14 January 2020

Strategically Strengthen Your Professional Network

(Originally published on ASAE’s Associations Now Daily News, January 10, 2020)

The beginning of a new year is an ideal time to review and strengthen your professional network. Start by thinking strategically about your career goals and needs. Then, apply a proven framework for optimal success.

When was the last time you reviewed and strengthened your professional network? It’s a career management essential, and certain times each year are ideal for this activity—the beginning of a new year, your birthday or a significant anniversary, or around the holidays, for example.

This process doesn’t look the same for everyone, but you’ll be most successful if you take a strategic approach. First you need to determine what you want from your network. Perhaps you’re looking for your next-level job, or you want to share your expertise about cutting-edge technologies, or you’re seeking a mentor or sounding board to test out a new idea. Once you’re clear on what you want and what you have to offer others, you’re ready to move intentionally toward strengthening your network.

Three Types of Networks

In their timeless Harvard Business Review article, “How Leaders Create and Use Networks,” professors Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter share a practical framework to help people determine what kinds of relationships they need most in their network. Ibarra and Hunter identify three types of networks:

Operational: These networks comprise people you need to engage with to get your work done efficiently, such as your work colleagues and your association’s members.

Personal: These networks include people outside of your day-to-day work relationships who can help advance your personal growth, such as other association professionals and people in personal-interest communities you’re involved with.

Strategic: These networks are made up of people outside your usual circle of influence who can help you gain a broader strategic view of your career or your industry and can provide resources to help you contribute at a higher level. These may include colleagues working at different levels or in different functional roles in your association or in other organizations.

Before determining what you need in each of these domains, briefly review your current network to identify its strengths and weaknesses. Consider whether your network is heavily skewed toward one or two of the key relationships and whether it is out of date, inactive, or too disconnected to be helpful to you.

Your Network Plan

Using this information, as well as what you know about yourself—for example, how much time you can realistically commit to networking each week, what activities energize you, and what drains you—begin creating your network plan.

Determine what tools you’ll use. Your LinkedIn profile is key to telling your professional story. Be sure you are leveraging opportunities on LinkedIn and other professional platforms to share your knowledge—by posting original content and commenting on content that others post—in a way that is consistent with your networking strategy.

Next, consider what professional organizations you’ll invest your time in. There are endless opportunities to network in person, so it’s important to choose events that align with your overall networking strategy. Often, attending fewer, carefully selected events is the wisest use of your time and allows you to develop stronger relationships.

Finally, don’t wait until you need something from your network to get involved. Engage now (offer your input, attend events, volunteer) before you have a specific need.

For introverts and extroverts alike, strategic networking takes focus, energy, and time, but the investment pays off in a stronger network that will help you realize your goals. Move purposefully to build your network in a way that aligns with your personality, values, and commitment to reaching those goals.

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