How to Build and Maintain a Professional Network

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Building a network is one of the most important things you can do to advance your career. Many people don't know how to go about it, but networking isn't quite as complicated as it sounds. Even if you are just starting out, you are already part of a network. The next step is to learn how to expand, maintain, and use it effectively.

What Is a Professional Network?

A professional network is a group of people who have connected with one another for career or business-related reasons. Members, who are called contacts or connections, can share information which may include, but is not limited to, job leads. They may also help one another solve work-related problems, recommend vendors and suppliers, and provide information about prospective employers, employees, and clients.

How Can Networking Help With Career Advancement?

While a professional network can, of course, help you find leads when you are job searching, there is a multitude of other ways a solid one can help advance your career. Here are just a few of them:

  • Learn About a Career: When you are choosing a career, it is essential to gather information about the occupations you are considering. While there are resources to explore your options, one of the best ways to learn about a career is by conducting an informational interview with someone who is currently working in it. You can look to your network for help in getting people to interview.
  • Find Prospective Job Candidates: If you are responsible for hiring, your contacts can help put you in touch with prospective job candidates. You can also learn about applicants that did not come through your network.
  • Get Advice About a Project: Are you worried about tackling a work project with which you have no experience? A member of your network who has done a similar one may be able to offer advice or put you in touch with someone who can. One note of caution: don't share confidential information.
  • Learn About a Prospective Employer: Always prepare for job interviews by researching prospective employers. You can learn a lot by talking to members of your network and their contacts.
  • Prepare to Make Pitches to Clients: Do you need to learn about a prospective client? One of your contacts may be able to help, but again be cautious about sharing confidential information outside your organization.

    Who Should Be In Your Network?

    Your network can be made up of almost anyone you've ever met, as long as he or she is of good character. Guilt by association is a real thing so avoid having your reputation tarnished by someone else's actions. Each of your contacts can lead to new ones. Here are some suggestions:

    • Current and Former Coworkers: Connect with people with whom you currently work as well as those you've worked with in the past.
    • Fellow Members of Professional Associations: Go to conferences and introduce yourself to other attendees. Make up business cards with your non-work contact information and bring them with you. Become an active member, for example by serving on a committee. It will also give your colleagues a chance to see you in action.
    • Friends and Family: Keep your family and friends apprised of your career goals. You never know who will be able to help you. Your brother-in-law's uncle's cousin may be a recruiter in your field.
    • Former Professors and Instructors: The faculty of your college or university, especially those who taught in your major, should be part of your professional network.
    • Former Classmates: Check the alumni directory of your college or university for possible connections. If you were in a fraternity or sorority, look there as well.

    Keep Your Network Alive

    Don't treat your network like a dusty old reference book to store on a shelf and only access when you need to look something up. It is a living thing that must be tended or it will die. The last thing you want is to get in touch with someone who doesn't remember you or to miss out on a great opportunity because your contact who knows about it doesn't think of you.

    Make plans to get together with any connections with whom you have, or had, a personal relationship, for example, former coworkers. If they aren't local, make sure there's a standing invitation to meet up with them if they are ever in your city or you are in there's. Get in touch a few times a year. The holidays are the perfect time to send a card or email. Also reach out when you make a change such as starting a new job or getting a promotion.

    Don't Let Shyness Stop You From Connecting

    Those who struggle with shyness are in danger of missing out on the benefits of professional networking. For many people, it is not easy to reach out to others. Thankfully, resources like LinkedIn and Facebook give you the opportunity to make connections without ever having to pick up the phone or go to a networking event. These tools are a must for everyone, but particularly useful for shy, or even not very outgoing individuals.

    If you are shy, it is also helpful to look for situations in which you feel the most comfortable and use those opportunities to form relationships. For example, participate in an activity you enjoy and you will meet others who also enjoy it. Doing volunteer work will also give you a chance to meet people with whom you have something in common.