stay-at-home mom and he was an MLB player without a college degree.
Connections are literally everywhere. And your success in networking is tied into how you find and nurture them.
Ashley Ziegler is a full-time writer with a passion for telling stories through the lens of motherhood to help fellow moms feel seen and understood (especially the ones who, like her, are totally winging it).