Think back to the beginning of your working life. How did you find your first job? Was it through a friend or family member? Maybe you worked someplace you visited often or interned at a friend’s parent's company.
Whether you realised as a fresh-faced teenager or not, such opportunities were you relying on your professional network.
If you’ve ever found a job through a friend, colleague, ex-colleague, peer, teacher or family member, you’ve utilized your professional network.
In a recent LinkedIn study, 73% of participants surveyed indicated they'd found a job because of someone they knew either making an introduction or hiring them directly, and 76% of respondents believe “knowing the right people is important to getting ahead in life.”
My own career growth has been largely a result of my strong professional network.
I’ve worked hard to nurture reciprocal relationships with fellow industry professionals, from mentors who help guide me in the right direction to potential employers who might provide me with my next challenge.
In fact, the reason I now write is because of my professional network. In the earlier parts of my career, I suffered from imposter syndrome; I felt I didn't belonged in my community of practice, and I hesitated to speak-up about what was going on in my career or what I hoped to see or experience in the future.
My confidence to share my ideas and experiences took a significant positive turn when I began networking online with people in my area of practice, attending professional events, connecting with industry colleagues, and finding my voice in my community through networking and the validation that comes with belonging to a community of practice.
I wouldn’t be here doing what I am doing now without my professional network, which is why I’m so excited to share tips and tricks of professional networking with you.
We’ll explore how to put yourself out there and nurture meaningful, lasting relationships.
By following these tips and tricks, you’ll be well on your way to having a robust professional network that can open doors for new opportunities.
- What is a professional network?
- The power of your professional network
- How to build your professional network
- Tips for making better connections
- Professional networking apps
What is a professional network?
A professional network is a community of people who relate to each other through business, academic, or other professional pursuits.
Each person has what they might refer to as their own professional network. In practice, this is typically a list of people that the person knows and has worked, learned, studied or interacted with in a professional setting.
Some people document their professional networks in lists, contact cards/rolodexes, or, if you’re like me, you keep everyone in one place on LinkedIn.
Professional networks are exceptionally important for career growth and can help directly in the areas of mentorship, earning, and finding/securing your next job.
My professional network includes my current and former colleagues and managers, along with anyone I have learned from or studied with. I also add my friends and family to the mix as those relationships may still be able to assist me in my professional career.
Creating and maintaining a strong professional network is important to long-term career success, especially in tight-knit communities and markets.
The power of your professional network
Building a professional network to support professional development and growth can be tremendously powerful.
Establishing relationships with like-minded professionals, who understand the value of supporting each other, gives one access to an amazing wealth of knowledge, experience, and motivation that is unique to each individual.
Developing strong bonds within your professional network helps you stay informed about what's going on in your field and gives you access to a wide range of resources—from networking events to job opportunities, advice from experienced peers or mentors, and even potential collaborations.
The power of having such a wide array of contacts also increases your chances for success. Having knowledgeable individuals within close reach means that you can get feedback on ideas much faster, as well as ask hard questions when necessary.
Simply put, your professional network and professional relationships can mean the difference between being unemployed and frustrated while looking for a job, or feeling supported and refreshed as you start at a new company you may never have heard of.
It can mean a quiet, soft launch of your new company, or it can mean people engage and support you along your path to greatness with much social sharing and encouragement along the way.
How to build your professional network
Professional networks provide individuals with the ability to easily connect with likeminded professionals and allow them to share industry experience, resources, and advice.
They are a great way to build relationships with others in your field who may be able to offer you support or guidance.
There are many different ways to build your network and engage with people in your network to deepen relationships and learn together.
The #1 easiest and quickest way to begin building your professional network is to attend events that are relevant to your work, interests or academic pursuits. Every professional event includes networking opportunities (and yes, recruiters are usually there too!).
Whatever your interest, odds are there’s a group out there throwing events on a regular basis, either in-person or online. Your company may throw internal networking events, or maybe there are groups that are throwing public events in your company’s space. If that’s happening, be sure to be there.
Two of my favorite places to find out about events happening online or in my community are Meetup and Eventbrite. Across these platforms, many opportunities to connect with like-minded or interested people are right at your fingertips.
