How to Build a Powerful Professional Network
It will fuel a lifetime of success for you
Have you heard of the book Your Network is Your Net Worth by Porter Gale? She makes the case that your true “net worth” isn’t measured by the wealth you have amassed.
Instead, your most valuable asset is the meaningful connections you have created and actively maintain with other human beings.
The world is changing rapidly. Relationships are spanning the globe and are no longer restricted to the people you physically meet every day. Succeeding in this new world depends on your connections with kind, smart, and talented people.
The old ways of networking and power plays are fading from relevance. It will no longer be about who you know, the favors you owe, or your title. It will be about the value you can bring to the table. It will be about the kind of person you are.
“I believe in the power of social capital to improve your productivity, expand your professional options, and raise your overall quality of life. I believe that seeking out and working in collaboration with others who share your interests and values will provide a stronger foundation, enabling you to reach a higher level of success than you would on your own.” — Porter Gale
Why a strong network matters
Creating something of lasting meaning, impact, and value is rarely possible alone. We need to collaborate with others who share our beliefs, values, and vision.
You can’t leave this relationship-building to random chance (e.g., people you happen to work with at the office, neighbors that live near you).
“Nothing of significance was ever achieved by an individual acting alone. Look below the surface and you will find that all seemingly solo acts are really team efforts.” — John C. Maxwell
Traditionally, we have relied on our employer to inject us into this readymade network. We collaborate with our coworkers on the shared vision of the company.
This is all well and good, as long as you never waver or lose faith in that vision. If you decide to leave, or your employer falters and fails, your node is removed from that network and links to you fade away.
Yes, you can connect with your old coworkers on Linkedin. However, we all know that it isn’t the same as being in the trenches together.
You can no longer rely on a bond that is only based on shared employment and daily interactions at the water cooler. You need to create a strong network that is based on entirely different factors that remain fully under your control.
True, the world is changing. But, luckily, we can take ownership of our relationships more easily than before. We can forge strong relationships with likeminded individuals across the entire world. Take control of your career and treat it like a business. Managing relationships is critical for the survival of that business.
As I’ve talked about before, the power of your network will determine how successful you will be in landing great job opportunities that bring you closer to your ultimate career goals. Access to the hidden job market isn’t granted if you don’t connect with great people.
The people with the most influential networks have better opportunities than those who struggle to compete with the masses for the best jobs. Also, your network is even more critical if you strike out on your own to create a business of you. It is much easier to build awareness, raise capital, and find customers for your new business when you have a robust network.
Finally, as you scale your business to find partners and hire employees, nothing can replace the trust you’ve created within your network. I’ve tried partnering with people I didn’t know very well, and I’ve hired strangers before. It’s challenging, to put it mildly. I’ve had greater success over the last few years by building and maintaining deep relationships first.
Assess your current network
As a first step, you need to take a hard look at the state of your existing network. Most of us have networks that evolved organically instead of intentionally.
We’ve accepted requests from friends, coworkers, and recruiters. We’ve reached out and actively connected with a few people, but usually without a real strategy or goal in mind.
If your network is anything like mine was, it is heavily weighted within a single industry and geographic region. Mine is still saturated with Silicon Valley Tech folks (e.g., startup founders, Tech execs, designers, product managers, engineers, VCs, Angel investors).
However, I’ve been working diligently over the past few years to expand it more broadly.
How powerful is your network? What do the people in your network do? Are some connectors themselves?
We are transitioning to the concept of a valuable network independent of the old definitions of “power players,” but let’s not kid ourselves. Some people are in stronger positions of influence than others.
A few people can introduce you directly to an investor who will take a meeting with you, no questions asked. If you’ve tried to get close to an investor before, you know how valuable this warm intro is.
Other people can bring you in for a role, and the job is yours if you want it. The interviews become a formality. Power, influence, and position still matter, for now.
When you are just starting in your career, your network tends to be composed primarily of your peers. For example, college students connect with other college students. That’s fun, but it’s not a very powerful network — yet.
As you develop in your career, your network will grow with you. However, it takes time and patience. Some of my peers who started with me as young designers are now C-level executives at publicly-traded companies. Some of them have enjoyed great success and transitioned into the world of investment.
