A reader of my recent networking post, Ten People You Need To Have In Your Professional Network, gave me a follow-up challenge:
I’ve been to so many lectures or read articles and they all say the same thing. Rely on your network or use your network to accomplish this or that. What they all overlook is explaining how you obtain that network in the first place. Most people I work with don’t have these miracle networks or have the slightest clue as to how to build one, including me. That’s where we need to start, how do you build the network you need. – Karen
OK, Karen, game on! If I had to build a professional network from scratch, here are the steps I would take:
Decide what you need from networking
We’re talking about a professional network, not a social circle of friends. So need in this case refers to your professional objectives – are you looking for a job, changing careers, hoping to advance, promoting a business? While you always want a diverse network, your goals determine where you need to focus (industries, functions, levels, even specific companies). Start building your network around your goals so you don’t dilute your focus as you try to get traction. Once you have traction, you can focus on diversity to ensure your network never becomes too insular.
Inventory who you are already networking with
If you’re in a situation where you know absolutely no one, my guess is that you have bigger problems than the lack of a professional network – I’m thinking Matt Damon in The Martian type of problem. No one reading this blog knows zero people. You may think that the people you know are not suitable for your professional network (e.g., you just know Mom and Dad, and they never worked in your dream career or never even went to college and now they’re agoraphobic and never even leave the house). However, you don’t know for certain who or what people know. Your Mom and Dad may have a helper – their only contact to the outside – who is or was in your dream career or knows someone from there or knows someone who knows someone.
Start your networking close and expand from there
Starting with people you already know is an example of starting close and expanding from there. You start with people you already know to get warm introductions and encouraging ideas. Then, you branch out to the people you know less well. Another example of starting close is to focus by geography – your local Toastmasters, your metro’s Chamber of Commerce, your regional chapter of the relevant professional association. By honing in on a specific distance, you give yourself a limited, reasonable area you can cover. A third example of starting close is to pick a subsector or niche within your professional area of expertise. If you’re a marketer, you might pick direct response marketing or market research or analytics. You target people and companies active in that space before branching out to other areas of marketing. Starting close before expanding ensures you limit yourself enough to get some traction before diluting your efforts across a broader group of people, organizations or subjects.
Start with easy networking activities, then expand your comfort zone
Another excellent way to start networking is to start with what you’re already comfortable with. My co-founder Connie is a master of large events. She can effortlessly work a big, crowded room and start multiple, genuine relationships. I would be lucky to get out of there without gaining five pounds from focusing too much on the snack table. I don’t accomplish anything at large events, but I am excellent at follow-up – I keep in touch with a large variety and number of people on a regular basis. It’s easy and fun for me. (Connie on the other hand sometimes forgets to follow up with even me!) In the 10 years of doing business together, I do attend large events and she does follow up on leads, but we both focus on our natural abilities first and expand from there as necessary. What is your networking talent – large events, follow-up, social media, one-to-one live, direct mail, phone calls, cold calls? There are lots of ways to network so choose what you’re already good at first because you’ll get the most traction there.
Take stock of your networking over time
At this point, you should have people in your network – even The Martian figured out how to make contact with someone. Who is still missing? You want to have different types of people in your network. In addition, your professional objectives change over time so your networking needs will change. Even if at some point your network felt 100% complete, you will need to maintain and expand it as you, your goals, and market conditions change.
Fill in your networking gaps
When you take stock, do something about what’s missing. Your network might lack a variety of industries or levels or types of contact. Your network may be too small – you don’t want to rely on the same people over and over. You may see that you haven’t kept in touch with people after the first few meetings, and you need to focus on reconnecting. You may see that you’re relying too much on social media and need to meet people live (you establish a different connection. Or, you may rely too much on live meetings and need to embrace social media, direct mail or other approaches that enable you to scale.
Repeat the networking process as needed
Once you fill in your gaps, your goals and/or market conditions could change again, and you need to decide what you need now, inventory your existing networking, and repeat the rest of the steps outlined above. Networking is an ongoing activity, and the best networking is customized for you, your goals and the people in your network.
Now that I am duly convinced I can rebuild my network anywhere, I have yet another reason to relocate to Costa Rica, where I recently vacationed. According to LinkedIn, I don’t have any first connections there! But I have many second connections, so here we go…