If our network is our “net worth,” what are the best ways to make sure we’re optimizing our connections to support our career growth and our professional goals?
We all know that maintaining a robust professional network is a crucial part of maintaining as well as building a successful career. Our professional network is the key source of the personal referrals we need to vouch for and spread the word about our professional value. These referrals are also essential to gather the business intelligence we need to stay competitive in our jobs. They are also our primary source of strategic guidance and confidential support in making important career decisions. Finally, referrals tap the so-called “hidden job market” where at least 80% of all hiring takes place.
In this article, I share some best practices and professional networking tips you’ll want to follow to transform your professional network into a referral community of loyal supporters. The net effect of this “network effect” is an optimized network that might free you from ever having to search for a job again.
You Have to Do the Work
Too many times, in my first conversation with a prospective client, they confess with some embarrassment that they haven’t done a particularly diligent or consistent job of keeping up with their network.
I get it. You work hard. You’re focused on your current job, managing up and managing down. It’s hard to pull your attention away from your weekly agenda to focus on people who are not front-and-center in your life right now.
But these people are the long-term connections who bring the important outside perspective and the personal loyalty necessary for your ongoing success. Keeping up with them in some organized and intentional fashion is a must.
Develop a Cadence That Works for You
Do you have a spreadsheet or a basic CRM set up with the names of your top 50 professional colleagues?
If not, carve out an hour this coming weekend and set it up. If it’s been a while since you’ve perused your LinkedIn contacts, take the time to systematically go through your list and extract those top people and put them on your CRM list.
Starting now, decide on some regular interval – maybe it’s only once or twice a month – when you’ll reach out and check in with a few of these people. If it’s been a while, yes, it’s going to perhaps feel a little awkward. But once you get past the awkwardness and settle into a routine, you may start learning new and interesting things about what’s going on with them. And they may welcome the update from your side.
See below for some additional details on working with your contacts and “activating” your network.
It Starts by Building Trust
When you establish strong connections with your peers, they are more likely to trust you and your professional value. This can be a game-changer in your career generally, and definitely when you are (perhaps suddenly) looking to find a new job. The value of building trust cannot be understated. As Stephen M.R. Covey points out in his book The Speed of Trust, building trust might be the single most important success factor in our careers: “High-trust individuals are more likely to be promoted, make more money, receive the best opportunities, and have more fulfilling and joyful relationships.”
If trust accelerates the pace of actions and outcomes, imagine how handy that can be when you need to close an important time-sensitive deal, or when you’ve been laid off in the midst of a corporate restructuring and 15% of your company is suddenly on the street.
When you build trust, the speed of business increases. Professionals in your network may hear about job openings before they are posted publicly (the “hidden job market!”). Since you’re already a known quantity, they can vouch for you, and give you a valuable head start on the competition. This can increase your chances of landing an interview or a job offer.
Pro Tip: Use the 80/20 Rule
While it’s good to ask for help when you need it, you should aim to give back more often than you ask for assistance. This means spending 80% of your networking time giving to your network and only 20% of your time asking for referrals, introductions, or guidance.
Make your mantra: Always Be Giving (ABG). Think about how you can provide value to your network. Share relevant information, such as industry news or job openings. Make introductions, mentor others, and consider doing favors for your connections, whether offering to review a resume or providing feedback on a project.
Giving to your network is about being helpful but also about building trust. When you give genuinely, without expecting anything in return, you establish a sense of mutual support and trust with your network. This leads to stronger professional relationships and more opportunities down the road. So, give to your network with sincerity and authenticity, and you’ll reap the benefits in your career.
How to Activate Your Professional Network
Activating your professional network can help you open doors to new opportunities and advance your career. Here are some steps you can take to do this:
Determine Your Priority Contacts & Target Companies
As you engage with your regular CRM review, consider your connections’ industry, company, job title, or potential for referrals. Ask yourself: Which of their 1st-levels (your 2nd-levels) do you want to get referred to? What are your target companies?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you can start strategizing how to connect with them and get your foot in the door.
Identify Your Career Goals and Share Them With Your Network
Identifying your career goals and sharing them with your professional network helps them understand how to help you and tailor their advice, referrals, and introductions to your career aspirations. This is where a well-crafted LinkedIn profile is essential. Make sure that your profile communicates a specific and well-defined value proposition so that your connections know what to say about you. Use your About section as well as your Headline to emphasize the value you deliver – and (in the case of your About section) why you’re motivated to do so.
Discussing your career goals doesn’t have to conflict with your current job and doesn’t have to send the signal that you are looking to find a new position. Describe your goals in aspirational terms that can apply to what you’re currently doing, but also hint at how you want to grow in your current role.
Stay Active on Professional Social Media Platforms
Engage with your existing contacts on LinkedIn or other platforms where they are active. Share posts, articles, and information relevant to your industry or interests to showcase your expertise. Return the favor and comment on their own posts.
Make introductions between your contacts. For example, if you know someone looking for a job in a particular industry, you can introduce them to someone who works in that field.