If your network is composed primarily of peers, I challenge you to reach beyond your social circle to bring in older and more powerful individuals. As a student, this might require connecting with faculty, advisors, and mentors.
Meet and connect with more experienced people at conferences, workshops, meet-ups, and other events. Don’t be shy about speaking up, reaching out, and connecting with these individuals.
I spoke at the Fluxible conference a few years ago. My talk was on Designing for Love and Money, and I talked about treating your career like a business. A student in the audience asked how you can get a start when you don’t have the experience, and you’re not well-connected in the industry yet.
Speaking to a room full of hundreds of people, I said, “Send me a connection request on Linkedin right now. Connect with me and tap into my network. I’ll do what I can to help you.”
Guess how many people took me up on that?
I’ve stayed connected to one of those people ever since the talk and given her feedback, guidance, and support in her career pursuits. She just landed a great new job, by the way.
Level up the power of your network. The latent opportunity within your network is a function of the power of the individuals within it. Don’t play small.
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” ― Jim Rohn
How aligned is your network with your strategic career path? Does it reflect your desired role in the right industry? If you’re leaping into entrepreneurship, do you have the connections and support that will make that endeavor more successful?
The majority of my network used to be in the corporate Tech world. Having a tech-centric network worked exceedingly well for me when my career was in Silicon Valley.
I was able to meet with investors that other people couldn’t easily reach. I could pull together teams of talented people. I still get advice from some of the best minds in the industry across Design, Product, Engineering, and more.
But, as my 2nd Act career shifted into a new direction, I had to expand my network to connect with people who were more fully-aligned with my new business. I’ve spent the last few years making friends around the world with strong backgrounds in sales, marketing, PR, publishing, writing, social media, finance, business strategy, and entrepreneurship.
I have learned a great deal that I was never exposed to in my narrow professional niche. I’ve built relationships with amazing people who have become business partners in new opportunities.
I wouldn’t have had these opportunities if I hadn’t taken the time to realign and expand my network.
Consider where you want to take your career next, and then take a hard look at your network. Are you connected with the right people who align with your new goals?
If not, now is the time to invest in creating those new relationships. Find people who will support and motivate you. Find mentors who have walked the path before you.
The diversity in your network is essential for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, we tend to befriend and connect with people who are similar to us. Believe it or not, we also tend to have friends who are genetically similar to ourselves (how freaky is that?).
That’s why people in Tech tend to have a network composed mostly of similar people in similar professions. I’ve witnessed and experienced this firsthand. For the longest time, my network was composed chiefly of Tech designers in Silicon Valley.
However, research has proven that more diverse teams generate the best outcomes. This diversity includes backgrounds, education, socioeconomic status, profession, industry, gender, race, and age.
If your network is homogeneous, it’s time to shake things up.
“A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.”
Get out of your comfort zone and attend events and meet-ups that you usually wouldn’t consider. Join groups that will stretch your mind, educate you in new ways, and introduce you to people you don’t typically meet in your daily life or 9-to-5 job.
We talk about the “Silicon Valley Bubble.” We design software, create solutions, and think our problems are the same problems everyone must be facing.
“How will I ever get across town if I have to wait for a dirty old taxi? I know! An elegant on-demand car service.”
Let me tell you, many of the folks outside of wealthy, tech-savvy, urban areas don’t care about Uber. They’re worried about getting laid off at work, scared that they won’t be able to pay the rent, wondering how they could ever send their children to college, and trying to put food on the table.
Get out of your bubble and expand your network. I have, and it has been amazing. It first started when I joined a CrossFit box and made close friends there. Some of us were Tech geeks, but many people worked in very different professions and had very different life issues, concerns, hopes, and dreams.
It continued when I moved out of Silicon Valley and into a more rural area. It has been surprising and refreshing.
When I meet people, they don’t start the conversation with, “Where do you work? What do you do?” They don’t become disinterested in talking with me if I don’t say that I work at Facebook, Google, or some hot new startup.
Conversations center more around real, day-to-day life. We talk about how we spend our weekends, recent travel, our families, new restaurants, books and movies, health and fitness, etc.
