How to Build a Better Professional Network

  • July 10, 2023

pexels-pixabay-163064The importance of a strong network to career advancement is well-documented, but it can also improve the quality of your work life.

By Rita Zeidner May 26, 2023

A professional network can be an important tool for advancing your career. But not everyone knows how to network effectively, and many are afraid to even try. That’s a missed opportunity, experienced networking experts say.

Having a professional network can be enormously helpful for identifying job leads, according to Judy Schoenberg, co-founder of EvolveMe, a New York City-based career consulting firm for midcareer women. “We know that 80 percent of new roles are secured by personal and professional connections,” she says. “It really behooves you to go out there and make the connections.”

The importance of professional networks to career advancement is well-documented in social science research. On top of opening doors to job and business opportunities, having connections can lead to “broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority,” according to researchers Francesca Gino, Maryam Kouchaki and Tiziana Casciaro, who described their findings in the Harvard Business Review.

Pandemic-related shutdowns put the kibosh on traditional networking events such as conferences, SHRM chapter meetings and other gatherings where people can meet face-to-face in a professional setting. The good news is that many of those activities are ramping up once again. Meanwhile, the absence of opportunities for people to gather in person over the last three years has elevated the importance of no- or low-cost online networking sites such as LinkedIn and created demand for paid online networking services like EvolveMe and California-based Athena Alliance, a networking tool for executive women.

There is no consensus as to whether it’s better to build a professional network online or in person; there are strong proponents of each approach, and many find it worthwhile to establish business relationships in both environments. Here are some tips for getting started:

Understand what networking is and what it isn’t. If you find the mere idea of networking painful, you’re not alone. Many people are turned off by the thought of schmoozing with strangers, says Mark Herschberg, a career advisor at MIT and author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You (Cognosco Media, 2021). Some fear being judged or seen as unworthy. Others equate networking with asking for special favors. Many worry that they just aren’t good at networking and avoid it altogether.

But given the potential payoffs, Herschberg advises people who resist networking to reframe their thinking. Networking isn’t the same as making a sales pitch, he maintains. Effective networking involves “building an equal, balanced relationship with give-and-take on both sides. If you’ve ever had a friend, you know how to network,” he says.

Start with who you know and build from there. You don’t need a handful of business cards or a LinkedIn account to begin building your network, according to Ashley Fernandez, a career coach and HR consultant in Cherry Hill, N.J.

“Your workers, your friends and even people you meet in the park are part of your network,” she says.

Still, it’s important to recognize that a network populated exclusively with friends and family may have limited utility.

A recent MIT study found that on LinkedIn, you’re more likely to land a new job through someone you have “weak ties” with than through someone you know better. That’s because the people you know well may have social networks that closely resemble your own, which may not add much new job-seeking value for you. Your more casual acquaintances, on the other hand, have social networks that overlap less with yours and may provide connections or information you would not otherwise be able to access, the MIT researchers found.

Be interested, not just interesting. When meeting new people, be mindful of your role in the conversation.

Avoid the common mistake of monopolizing the dialogue to prove how smart you are, advises career counselor Jane Horowitz, founder of Chicago-based More than a Resume.

“Gathering knowledge about people, careers and jobs is a worthwhile networking goal on its own,” she says. “Ask insightful questions and then listen, really listen.”

Be a giver. Keep in mind that in a true network, the information flow has to go both ways.

“Seeking assistance with candidate recommendations or receiving business opportunity referrals is predicated on you having freely shared at an earlier point in the relationship,” says Bradford Frank, a tech recruiter with the business consultancy Korn Ferry.

Stay positive. Most people have a dominant motivational focus—what psychologists refer to as either a “promotion” or a “prevention” mindset, according to researchers Gino, Kouchaki and Casciaro. Those focused on promotion think primarily about the growth, advancement and accomplishments that networking can bring them. Those with a prevention mindset see networking as something they are obligated to take part in for professional reasons.

The importance of remaining positive about networking—which may be a particular challenge for people who are shy or introverted—is borne out through research.

In one study of college students, working adults and an additional sample of 174 lawyers, researchers documented the effects of both types of thinking. Promotion-focused people networked because they wanted to and approached the activity with excitement, curiosity and an open mind about all the possibilities that might unfold. Prevention-focused people saw networking as a necessary evil and felt inauthentic while engaged in it, so they did it less often.

Avoid politics. Talking politics with co-workers has always been risky, and the same is true of discussing the topic with the people in your professional network.

The safest approach, and the one most likely to keep your network intact, is to avoid discussing hot-button topics.

“Why risk alienating the contacts you’ve worked so hard to cultivate?” asks Harold Datz, a Washington, D.C.-based labor law attorney who has taught classes in conflict resolution. “In most business settings, it’s best to leave topics like politics, religion and sex at the door.”

Rita Zeidner is a freelance writer in Falls Church, Va.

Learn to Love Networking

“I hate networking” is a familiar refrain. But in today’s world, networking is a necessity—and fortunately, an aversion to it can be overcome. Drawing on research experiments and on studies at a large law firm, the authors of a recent study identified four strategies that can help people become more excited about and effective at building relationships:

  • Focus on learning. If you adopt a “promotion mindset” and concentrate on the potential positives of networking, you’re more likely to perceive the activity as an opportunity for discovery rather than a chore.
  • Identify common interests. By considering how your goals align with those of people you meet, networking will feel more authentic.
  • Think broadly about what you can give. You have something valuable to offer, whether it’s knowledge, gratitude or recognition. Remember that.
  • Find a higher purpose. When you frame networking in terms of a larger goal—say, the collective benefits for your company—the activity will feel more authentic and will lead to connections that bear fruit for everyone.

Source: Harvard Business Review.

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