“Build your network.”
“Networking is the only real way to get a job these days. It’s all about who you know.”
If you’ve spent any time looking for a job or trying to further your career over the last few years, you’ve probably heard statements like these. Thanks to the growth of social media and a challenging economic picture, the “old” ways of finding jobs are no longer effective. Jobseekers no longer rely on online employment listings or newspaper classifieds to find opportunities but instead spend more time reaching out to others in their industry to learn about openings.
Networking goes beyond looking for a job, though, and as more people realize the importance of relationships to their careers, it’s becoming increasingly clear that networking is more about quality than quantity. A network of thousands of contacts might look great on paper, but how well do you know most of those contacts — and how many of them can you turn to for advice, information or feedback? Even when you earn a business degree and have a solid foundation in the fundamentals of management, often it’s what you learn from others that makes the biggest difference in your career success.
When it comes to building your network, it’s helpful to have a small, connected community of committed contacts alongside your massive list of acquaintances. Not only does it benefit your career, you can help benefit others by sharing your own insights and resources.
What Is a Professional Community?
The concept of community is big these days. Many companies are focused on building communities around their products and services, as research has shown that customers are more likely to buy from those companies that make them feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves. Organizations use resources like social media to help build those connections between customers and fans.
As a professional, you can use the same concept to build a community of like-minded people that supports and encourages each other in career growth. Your community might include people within your industry, people from other industries, people who are at the same point in their career or people at different career levels, but the common factor is that everyone is invested in each other’s success and career development. You might discuss issues you’re facing at work, for example, and offer ideas on how to handle office politics or challenging co-workers. You might turn to your community for advice on your next career steps, or share interesting resources that help build knowledge and skills.
The most important thing to realize about a professional community is that it’s not simply a list of people who might someday help you find a job. It’s not a collection of acquaintances. It requires building real, deep relationships in which everyone gives and takes.
Building Real Community
So how do you go about building a community? It starts with your network. Who are the people in your network that you’d like to know better? Who do you think you could learn the most from? Identify the people you know that could potentially be a strong mentor, ally or friend. Choose five to ten people from your network and reach out. Some of the ways you can strengthen those relationships include:
Reach out to say hello and ask about their current projects. One reason many people dislike networking is the perception that the only time they hear from people is when they want something. Make a point of staying in touch even when you don’t need a referral or help with something. Send a quick email, or better yet, request to meet for coffee or dinner to catch up or get to know each other better.
Ask for advice or feedback on a challenge you’re facing at work. While you may not be able to share all of the details, reaching out to an expert for their take on a difficult situation gives you a new perspective.
Introduce like-minded individuals. If you have a friend looking to enter a certain field, or working in the same industry as another contact, introduce them. You’re helping others build their own communities while strengthening your own.
Share interesting articles, blogs or information you find. Start conversations. Ask others for their opinions and interpretations. You’ll have a chance to demonstrate your own knowledge and passion for your industry — which helps build your authority — but you can learn from others.
Building a professional network is about more than just collecting business cards and accepting every connection request that comes your way on LinkedIn. It’s about committing to building stronger, mutually beneficial relationships with others — relationships that will help you grow in both your career and your life.