Diversify your network to become more creative, collaborative, empathetic, and successful. Eliminate the mindset that you can only accept Linkedin requests from people who are just like you or can do you a favor.
The value and power of a more diverse network — in every sense — may not seem immediately apparent, but the benefits are long-term and real.
When was the last time you talked with the people in your network? How often do you meet folks for lunch, coffee, or drinks? Do you socialize with people on a personal level, or do you try to leverage them like tools?
A stale network is a weak network.
You can’t just tap into people when you need a favor. No one likes that. I can’t even count the number of times that someone would contact me only when they needed a favor, after not seeing me for years.
I’m a bit of a hermit, so this advice feels somewhat hypocritical. But you can be better than I am. I know that being social is a weakness of mine. I’m a deep introvert, although many don’t know that.
Learn from my mistakes, and keep your connections fresh. I know that you can’t have lunch or coffee with 500+ people every month. That isn’t a realistic expectation. But, you can connect in small ways that take very little time.
For example, I send a short message to people just to let them know that I was thinking of them. Maybe I will share an article that I thought they would like. Perhaps I will share the memory of an event we both experienced.
That’s it. I don’t add, “Oh, by the way. Can you also do me a favor?”
There are CRM systems that handle customer relationships quite well. Perhaps there are Network Relationship Management systems as well?
I don’t know. If you do, please educate me in the comments.
I’m not talking about Facebook’s lame birthday reminders. Getting those always feels like the birthday cards that my dentist and insurance agent send me every year. Ugh.
Some things you can easily do:
- Create a list of people from your network you would like to stay more closely connected with (Linkedin buries this, but you can export your data, including your connections).
- Create a spreadsheet as a simple relationship management tool. Put names in columns, other relevant info (e.g., who they are, how you met, what they do, etc.), and then have columns to track when you last contacted them and how (e.g., to say hello)
- Identify a small subset of people you want to meet for coffee, lunch, or drinks physically. Schedule time with them.
- Set up video chats or phone calls with another subset of folks who live far away from you.
- Send a “Thank you” to people who truly made a difference in your life. I know that we sometimes feel too shy to say it in person. It’s more comfortable with time and distance. I’ve sent thank you notes to professors, bosses, and mentors from my past. It feels good to acknowledge them, and they seem to appreciate the gesture too.
- Share a relevant article with another subset of people (e.g., a research article on clean energy)
- Simply say, “Hi, I was thinking about you the other day. I was wondering how you’ve been doing?” to another group of people
You get the idea.
If you want your network to be valuable, you have to keep the connections fresh. It’s based on relationships with real people. I think you’ll be surprised to discover how much fun it is to reconnect with people.
We all get busy with our lives and think that we can’t make time. But it’s worth the investment. I have a weekly video chat with some folks from my network, and Slack chats with others. I always come away feeling energized.
How close are you to the people in your network? How willing are they to help you out? How often do you help people out? Are they comfortable introducing you to other valuable individuals in their network?
It’s hard to have a strong bond if you haven’t maintained a relationship. But, we also have relationships that are inherently stronger than others. Months can go by without a call with my siblings, but the bond is always stronger than the ones I have with people I network with every week.
So, assess the existing bonds within your network. You know which ones are strong, which ones are casual, and some that are weak (e.g., you connected on Linkedin, but you have never even talked with those people). Identify opportunities to strengthen the bonds, where appropriate.
One great way to strengthen a bond is to provide value, with no expectation of anything in return. All too often, people only help out others when they get something that they want. You can stand out by delivering value with no strings attached.
I’ve introduced people to other great people simply because I thought they would find value in that relationship. I’ve helped recruiters and hiring managers find candidates. I help candidates find jobs.
Invest in your network
I hope that this has inspired you to spend more time cultivating your network. It is one of the best investments that you can make, both for your professional and personal life. My network has enabled a great deal of my success over the past 20 years.
All too often, we just let our networks happen. They grow and evolve organically. There will always be some element of that, but don’t let that be the end of the story.
Have a long-term strategy in mind, set some goals for your career and life, and reshape your network to be a powerful part of making that come true.
Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, a Great Dane, a chicken, and a stubborn old cat. He shares advice that helps you become an opportunity magnet, so the best things in life come to you! You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.