It can be daunting to step into a new space or group without being there before and without a guide. Don’t worry, you got this.
You can quote me here, no one is going to be checking your credentials or experience when you walk into a public professional event, such as those posted on Meetup.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in your role, how much you know on the topic, or if you studies the speaker beforehand; no one cares, and no will be checking.
The only time someone will check or care about your previous experience is if you want to claim professional development or continuing education credits for attending the event. Even then, they just want to provide you with info and help to keep you moving forward.
My professional network in the Project Management and Agile space is a clear example of the power of attending events.
I attended my first professional event in the Agile space in 2018, it was a talk hosted by AgilePDX by Kat Higgins on Fakes & Bullies: Taming Your Imposter Syndrome to Find Your Inner Thought Leader.
I found the event on Meetup, and I felt compelled to attend because the topic was spot-on for how I was feeling.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the event was literally minutes from my office in Downtown Portland, Oregon. I took the plunge and went.
What I found when I arrived was a group of people that were welcoming to new faces and thrilled to have people looking to learn join the event. I also learned that there was a rich community of of people in my city who were interested in what I cared about, and were working through it actively and sharing insights along the way.
I was newish to Agile at the time, but that was not an issue. No one stopped me at the door to see my credentials or check my understanding of the topic. People were genuinely interested in meeting me, learning about my world and supporting me in my pursuits.
From that event, my professional network blossomed and I found my voice as a thought leader.
All it took was stepping out of my comfort zone and showing up!
As you get going, remember, people like people who like people. If you go to events, be ready to meet and mingle! Think about how you will introduce yourself and include the purpose or your “why” for what you do. Having a why is so much more interesting than “Hello, My name is [Name] and I am a…”. Instead, try “Hi, I’m [Name] and I love solving problems for startups…”.
When you first start attending events, here are some quick tips to take along with you;
- Introduce yourself and make conversation. Don’t be afraid to break the ice! You can even walk-up to a group of people that are already talking (gasp). When you’re in the presence of another human, introduce yourself, share about what you love to do, why you do it, and talk about your future career path. By sharing this information with people at events, they will get a sense of what you’re about and what you are hopeful to do in the future. They might just have an opportunity or two in mind that would be a good fit!
- Ask questions and listen. Don’t forget to ask your other conversation participants about themselves as well! It’s not all about you. In fact, the more you can get the other people to talk about themselves, the more memorable you will be! So listen well, ask open-ended questions, and be interested.
- Connect on social media. Following up with people you meet face-to-face at an event is a great way to stay in touch and keep growing your network. If you’re like me and no longer carry business cards, following each other on social media or connecting through LinkedIn can help strengthen the relationship and keep it going. LinkedIn has a few great features to help with this right from your mobile phone. Download the LinkedIn app and sign-in before you go to events and check out this guide about how to use the QR code feature in LinkedIn to connect to new people fast when you’re out and about.
Share knowledge e.g. write or share articles and feature on podcasts
Your professional network also serves as a forum for exchanging ideas and learning new skills. This provides an invaluable opportunity to develop professionally while staying informed on changes in the industry.
As you find your footing and begin to build your network, consider what you can do to benefit those in the network. How can you help others in their own career pursuits by keeping them informed about industry trends or new research in their field?
Sharing knowledge and participating in conversations on industry trends is a great way to help people get a sense for what you’re interested in, and it may just spur a conversation that could lead to further development!
You don’t even have to be the one authoring the knowledge. You can, of course, share knowledge with folks through writing articles, participating in podcasts, and making informative videos, but not everyone has time for that. You can be almost as equally as helpful by sharing knowledge developed by others, especially if you add a little insight as you pass it along.
One thing I like to do consistently is keep an eye out for content I think is relevant to my various contexts, and share any content that I find especially helpful with the relevant communities.
In my academic experience, I’ve been assigned reading on diversity efforts that I found insightful, so I sent it along to my Chief People Officer with a few comments on what I found helpful and how I felt we could incorporate some of the insights in our company.
