How to Grow Your Professional Network

Do you have a visceral reaction when you hear the word “networking”?

Shhh! I have a secret for you: you have an existing network that you can use.

Start there and watch your network expand – even if you’re an introvert.

 Existing Contacts 

Flip through your phone, email, and LinkedIn contacts. Who do you know who may be able to help you by offering advice and/or introducing you to someone they know?

Make a list of people with whom you want to re-engage, and make a plan for how many people you will reach out to each week. Bonus: you can update your address book or holiday card list simultaneously. Write “outreach” on the calendar and hold yourself to it.

Review each name on the list and make notes about how you know that person, what they currently do (if you are aware), and how they may be able to help you now or in the future. At the same time, consider how you could offer to help them. If you don’t know yet, that's fine. Just keep in mind that at some point you are going to want to offer assistance. It could be as simple as saying, "Please let me know if I can be of help to you." This creates trust and long-lasting relationships that pay dividends in time.

Ease into It

Don’t shoot off your resume and say, “Hey, John, I’m on the job market. Can you help?” Send a personal note that asks John how he is doing and explains your intention. If you’re looking, tell him why and how exactly he can help. If your goal is to eventually ask him to review your resume for open positions or send it to HR, that’s fine, but don’t do it right off the bat.

Are you seeking his advice? Do you want to know if there are job openings at his company that would be a good fit? 

#1 rule: be genuine, because if you feel like you aren't being yourself, the message won't resonate. Tailor every message to each person you send it to; while this seems obvious, most people copy and paste without thought. Here’s what to say:

o   Request a brief email exchange or phone chat and tell John what you want to discuss.

o   Tell him how much you value his insights and advice.

Seek a New Connection

After you’ve exchanged back and forth messages or had a phone call, and you feel comfortable, ask John to recommend one person with whom you should connect. Ask if he prefers to make an introduction or if you can go directly to that person.

Targeted Events

Think broadly when it comes to events because you can benefit from social and professional events. Here are just a few ideas for places you can meet people who may be able to help you in your career, now or in the future.

 o   Neighborhood-based and Meetup groups for sports and social events, including kickball teams, book clubs, and wine nights

o   Special interest professional groups (e.g., women, national security, working dads)

o   Alumni groups for your alma mater, fraternities/sororities, or other programs in which you’ve participated (local or national chapters)

o   Professional associations that attract the types of professionals and/or industries you want to target

Before you go to an event…check out this list of 5 Things You Should Never Do at a Networking Event.  

Online

While in-person networking is always best, you can get very far by making online connections as long as you keep it as meaningful as you would in person.

1. Search on LinkedIn for people with the title, career, and/or in the companies that interest you most (not necessarily senior professionals).

2. When you click “connect” from their profile page, include a message tailored to that person that includes your intention (see notes above under “Existing Contacts”).

3. Don’t impinge on their time; first ask if it would be okay to ask them a few questions via email. 

Nurture Your Network

Just like any relationship of value, you must stay connected and follow up periodically. If you’ve gathered business cards at an event, write a note on the back of the card to remind you where you met along with a detail about your conversation. Include an asterisk for those you feel could be helpful to you. Email the person the following day to tell them how much you enjoyed chatting and reference something that you talked about. If you can help her in some way, mention it.

Don’t only do this with online contacts. Create a reminder in your calendar to reach out every few months to your existing contacts with whom you’ve re-engaged and connections from social events if you don’t see them on a regular basis.