The 7 critical people you need in your professional network
Networking is a dirty word!
For many of us, the word ‘networking’ is a dirty word. It brings with it connotations of pitching up at large, impersonal events, full of boring people we don’t know, as we awkwardly scan the room for a friendly face, handing out business cards and hoping that somehow this ‘networking’ thing is helpful to our careers. Everyone talks about the importance of networking and the need to have a strong network, so we must need to put ourselves through these paces, right?
For years I laboured under this misapprehension. I ensured I went to industry conferences, breakfast events, and seminars always with a tidy pile of business cards in hand, hoping that somehow, almost by magic, I might meet someone who could be a helpful contact. Did it work? Sure I met some interesting people and added a few more contacts to my LinkedIn account, but in truth the time I put into these events very rarely paid great dividends. And that’s because I was going about networking in completely the wrong way.
What is the purpose of networking?
I hadn’t realised that I needed to be more strategic in how I approached networking. I needed to start by asking myself, “what was I trying to achieve through networking?”. Was I looking for:
Peers with complementary industry or functional knowledge and skills?Potential contacts in other companies for when I was looking for a job move?People who I could learn from?People who would benefit from my help and support?People that might be able to introduce me to other helpful contacts?
By identifying who you need in your network you can drastically cut down the unproductive time you spend at pointless networking events and focus your time and efforts much more wisely.
Who do you need in your network?
In my work with thousands of women over the course of my career I’ve been able to identify 7 types of people that you need in your network:
Market / industry experts - people you can reach out to for specific expertise on your industry or functional area. Having a wide range of people is helpful to draw on.
Experts outside your domain - people who can offer expertise in areas you may need to draw on, such as a financial expert, a social media guru, etc.
Connectors - people who are well connected, credible, more senior to you, and likely to be able to make meaningful introductions when you need them.
Mentor - an experienced person you can learn from and who provides a safe space for testing out ideas and approaches and for giving advice on career related topics.
Challengers - people who offer a different perspective and can help challenge your thinking and clarify your perspective. This might be a coach, a colleague or a friend or anyone who thinks out-of-the-box.
Accountability partner - someone who will help keep you accountable for achieving your goals. Often this will be a coach but others can also play this role.
An empathetic listener – a friend, partner or colleague who can listen to you when you’re having a frustrating day, provide a should to cry on and help pick you up and dust you off. Someone who cares and encourages us.
In addition, for your network to be most helpful to you it needs to include diverse perspectives. Make sure the people in your network hail from a variety of backgrounds, ages, nationalities, life and business experiences, career seniority and of course include both men and women.
Of course there may be many people in your network who play each of these roles, and in the main the more people you have to draw on the better.
How do I find them?
So how can I get started?
Firstly, I encourage you to draw up a list of who in your existing network fits in to these categories. Don’t include those you know peripherally. Your list should only include people who you know well enough to comfortably sit down with over a coffee or lunch and mull over the issue on your mind.
Secondly, look at where you have gaps. Are there any roles that aren’t being filled in your network? Have a think about how you might fill these roles. It won’t always be through large scale networking events – sometimes you can identify people through everyday conversations at work, or even outside of work.
Thirdly, get out there and find these people! Be deliberate in how you spend your time. If you are going to an event, ask yourself in advance “What outcome am I looking for from this event?”. For example, if it is to meet industry experts then have a look at the guest list in advance, review the attendees’ LinkedIn profiles and identify the people who might be worth getting to chat to during the event. Send them a LinkedIn message in advance and let them know that you’d love to meet them at the event.
Remember, it’s not just how they can help you. Think about how you can help them. What skills, knowledge, experience and contacts do you have that might be of value to the people you want to connect with? People are much more likely to warm to you if there is mutual benefit in the connection.
Good luck! I’d love to hear how this approach works for you and if there are other roles in your network that you have found equally valuable.
Sharon Peake is the founder and MD of Shape Talent Ltd, a gender equality coaching and consulting business established with the sole purpose of getting more women into senior leaderships roles in business. We work with organisations to remove the barriers to women’s progression and we work with individual women, helping them to achieve their career potential.
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