Most professionals agree that the quality and breadth of one’s connections are critical to organizational and personal success. Positive relationships support problem solving, crisis management, collaborations, new initiatives and even enhance career opportunities. Despite this understanding, colleges don’t emphasize teaching networking strategies for students. Moreover, though we may agree that networking is important, many of us don’t intentionally create an action plan to develop our own network. As leaders, we need to make networking a universal expectation and model the activity for our staff. Everyone, at every level, can benefit from external insights, perspectives, and mutual cooperation.
Here are some tips on developing a personal networking plan:
1. Create a diverse list of people you want to know, soliciting friends, mentors, and colleagues for ideas. Be sure to include:
- Departmental colleagues.
- People from other functions within the larger organization (See Silos, Fortresses and Lunch With Strangers post) Remember, titles are not synonymous with influence or potential. Seek out people who are doing interesting things, regardless of rank.
- Professionals from unrelated industries. Exciting new ideas and partnerships often come from unexpected places.
- Authors and bloggers whose topics connect to your work and offer you insights.
- People you already know and value. Networking isn’t just about meeting new contacts; it’s also about tending existing relationships on a regular basis.
- Professional association connections.
- Leaders and “celebrities” in your field. Don’t be afraid to aim high. You’d be surprised by how many successful leaders are eager to share their experiences with others. Meeting someone in this category should result in more than idle chitchat. Respect their time and know what you’re looking to achieve before you connect.
- Social media contacts. Look to convert “weak” ties, commonly associated with social media, into stronger relationships by connecting offline (or in person).
2. Set short term goals by selecting two to four people each month for several months at a timeto contact and schedule a meeting. Write it down and share it with your supervisor or a colleague and ask for assistance to help keep you on track. The key here is establishing a regular routine that emphasizes quality over quantity. Everyone has busy seasons. Look to make connections when you have adequate time to prepare, engage and follow up.
3. Contact new people with a short email or phone conversation that indicates your interest and details the time commitment you’re requesting. If possible, schedule a meeting in person over coffee or lunch. If geography is an issue, suggest meeting at a conference or even through video chats like Google Hangout or Skype.
Sample requests to initiate a meeting/connection:
- I’m looking for your (expert) opinion on a particular issue.
- I’m trying to solve a problem that I think you’ve already solved. Do you have some time to meet to discuss your process?
- I’ve heard about some of your new initiatives and thought there might be some opportunities for collaboration.
- I’m looking for some suggestions for navigating the politics of a situation.
- I am writing a blog/ article and was hoping to solicit your expertise in this area.
- I was wondering if you’d be interested in joining our group/team at an upcoming staff meeting? We’re interested in learning more about your area and how we might be able to better partner with you.
Follow through with clarifying questions, ideas and a personalized thank you to leave a good impression and keep the door open for future conversations.
4. Commenting on a thought-provoking blog post or acknowledging a speaker after a talk are easy ways to make initial connections. Planting seeds of goodwill can lead to more meaningful conversations and relationships down the line.
5. Networking isn’t a one-way street. Your goal should be to develop mutually beneficial relationships over time. Be sure to offer assistance, resources or connections to help others succeed instead of just focusing on your own interests.
6. Volunteer for committees, conferences, events or projects. It’s a great way to learn, collaborate and develop meaningful, long-lasting relationships, often with people you might not have identified in your networking map.
7. Create your own hub by establishing a new club, organization, association or LinkedIn group. Invite others to participate and provide rich and meaningful interactions to develop a good reputation.
8. Contact the people you’d call if you were laid off. Reach out to them before you have an urgent agenda to discuss current events, trends and potential leads.
9. Build and maintain your professional online presence. Create (if you haven’t already) and update your LinkedIn profile. It’s your professional brand online and a powerful and easy way to contact peers in your profession. Such an established network is also critical when/if you consider new career opportunities.
Make networking a priority for you and your staff. Like investments, networks take time to grow and benefit from early and regular nurturing. Successful leaders understand that it’s vital to build your connections before you need your connections.
What are you waiting for? Pick up the phone, write an email, and get started today! Feel free to share your networking suggestions, challenges and experiences in the comments below.