There is no doubt that your network is one of your most valuable assets. Who you know can, at times, be more important than what you know. But building and leveraging your network is an art in it itself.
Being well connected is all about reciprocity; you can reach out to your network or mentors when you need help, but you should also help others when they are in need. In essence, an effective networking strategy should be seen as a two-way street.
The best networkers know the importance of providing more value than they take. They offer help, dole out guidance freely, and connect people. They are what Wharton Professor Adam Grant calls “Givers.” We have previously written about how to go about building your network, and now it is time to learn how to leverage it to the fullest.
As one of your most precious assets, your network should also provide value, and you should not be afraid to leverage it when you need it. For example: when on the job search, looking for new business opportunities, or needing a referral.
Don’t be a “taker” who solely takes from your network; you need to focus on building relationships and nurturing them by staying in touch and constantly adding value to your personal and professional networks.
Even though social media, specifically LinkedIn, have become synonymous with professional networking, there are other ways to stand out, hone your networking skills and build new connections. Adding random people on LinkedIn is analogous to going around a room and handing out tons of business cards during a face-to-face event or sending cold emails to people you don’t know. You should avoid this if you are focused on building a healthy network.
In this article, we’d like to talk about how to maximize the power of your network to get the best possible outcomes. For example, how do you extract the most value without being seen as a “taker,” and how do you keep opportunities, advice, and connections flowing in.
1. Clarify Your Purpose
It’s essential to understand what “value” means to you before trying to leverage your network. Some questions you have to ask yourself are: What is your end goal here? What do you want your network to help you achieve? What are the next steps you envision? Once you know your purpose, it will be much easier to go about the task.
Trying to leverage your network as a young student to find a new job is different than a small business owner looking for new suppliers.
For instance, let’s say you’re a venture capital investor looking for investment opportunities. Early-stage venture capital is entirely people-driven, so you want to meet with founders of promising young software companies where you can get in on the ground floor. Therefore, it would make sense to spend your time networking with people who have those connections, for example, startup thought leaders, other Silicon Valley founders, and not with senior managers from Fortune 500 companies. (It helps to have friends everywhere, but you should invest your effort where it’s most impactful to your work.)
We recommend writing down your networking goals and reviewing them regularly to use your time wisely.
2. Take the Conversation Offline
We live in a post-COVID world where Zoom has partly replaced face-to-face meetings. But there is still tremendous value to having in-person meetings. Most people would agree that in-person connections are far more powerful than online relationships, especially when meeting with a contact for the first time.
When building your network, one of your goals should be to build strong relationships, so seeking opportunities to meet in person to get to know your contacts better should be a priority.
It is more likely for someone you met in person to remember you than someone you sent a message on LinkedIn and added them to your “network.”
Facetime with people is a much more valuable touchpoint than relying on social networks or other virtual tools.
To best leverage the power of your network, we recommend you stay in touch and invite people for coffee or lunch, even if there’s no clear purpose for the meeting.
To succeed in networking, you need to connect with people authentically.
3. Maintain Control Over Every Interaction
Whenever you ask someone for help, you probably get responses that sound like this, “Sure, send over what you have, and I’ll take a look.” Or maybe, “Sure, let me know what you need, and I’ll send out some feelers.” These responses sound good at first, but you usually never hear anything back.
Why do these requests fizzle out? There are several reasons:
- The person you asked doesn’t really have time but thought they did.
- The person you asked doesn’t want to help, but they didn’t want to be rude.
- The person you asked simply forgot to follow through.
- The person you asked did try to help, but their effort was lackluster, so their results were poor.
The solution is to maintain control of the process. For instance, instead of asking your contact to introduce you to their colleague, offer to reach out directly to the colleague and copy them on the email. This way, you can say what you need to make a connection. If your contact isn’t comfortable with this approach, offer to write the introductory email yourself for them to send over.
There are countless other examples of how you can be a proactive networker and maintain control over every interaction. The main idea is to have a clear picture of your goal and understand how you can work with your network to achieve it.
4. Venture Outside of Your Circle
It’s tempting to interact with the same people all of the time. It’s comfortable and familiar. You know what they like and dislike. If you need something, you know how to ask, etc. But if your goal is to grow your network, you are not doing yourself any favors. If most of your network has the same background or works in the same field or industry as you, this can put you at professional risk.
Having a narrow or non-diverse network can limit your options, countering the notion of growing and leveraging your network. Additionally, having the same network can lead to groupthink. Thus, as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has written, you need a balance of both “bonding capital” and “bridging capital” — i.e., relationships based respectively on your commonalities (bonding) and relationships built across differences (bridging).
To make sure you are building a diverse network, take inventory of your network’s professional diversity. For example, Dorie Clark from Duke University recommends that if your network is weighted more than 70% in any direction (e.g., 90% of your close contacts are fellow finance professionals), it’s time to develop a plan to diversify your network.
5. Identify Super Connectors
Keep a close eye on your network. Watch how people interact with one another. Do you notice any super connectors? Anyone who seems especially valuable that you’d like to know? Are there any pockets of people (“cliques”) that seem especially successful or productive in a specific area you are interested in?
Once you identify these people, seek ways to get involved with these power pockets. Come up with reasonable ways to contact them. Meet them in person and build partnerships if you can. Find ways to integrate yourself into their communities. We recommend you approach them and try to add value. As we mentioned above, be proactive when seeking new connections.
6. Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help
Asking for help can feel embarrassing, especially if people see you as someone who “knows how to handle things.” But it’s better to ask for help or advice than risk making a mistake. If you have followed the steps above, your network should be full of people who can answer your questions, quickly review a document, introduce you to a connection, or even recommend a book, podcast or an online course.
That said, whenever you ask for help, listen carefully to the response. Don’t dismiss it immediately if it doesn’t sound right. Instead, accept someone else’s unique perspective; keep an open mind, and think critically. Having access to different perspectives is one of the benefits of having a diverse network.
7. Don’t Offer Reciprocation
Whenever you ask for a favor from someone in your network, it’s tempting to offer some favor in return, such as a review of their latest deal or an introduction to someone who can add some value to them. At first, it might seem reasonable to sweeten the deal, but it doesn’t work like that.
Networking does not always need to be quid-pro-quo. Even though we all maintain networks for professional reasons, we don’t like to think of them as mere transactional relationships. Offering to pay someone in your network in exchange for their help makes them feel like they are just a service you can tap into, not a friend or an esteemed colleague.
That said, whether or not your contacts can help you in your time of need, remind them that you are always available to help them in any area that you can.
8. Follow up Regularly
One of the most important elements of networking is mastering the art of following up. People are busy, and you need to find ways to stay top of mind with your network. There are multiple ways to check in with people, ranging from simple things such as re-sharing something they shared on social media to more elaborate gestures like mailing a holiday card or sending a physical gift.
Regardless of how you follow up and keep your network engaged, you will only be able to leverage your connections if they remember you.
Your network is an asset, and as with most assets, it takes time and energy to build. However, if you devote the effort and energy required and follow the steps in this document, your hard work will pay off, and you will be able to leverage your network to the fullest. On the other hand, it’s too late if you wait to build your network until you need it.