I am a huge believer in the value of professional networks. Over and over again during my career years, I saw the value of having positive professional relationships with people both in your organization and in other organizations.
Strong relationships can help you survive layoffs. They can help you have a leg up when it comes to promotions. They can make it very easy to bounce back from a job loss. They can even open you up to unexpected opportunities, like freelancing.
I consider a professional network to be a valuable tool for almost every person currently in the workforce. Computer programmers. Mechanics. Middle managers. Even entry-level service workers can find value here.
Here’s the catch, though: it’s really easy to talk about how great it is to have a professional network, but how does one get started?
I’m going to list the things I did when I got started in my previous career. When I left, I felt as though I had a very strong professional network that actually spread across multiple continents. I actually had multiple job offers to return to my field after I walked away (which I turned down, because my reason for walking away wasn’t really related to dissatisfaction with my previous job).
It’s worth noting that some of these things work best in a college setting, while others work best when you’re already in the workplace. Pick and choose from this list based on your exact situation.
Let’s get started.
Join organizations related to your career path. In college, these might be student organizations. Outside of college, there may be professional or trade organizations you can join. These organizations offer lots of opportunities to meet others who are in the same career path as you are, both peers and people who are in advanced positions.
You can also look at organizations that are skill-specific but not directly related to your career, such as Toastmasters (for public speaking). While such groups won’t be loaded with people in your career path, what you will often find are people who are successful in many different paths, some of which will undoubtedly cross your own. Such relationships are quite valuable, too.
Attend conventions. Look for any and all conferences and conventions that are related to your career path and try to attend as many as you can. This gives you the opportunity to meet lots of people who are in your field and will often have compatible personalities and skill sets.
Although you can learn a lot of things at a convention, your focus should be on meeting people. Never eat alone at a convention. Talk to as many people as you can and if it’s close to meal time and you’re talking to someone interesting, invite them to eat with you. Have some business cards along and give them out whenever you have a meaningful conversation.
Volunteer your skills. This allows you to make surprising “outside the box” professional contacts in your local area (or elsewhere). If there’s a cause out there that has a need that you can fulfill, consider donating a bit of time and talent.
Again, you’ll often find that volunteer situations are loaded with community-minded people who are hard workers and are often successful in their field. These are great people to build relationships with.
Always carry some business cards with you. You should have a card in your pocket that has your contact info and a brief description of what you do. You shouldn’t hesitate to leave this card with people you meet that may have some professional interest.
I actually have multiple cards that I give out depending on the situation, as sometimes I’m talking about personal finance writing and at other times I’m talking about other fields I dabble in.
This can be a worthwhile idea even if you’re a student. Just have a card that has your contact information on it.
Follow up. When someone drops you a business card (and they mean it… you can ignore the blatant networkers who haven’t actually connected with you in any way), jot a quick note on the back so you remember who they were and what topic you might use for a follow-up with them.
Then, within a week or two, follow up. Send that person an email or a tweet, ideally one that touches base regarding what you talked about. It allows you to continue the conversation and build the relationship.
Over time, these tactics will lead you to a large and varied professional network. Some of these people will develop into close contacts – some won’t. That’s okay. Just focus on being positive and building the relationships that seem to be clicking while also reaching out to new people whenever there’s a chance.
Then, when you find yourself at a professional crossroads, you’ll have a ton of threads to tug on for some help with your next step.