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When you come into a new job and as you start to build your presence at your employer, the temptation is to focus your network on the people that are immediately around you.
In order to do your job successfully you need to build relationships within your team, with your immediate managers, and with those other departments on which your role’s success relies.
As you become more senior you will recognize that advancement in the organization often relies upon building relationships with people 1, 2 or even 3 levels up from you and can often rely upon building relationships with people at a senior level in other territories, other functions or other business lines.
Principles of Networking
What are the principles of networking that you should apply as you start to build those relationships?
I think there are three things that I would suggest that you rely on.
Firstly, your interactions with others should always be more about serving and bringing help and less about bringing problems without solutions or expressing your needs.
Secondly, frequency is important. Building a relationship takes multiple touches at regular intervals. Once you’ve established a relationship then maintaining it will mean you need to continue with those touches, regular points of contact that build recognition.
One of the things that I do with some of the people, I work with is regularly find a piece of interesting and useful information for them. I send them a brief email saying “Thinking of you. Thought this might be interesting”. This is relatively easy to do and should be perceived as a personal communication targeted to the needs of that individual. As well as a useful nudge, it reinforces how you add value to them, your team and the wider organization.
Thirdly, develop relationships with specific intent. What is that relationship for? Is it to have access to information? Is it to have access to influence? Is it to develop career opportunities? Or, is it because they are critical decision makers in the organization who at some point in the future may make decisions that determine your future?
I don’t believe an internal network is enough and you’re taking a big risk if your internal network is as far as you go. Your external network can be more important to your long-term future than your internal network because it unlikely you will stay with your current employer for the rest of your working life.
Depending upon your role and your position, the kind of external network that’s easy to build will vary. But there are the following areas that I think you should actively consider:
Friends and Colleagues
Firstly, keep in touch with your past friends, and former colleagues. At the simplest, this might be just keeping in touch with them on LinkedIn. Pinging them when they change their careers, have a new job, get promoted or even celebrate birthdays and work anniversaries. When you need to reach out in future, they will have you in mind and you’re not starting from cold.
Secondly, consider networking within your profession.
If you are a chartered accountant, marketeer, engineer or other specialist building a network within your profession, can be absolutely crucial. It means that you have access to emerging insights, and the future direction of your profession. You have professional colleagues through your professional network in other organizations. If you lose your job or if you’re looking for a new job, you’ve got several other people that you can get advice from. As you follow their career progression get insight into what kind of career opportunities you might want to pursue.
Networking in your Sector
Whether you’re in specialist manufacturing, financial services, retail or some other sector, building your network within your sector amongst your competitors can be essential. There are all sorts of things that can flow from it. You will be seen as a potential employee by your competitors. You will better understand what’s going on in your industry. But most importantly, you will potentially be able to join sector bodies which increase your perceived value as a thought leader or a convener, within your sector.
The next thing to consider is networking within your community.
If you are looking to continue to build up relationships that could serve you in the future, then your local community can be a fantastic place to start. Often a way of extending and building out your network is by participating in some form of voluntary action. There are a range of options from becoming a school governor, a charity trustee, a magistrate, the committee of your sports club to getting involved in local pressure groups or politics. If you can do develop these relationships while following a passion it’s rewarding and enjoyable.
Customers and Suppliers
Finally, think about your customers and your suppliers.
For many people, there is a natural transition where you can shift their career from being a supplier to a customer, to being an employee of a customer. Similarly you can move from being a buyer of a supplier, to being an employee of a supplier. That vital knowledge that you’ve built up from one side of the buying/selling relationship can stand you in good stead on the other side of the buying/selling relationship. I’m reminded of an individual I’m working with a moment who was working for the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, acting as a gatekeeper, for suppliers to the NHS. With all the knowledge she’s built up over many years she’s very strongly positioned to transition to the other side of the relationship and help suppliers develop better products with go-to-market strategies that will serve the NHS better. Game keeper turned poacher, if you will.
As you read this it might feel like a very long list of things to do. Break it down to do a little every day. As you develop this habit the benefits will accumulate over time. Within a few years you will find that you have a rich network, both within your organization and beyond your organization. This will give you a powerful resource that will support your evolving careers needs. You will be less vulnerable to unexpected changes and when they do happen you will have more resilience and adaptability. More importantly, you will be able to make better informed choices and pursue them with more effective intent.
Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.