You can also leverage your existing connections for referrals or do cold LinkedIn “Inmail” outreach to new contacts and expand your network further. Remember to be professional and clear about why you are interested in connecting with them. And by the way, upgrading to a paid LinkedIn plan gives you a number of advantages over the free plan, including a greater ability to search as well as to see who’s visiting your profile. It’s well worth it!
All of these actions are additional ways of building trust and further bolstering your professional reputation.
Attend Industry Events and Conferences
Events and conferences are designed expressly to facilitate conversations, and introductions, and make things happen. Yet too many of us show up at conferences like sheep, shuffling from panel to keynote to mixer without much thought about how to take advantage of the many opportunities to connect.
A few hours of research and follow-up can make all the difference.
- Research who will be attending,
- Identify those whom you would like to connect with,
- Reach out before the event to schedule a meeting or
- Set up a time to chat during the conference.
Don’t second-guess yourself or assume you know the value of a given event, panel, presentation, mixer, or reception: go! Maximize your opportunities to meet and hang out with new contacts. You never know whom you’ll meet and how they could help you in the future.
Attending industry events and conferences is also about deepening existing relationships. Make sure to follow up with your contacts after the event and, again, stay engaged with them on LinkedIn or other social media networks afterward.
Finally, remember that many, maybe even most companies have a recruiting and hiring presence at conferences. Even if you’re not in the market for a new job – or if you are but don’t want to seem obvious about it – talk to the recruiters or hiring managers from companies you’re interested in.
If you’ve identified your career goals and can speak concisely about the value of what you do in your current role (see above), you may just connect with some people who will be very interested in keeping you “top of mind” for the future.
Seek Referrals From Your Network
Referrals are not only about jobs. If you’ve cultivated a range of people across different roles and skill sets, you’ll always be looking to meet interesting and resourceful professionals. You want to learn more about what they do and what they’re working on.
Employing this growth mindset approach to referrals and networking is very disarming because it side-steps the notion that referrals are mostly about getting a job. But make no mistake: when your situation shifts and you are looking to make a change or recover from a job loss, your network will already be accustomed to making referrals for you. The mutual introduction and referral process activates a sense of reciprocity, and people are more likely to help you if you have helped them in the past.
When you receive a referral, it’s critical to follow up. Make sure you thank and keep your referrers informed. This not only demonstrates gratitude but also helps build trust and strengthen your relationship.
Ask for referrals sparingly! Asking too frequently can come across as needy or manipulative and can damage your relationships. Always read your contact’s response: are they truly in your corner or “just doing you a favor?” If they seem less than enthusiastic, it may be best to hold off.
Pro-Tip: Offer LinkedIn Recommendations
You can leverage LinkedIn Recommendations to strengthen your professional relationships and increase your chances of successful referrals. Do this by offering to write a recommendation for a contact who has been a great referrer or who could potentially refer you.
If this doesn’t apply to your current situation, a fall-back strategy is to write a recommendation for them first and ask them to reciprocate. You may also offer to write the first draft of their recommendation for you to save time and energy. This also lets you outline what you would like their recommendation to cover – so it’s a win-win: you get the recommendation on your own terms and they get to save time/effort.
Patience Yields Results
When and if you lose your job or decide that it’s time to initiate your transition, follow these additional guidelines to effectively manage your network relationships and help them help you:
Be positive and philosophical.
You don’t have to minimize your feelings if you’ve lost your job, but people are more likely to help someone with a positive outlook. A philosophical mindset keeps you grounded and focused on your goals, even in the face of rejection.
Be open and transparent
Avoid complaining or badmouthing your previous employer, even if they mistreated you. Speaking negatively about your previous employer or colleagues only ends up reflecting poorly on you and makes people hesitant to recommend you.
Don’t assume potential referrers know what’s going on or have done their homework on you and what you offer. If you have an “ask,” be crystal clear about what you’re asking for, why you’re asking for it, and what you hope to achieve as a result. This will give your contact the context they need to feel comfortable about helping you out.
Keep your network updated
Help your network better understand how to pitch you. Ensure your LinkedIn profile is current and reflects the most recent developments in your career. Don’t wait until you’ve settled into a new job to update your profile.
Don’t pretend that you’re still in your job if you’ve just been laid off. Add that end date and create a new Experience section bullet (and add it to your paper resume) that lists you as a consultant. This new bullet is your opportunity to define your ideal next job as if you’re pitching to deliver that value to a potential client.
Reach out to your closest and most trusted connections for feedback on your LinkedIn profile, your resume, and the interview process. Conduct mock interviews to get comfortable with presenting yourself and answering questions under pressure.
You’re Building a Community
At the end of the day, your network connections will support you and bring opportunities to you because they believe in you.
Your goal in this process is to build a community of like-minded professionals who support your business goals and vision for your industry while you also support theirs.
Each new position – yours or theirs – is a cause for celebration and an opportunity to do more good work in service to those goals and visions.
And speaking of service, if you see yourself through this process as a “servant leader,” and act accordingly, you’ll build more traction more quickly. As a professional dedicated to serving your professional community and your industry as a whole, you’ll continue to build trust and respect.
And when you need your community member’s help in the future, they’ll be there for you.