That article was then read and shared with others; the learning expanded! While this is an example of sharing within your organization, you can also share externally!
Consider sharing content you find interesting, insightful or helpful with others in your professional network via email or social media, including LinkedIn. For me, I find LinkedIn ultra valuable for sharing information
When I find something I want to share, I just pop over to the platform and link the content and write a few sentences about what I gleaned from it. I might even add a few hashtags or tag a couple people I feel the content is especially relevant to. Next, click Post and voila! You have deepend your connection with your professional network by making an impression with content you found relevant and valuable.
Be careful with this, however! Be sure the content you post is valuable and relevant to your professional network.
Also, don’t post too often as to not become an ad agency or be labeled as a spammer. I try to post something a couple times per month and I always “like” content I feel is relevant because those also show up in the news feed too.
Joining communities is an excellent way to build your professional network, and there are TONS of communities out there that would love to have more members join.
Many of the events that are posted online, such as on Meetup, are likely to have an associated community that gathers across events, time or spaces over the long-term. It’s great to see the same people event to event, both in-person and online.
I’m an active participant in numerous communities, some of which are local to me and some of which span the globe online. Each method of connection carries different benefits, so I recommend trying both!
In my in-person communities, I often attend events or volunteer (which is also a great way to meet people in your industry). In virtual communities, I attend events (even better if they are video-ON events) and connect with other community members via online forums like Slack and Reddit.
Across communities, there is a ton of opportunity to build your professional network. Engaging in events, such as virtual networking sessions, professional conferences, and industry meetups will help get you started. These provide a great platform to make new connections with a community and strengthen existing ones.
Many of the communities I’ve been part of also offer mentorship programs and these are an excellent way to build your professional network and help others. We all have something to teach to others and we always have more to learn.
If you’re in a community that offers a mentorship program, I cannot recommend engaging it it highly enough! Go get it!
Bonus: Many online communities include different sections such as discussion boards, announcements, thought leadership articles, events, a networking site and a job board.
These different areas can be immensely helpful over time and over your career trajectory. If you’re looking for a new role, consider if any of the communities you belong to, or that are relevant, have job boards!
From a company’s perspective, getting a candidate from a job board of a community group is a good indicator of someone who is engaged in the industry and continuously learning.
Some tips for making better connections
The key to creating meaningful connections through social networking is to be proactive in your approach to building relationships.
Instead of waiting for others to reach out, take the initiative by introducing yourself first. Ask questions that show genuine interest in their work and offer advice or resources when needed.
When you approach someone in your network, be open about what you’re looking for from each connection in terms of support or guidance. This allows you to create an organic relationship that can foster mutual growth over time.
If you’re uncomfortable with taking the step and reaching out, a little support, coaching and practice goes a long way. I found inspiration from the book Captivate by Science of People researcher, Vanessa Van Edwards. She’s a guru at building connections with people and has tons of tips and tricks for becoming more comfortable in professional networking situations.
I also suggest attending events that are specifically focused on professional and personal networking. These events are rarely a free-for-all, they almost always include activities and facilitated interactions with new people.
These types of events are excellent ways to practice meeting new people and build your professional network. You might even find a new mentor, colleague of friend!
Focus on learning
Everyone has more to learn, and we all have something to teach to someone else. Be open to learning; in fact, seek out learning. Those that are curious and hungry to know more are magnetic to those that want to teach and share knowledge.
If you want to advance in your career by building your professional network, focus on what you think you need to learn from your network in order to advance. If you approach networking from a growth mindset or “I believe I have more to learn and can grow through these experiences,” studies show you are more likely to be successful in networking, growth, and performing your job.
I know it can be easy to sink into the “I’m good at this, I’ll just do this, I don’t need to learn more or build my network” mindset. But hear me when I say that the world is changing super-fast around us. Those that continue to learn and evolve will do better than those that do not.
Change is the constant; you get to choose either to continue learning and changing to keep up, or you will be left behind in the dust of yester-year. Seriously.
Think about the person in your company that has the hardest time using a computer for basic tasks. Are they getting promoted? Probably not. Will they have a hard time finding another job in the future? Absolutely.
