Networking is a lot like nutrition and fitness: we know what to do—the hard part is making it a top priority.
—Herminia Ibarra, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School
These days it seems that every book, blog, or lecture that has anything to do with business mentions the importance of networking. And for good reason: a good network can help people get better (and more interesting) projects, opportunities, and even promotions.
We all know we need to do it. But as Herminia Ibarra observed, even though we know that networking is good for us, we usually avoid doing it. Networking takes effort, creativity, and persistence. But although big rewards for that work aren’t necessarily guaranteed, the potential payoffs are significant enough that it just doesn’t make sense to not do any networking.
And if you think that networking is only for those looking for their next opportunity—think again! Here are a few of the reasons why you should expand your in-office network as well:
- The more people who know you, the better your chances of being the first person who comes to mind for special projects that will get you noticed by the right people in the office. The key is to have not just a big network but a network of well-connected and influential coworkers and leaders.
- As you move up the corporate ladder (especially in the executive ranks), politics kick in and the opinions of other executives matter even when you have great skills. Make it easier for your boss to get you promoted: get to know other managers at your level and leaders above you who can vouch for your work ethic and abilities.
- When you have connections with more people in the office, you have access to more options (including advice, opinions, and direct action) for help in solving problems.
- “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority,” says leadership expert Ken Blanchard. Because people tend to be more influenced by people they know, like, and trust, getting out of your cubicle or office and expanding your network can give you a leg up in persuading people to get on board with your ideas.
Clearly, a strong network is an effective tool that everyone should try to cultivate. So how do we make networking less unpleasant and more effective?
A Starting Point
You want to build relationships that serve you strategically, which means you want to build relationships that you can leverage to help you achieve your objective rather than just having a big network or having a ton of friends.
— Sally Helgesen, coauthor of How Women Rise
Some people worry that a “strategic” approach to expanding their networks will require them to use or exploit others for personal gain. Nothing could be farther from the truth! In this case, calling something “strategic” just means that it is connected to a big-picture, long-term plan. (Just think of the strategic plans that organizations develop and update every few years—those are all about answering the question “Where does this organization want to be at that time, and how do we get there?” The same holds true for your networking strategy to help your career.)
Remember: networking is a two-way street. In your strategic approach, you won’t be begging for handouts or trying to manipulate anyone. You have something to offer the other person, too—you have value!
Dale Carnegie said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” So as you work to build your networks, pay attention to what other people need. Look for authentic connections that help both you and the other person. When you approach networking as an opportunity to help others, you will be helped in turn.
Finding the Right People
First, take some inspiration from leadership coach and TONE Networks expert Joelle Jay’s concept of a “power map” and make a list of everyone you can think of who’s already in your network. Next, scrutinize the names on that list carefully, identify the ones who have a lot of power and influence, and write their names on a new, separate list. Some people (such as C-suite folks) will be obvious candidates for that second list. For others, you’ll have to make your own judgement call. (Honestly, though, power and influence are usually pretty easy to identify!)
Now step back and take a good hard look at that second list. If it seems too sparsely populated, that means you need to add more power and influence to your network. And that means you need to identify new people to add to your network.
To figure out whom to approach, ask yourself these questions:
- Which people do I admire and want to learn from?
- Who is in a department into which I aspire to transfer?
- Which people have I seen handle challenging situations or discussions with aplomb?
Push yourself to add not just more connections who are at your level, but more connections who hold positions of power! Also, if you have a good relationship with your boss, consider asking him or her to recommend other leaders who can help you broaden your business acumen.
Making the Connection
Understanding what you hope to achieve in a networking relationship will help you narrow down which candidates to approach. Therefore, before you approach anyone, start with the end in mind: figure out what you want to gain from the person and how he or she can help you reach your goals. And don’t forget to think about what you can offer to that person, too. If you don’t bring something of your own to the table, people will be less inclined to want to get to know you.
Here are a few ways to initiate a connection with someone you’d like to add to your network:
- If a potential contact has a problem and you can help, offer your assistance. Nothing screams “get to know me” like helping someone in a jam.
- What are his or her passions or hobbies (volunteering, cooking, philanthropy, etc.)? You may be able to glean information about this if you pay attention to his or her comments and likes on LinkedIn, for example. Read up on your potential contact’s interests so you can talk about them if you find yourself with a few minutes together (such as before a meeting). Also, forward to him or her articles about those interests.
- After meeting someone for the first time, always follow up with him or her later. (“Hi, Mary. It was nice to meet you before our 11 a.m. meeting yesterday. Mind if I book 15 minutes on your calendar? I would love to ask you a few questions about your career journey.”)
- If the person you’re targeting is quoted or mentioned in an article, forward a copy of it to him or her. Also be on the lookout for articles of interest to your targeted manager (such as news about competitors or customers) so you can add your two cents when you speak with her or him next.
- Introduce your potential new connection to other people in your network.
- If you’re going to a networking event that a senior member of your company will also be attending, offer to arrange the Lyft or Uber ride to get you both there. Not only do you demonstrate your helpfulness, but you also get some one-on-one time with the executive during the car ride.
- Ask a mutual coworker or your boss to introduce you. Not only does this help you open communication with a potential connection, but because someone you both like and respect is putting the two of you together, you get a bit of a head start in the reputation department.
Power players and influencers are important additions to any network. But don’t limit your efforts just to that group. After all, you never know which connection will be the one that brings you your next great opportunity! The strategic networking described above is one strategy. But it’s amazing how even minor changes to your daily routine can expand your circle of connections in the office.
- When you’re waiting for a meeting to start, stay off your phone and have an actual conversation with anyone who shows up early like you. (It’s amazing how much we miss by constantly being on our phones!)
- Step out of your cubicle or desk at lunch time and head over to the cafeteria (and if you see someone sitting alone, ask if you can join him or her). Or invite someone to go out for lunch with you.
- Introduce yourself (in person or by e-mail) to new people in the office and offer to buy them coffee.
- Introduce yourself to that person you’ve never talked to who’s been sitting two desks away from you for a year.
- When your fellow employees are promoted, send them congratulatory notes. In departmental meetings, talk up your fellow team members’ accomplishments. If you’re known as the person who recognizes and appreciates others, then more people will want to work with you.
- Ask someone to join you for a walk around the block or your building as an afternoon pick-me-up. In addition to some great exercise (and maybe a little fresh air), this also gives you a chance to get to know someone a little better than you might with just a quick gab over coffee.
Don’t Rest on Your Laurels!
Position yourself as a center of influence—the one who knows the movers and shakers. People will respond to that, and you’ll soon become what you project. —Bob Burg
Networking requires constant, active effort on your part. Of course, networking alone won’t get you a promotion. But networking can help you get to know more people, which can make it easier to do your job (and do it well) as well as get more done for other people. Having a reputation as the “go to” person for important projects is a good thing, because you’ll get more opportunities to strut your stuff—and stay on the radars of people who make promotion decisions.
The holiday season is just around the corner, and all of the office parties and other social gatherings make this an outstanding time of year for networking. Take advantage of these opportunities to get to know your colleagues a bit better, and maybe even use one of these events as your excuse to introduce yourself to the CEO. As you find people who can help you (and whom you can help as well) you’ll expand your network—and your career options—in new and interesting directions.