How to Build a Professional Network: 5 Tips for Making Connections–and Keeping Them
Think about all the times your friends or family have come through for you, whether they rescued you when your car broke down, got you an interview, or introduced you to your spouse. We all understand the value of connections, but most of us need help when it comes to the process of building and maintaining a network. Below you will find some basic tips for building a professional network. Every person’s process will be different, but these networking tips apply to the foundation of network building, where attitude and approach are the keys.
1. Develop a genuine curiosity about what other people do.
A lot of people, especially those who are just beginning their professional careers, approach networking with the rigid mentality that they need to find a place where “successful people” gather and proceed to collect as many business cards as possible while reciting the same elevator pitch to anyone who will listen. This takes all the fun out of making real connections with people. Keep in mind that everybody has a story, not just a job title, and enjoy the networking process by seeing it as an exciting opportunity, not a daunting task.
Realizing that networking happens everywhere is essential. Whenever you make a new acquaintance or find yourself on a bus or in a waiting room with someone, indulge your curiosity. Ask questions. Strike up a conversation. Chances are, business owners and entrepreneurs are sitting feet away from you while waiting for the next table at a restaurant. When your agenda is to ask creative questions and understand how someone’s mind works, you will find your conversations a lot more rewarding than if your sole mission is to find out what someone does for work and what they can do for you. People are generally happy to extend a reference or a business card if they have made a meaningful connection on a human level, even if you talked about food half the time.
2. Share your passions with people—don’t just talk about your job.
If you’re interested in networking, chances are you have some aspirations outside of your regular job. When you engage with someone, don’t limit your side of the conversation to what you do from nine to five. If you have dreams, share them. If you’re working on a side project, talk about it. You might just meet someone who is passionate about the same thing and can provide insight or even become a business partner. This networking tip is especially important for people who are not satisfied with their current jobs. There’s no point in wasting energy trying to make your job sound important when someone would much rather see your face light up talking about your love for music, green technology, or recycled fashion. Who knows, the person you just met might have no interest in your current field and be an expert in the industry you want to penetrate.
3. Expand your radius.
If your friend was tired of being single but never left the safety of his home and a couple frequent hangouts, you would probably tell him to expand his horizons and meet some new people. The more places you go, the more paths you will cross. As simple as that sounds, we often become complacent with our surroundings because humans are creatures of habit. Try new things, visit different cities, and say yes when your friends and coworkers invite you to an event where you won’t know anybody. Going outside your comfort zone not only gives you more opportunities to make connections, but it also gives you more to talk about. If you want people to think you’re interesting, build an arsenal of stories and experiences to share.
4. Be a good resource.
Like any relationship, a business relationship must have balance. Abandon the selfish notion that all of your business contacts exist to serve you, and remember that being a good resource is just as important as seeking good resources. Ask yourself, why should people want to be a part of my network or add me to theirs? Just as you hope you come into contact with people who can give you advice or refer you to a project, other people are seeking ways to reach their own goals. During your conversations, truly listen to what the person is saying and think if they might benefit from a connection with someone you know. This is a great way to serve multiple members of your network at one time and strengthen those relationships by providing value, which they will want to reciprocate in the future.
5. Keep in touch.
Keep in mind that maintaining a network is an ongoing process. People are frequently relocating and evolving professionally, not to mention forgetting about people they haven’t talked to in a while. You cannot assume that the 20 business cards you collected last year are going to be relevant next year. Reinforce your connections by checking in from time to time. Ask about projects they mentioned, pass on information they might find interesting, and schedule occasional lunches with connections in the same city. Fortunately, social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter have made keeping in touch increasingly simple, but be careful not to become just a username. Continually look out for resources for the members of your network and they will be more likely to look out for you.