When approaching someone you want to learn from, tell them what you hope to learn from them! A few people in my professional network have reached out to me out of the blue, a cold message, and asked to engage with me because they had something they wanted to learn.
These messages are so much more likely to receive a response! People generally want to be helpful, and this is a great way to engage.
By valuing another person’s experience and seeking to learn from them, you show respect, curiosity and desire to grow.
Know the value you can bring
When you engage in professional networking, try not to be a mooch! Know the value you bring to the table as well.
You might not be able to start teaching strategy classes to company founders, but there are lots of folks that look to you as a model of success and you can help inspire them to grow and develop in their careers.
When you enter professional networking spaces, connect with people of varying backgrounds, job levels and titles. You will find people to learn from, to laugh with, and who you can share valuable insights with.
I find that, when I get to help someone else grow, I also grow! Helping another person succeed and achieve their goals is also immensely fulfilling and builds confidence as I go into each future conversation.
I highly encourage you to always engage in conversations considering if you can be a mentee or mentor. You never know what amazing opportunities might find you!
Follow, then connect when the time is right
If you are connecting with people on LinkedIn that you have not met before, consider if you should click “Follow” before connecting with them. As someone who gets a lot of connection requests from people I don’t know, I much prefer a “Follow” and then a connection later when you have something interesting or useful to say.
Do not send a connection request just to try to sell something or ask for time.
Please don’t do this. Sending a connection request immediately followed-up by a message to ask for something (money, time, attention, referral, etc.) is incredibly annoying and is sure to start your potential new professional network relationship off on the wrong foot.
Many apps are available to facilitate networking. Sites are generally focused on one thing or another, so check out each of the below to create a well-rounded tech stack for your professional networking pursuits.
- LinkedIn - The known giant in professional networking, LinkedIn is a large social media platform focused on professional networking. Here’re some tips for networking on LinkedIn specifically. Brush up your LinkedIn profile and start your network by following me on LinkedIn!
- Meetup - Meetup is a platform for people to post upcoming events and host groups. Most events on Meetup are community-created and free to join. There are groups and events for all interests and professional groups, just use the search! One of my personal favorite groups, AgilePDX, posts all their events on Meetup and most have pivoted to virtual events due to the pandemic!
- Eventbrite - Similar to Meetup, Eventbrite is all about events. Use the search to find events that are relevant to you and your professional aspirations.
- Facebook Groups - Facebook is still a good place to gather and share information in groups! Look for groups with lots of members and active discussions.
- Shapr - Shapr takes the Tinder idea of swiping right and matches it to busy professionals who want to meet with like-minded people that can help grow their career. This app is especially useful for folks who aren’t so into networking and want to be ultra-specific about who they engage with.
- Lunchclub - A platform that uses AI to connect professionals, with common interests and objectives, for an informal chat.
- Bumble Bizz - Similar to Shapr, take the dating app model and apply it to business. Bumble Bizz requires women to make the first move, so its especially good for women who have had less than enjoyable experiences online networking in the past.
- Reddit - A huge platform of communities centred around both professional and non-professional interests.
It’s Time to Invest in Your Professional Network
Professional networks are an invaluable tool for anyone looking to develop professionally or advance their career prospects.
Not only do they provide access to resources such as industry news articles, upcoming events, and conferences relevant to your profession, they also enable you to connect with other professionals in your field on a more personal level than traditional online job-seeking sites often allow for.
Investing time and energy into your professional network can open up many doors for those looking to make progress in their careers or find a mentor that could potentially help guide them towards success.
By engaging with others who are passionate about their work and willing to help support each other’s growth, you will be able to tap into new sources of inspiration, challenge yourself, gain invaluable insight into various industries, and explore cutting-edge trends.
Some further resources to help you grow professionally and personally:
- Build Resilience Using The 3 Rs Technique
- How To Build Strong Relationships Working Remotely
- 13 Best Communication Courses
- How To Be An Effective HR Leader (with Andrew Bartlow from People Leader Accelerator)
- How To Embrace Emotions To Build High Performing Teams
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