How to Build a Professional Network You’ll Actually Use

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LinkedIn has made it very easy to set up a professional network, but how often do we meaningful network?

The famous Harvard Grant Study looked at 268 male Harvard undergrad’s lives across 75 years, and found that life happiness was influenced not so much by money or success, but simply by the extent to which you find contentment in your work. Additionally, our connections with others were also suggestive of life satisfaction and happiness.

George Vaillant who conducted the study said,

“The more areas in your life you can make connections, the better.”

There are plenty of online tools that can help you connect with others professionally to advance your career through thoughtful networking. In this way, professional networking is an act of self-improvement because it allows you to relate with people, as well as find greater contentment in your work.

The key is knowing who to include in your network and how to actually use that network for professional growth.

A good starting point is to classify your professional contacts into four different groups. Each will have something to offer. Here’s how I’ve chosen to break them down:

1. People You Talk to Regularly

By definition, this group of people is the easiest to identify, since it’s made up of people you already know well.

Think friends, family, family friends and maybe even some of your current coworkers. Your already established relationship with these people makes this group the most important on this list.

Who better to turn to for a job recommendation or word of advice than the people who already know and like you?

Since you already know and talk to these folks regularly, common apps and sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are perfectly acceptable ways to do this. Of course, since we’re talking about advancing your career, you’ll want to use these tools for purposes beyond just shooting the breeze or seeing how things are going.

Professional relationships with people you talk to regularly can be mutually beneficial. Share stories about the latest news and trends in your industry, and keep each other up to date on the major goings on at the key companies within your field. thegn.co Make a deal to reach out to one another if your respective companies are hiring, or help one another identify areas for skill improvement.

Just continue to converse regularly with your closest contacts, but make an attempt to establish a professional relationship with them, too.

See the perfect open position for your cousin? You can use apps like Drafted to get those closest to you thinking about a career change.

Drafted

The app offers you cash rewards — a few thousand dollars to be exact — if you refer someone who gets hired. The idea here is that HR professionals get easy introductions to new employees, and potential employees get introductions to a job they’ll love.

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Download: Drafted for iOS (Free)

2. Acquaintances You Trust

These are the folks you don’t necessarily talk to on a regular basis, but maybe see semi-regularly at a company event or a mutual friend’s house.

You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable flooding these people’s inboxes throughout the day, but you might have a strong enough connection with them where you wouldn’t feel weird asking for a piece of advice or two.

One way you might be able to create a stronger professional relationship with these people is through NetParty, a site that sponsors business and social networking events for young professionals.

netparty

It’s one thing to occasionally email or text message a connection, but it’s another to have a face-to-face conversation with them in a setting filled with like-minded professionals. The site already holds events in 25 U.S. cities – with more to come – as well as three in Canada and six in Europe.

Another networking option is Meetup, which helps people organize gatherings catered around specific interests, including professional networking.

meetup

Make each encounter matter. Leave that person feeling like they’ve learned something new about you, or that you’ve helped them in some way. You don’t want to be too pushy, of course, but in the long run this is all about improving both of your careers.

If you leave your acquaintances with a lasting positive impression of yourself, there’s always a chance you’ll be at the front of their mind when they see a job opening advertised or when you need a reference from someone in their industry.

3. People You Want to Know

This segment of your networking roster is a bit trickier.

You may know some of these people and they may know who you are, but these relationships are basically based on name only. Like, “Oh yeah, I know Steve. I’ve seen him at the coffee pot before.” These are folks you never talk to but who could nonetheless be a helpful professional connection.

Making this list of people and then taking steps to get to know them is important because it gets you to consider all the professionals in your life who could help you drastically improve the skill sets found in your industry. This could be especially helpful if you need to learn about a new niche or business to qualify for an open position.

Schmoozing this group of people with drinks or a plan to hang out could come across as a bit weird, or even manipulative if you try to play it off like you just want to get to know them. After all, you haven’t tried to learn about them so far, why would you start now?

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If you plan to ask this person for career advice in the future, your relationship with them will likely benefit from some uncomplicated, open honesty on your part.

Tell them you admire their industry, their job position, their work ethic, etc. and ask if you can pick their brain about some work-related questions you have. A drink or coffee with that pretense is much more professional, and probably less creepy.

LinkedIn can certainly be helpful for propositions such as this. Consider using the site’s InMail messaging feature, which can hold a few advantages over traditional email. For one, sending an InMail message to someone immediately indicates to that person that this is a serious professional message. It also allows that person to do some light research on you and your career history so they can understand where you’re coming from before they respond.

If you prefer to do your connecting via phone, it could be helpful for you to use a local number when reaching out to professional who live some distance away from you.

For example, my cousin’s friend called me the other day asking about what it takes to get regular blogging gigs. She called me from an out-of-state number, which made me suspicious of the call and prompted me to let it go to voicemail. However, if she would have called using a local number, I probably would have answered and we could have connected a bit sooner.

Some good services for setting up a local number include Google Voice and Access Direct.

access-direct

  • Google Voice allows you to set up a phone number using any area code you like. You can call connections from your browser using this number, and even set your Voice account to “Do Not Disturb” when call timing is inconvenient. Not bad for a free service.
  • Access Direct allows you to create local numbers too, except without the need to set up the numbers yourself. For just under $20 a month you can hire someone to set up your local numbers for you and make your professional calls from them. It’s even been used by overseas professionals to land jobs in the States.

 

4. Industry Influencers

The title of this group of people may be a bit misleading – it’s mainly made up of CEOs or social media stars in your industry.

You may end up networking with these people or you may not, but the important part is learning from them so you can make your career a better one.

This could be as simple as following industry influencers on LinkedIn, Twitter or Medium. Both platforms give experts from all industries the chance to express their professional and personal opinions, which can not only help you keep up with industry trends, but can also show you how role models in your industry behave.

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Some good Twitter accounts to follow might be those of The Muse, Levo or Harvard Biz Review, while the Medium publications The Startup and Young Professional Insider offer regularly informative posts about business trends and career tips.

Outside of these common content-sharing websites, there are also free apps like Reach to find professionals that share commonalities with you.

reach

Reach also lets you switch from the app’s recommended networking suggestions to people who are nearby, so if you decided you do want to expand your pool of acquaintance contact, you can do so easily.

Download: Reach for iOS (Free) | Android (Free)

How Will You Use Networking to Improve Your Life?

Your professional network may seem like something that is only important to your career, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our careers play a huge role in our quality of life so, if you want to change your life for the better, starting with your career or professional network is a good place to begin.

Hopefully, you’ll find an app or industry influencer in this post that inspires you to do work you love. More importantly, though, I hope you’ll be motivated to sit down and actually think about who you know and how they can benefit your career. Just as importantly, how can you help them? The best professional relationships are balanced and benefit both people involved, so get thinking about what skills you have to offer others, and what skills you could stand to improve.

The next time you find yourself looking for a job, fighting for a promotion or just trying to wow a new customer, you’ll have a capable and experienced professional network to turn to for advice.

How will you pick the best people for your professional network? More importantly, what questions will you ask them? Share your strategy in the comments section below!

Image Credits:filling a job application by Devrim PINAR via Shutterstock

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