Doing Business | Personal Effectiveness

May 30, 2013

How to Skip the Sleaze and Build a Real Professional Network

You've heard it before: "It's not what you know, it's who you know."

Of course it helps to know things, but it also helps to know people who can get you in the position to show off what you know. Those people are your professional network. Here's the lowdown: a "professional network" is just code for "friends who are willing to help each other professionally." Building yours doesn't have to be hard, and it shouldn't feel sleazy. Here's how to do it.

The Basics: What Is a "Professional Network?"

Simply, a "professional network" is really a group of friends who like each other and are willing to help each other out when times get tough professionally. Nothing more, nothing less. We'vetouched on this idea in the past, but the way that career gurus and experts talk about it, you might think it's some monolithic task that will net you a kind of secret club that does nothing but schmooze with important people and throw around buzzwords. Building your network isn't actually a big deal, though, and it's not that hard to do. All you're really doing is making new friends and staying in touch with old ones, both at and around work. That's the core here: If you think that "professional network" has to be some sleazy business, you're either doing it wrong or you're taking examples from the wrong people.

We'll explore this in detail later, but it's extremely important to be genuine. Your network shouldn't be full of "people in high places you hate but can hook you up," it should be full of people who are willing to really, genuinely lend you a hand or take a risk for you. In this post, we'll offer up some practical, down-to-earth tips to build your professional network and stay in touch with the people in it.

Make Friends At Work and With People Who Do What You Do

At my last job, I used to roll my eyes at our company's constant attempts to get people to hang out together after work. I already spent over 40 hours a week with these people! I liked them, but just wanted to get away once in awhile. Work-sponsored team building is one thing, but my feelings worked in reverse, too: If you're going to spend so much time at work, shouldn't it be with people you actually like, or at least can tolerate?

After all, most of you spend between 40-50 hours at work. Don't be cynical, make friends with the people you work with. Doing so makes your day-to-day a little easier, and it'll expose you to different skills and the work that other people in your office do. There's a lot to be said for knowing a little about everyone's job and being willing to pitch in and help. Don't stop with the people you work with either. Seek out people who do what you do for a living at other companies. You'll be exposed to people who have the kind of experience you want, work in the positions you aspire to, and introduce you to people you can learn from.

With a little effort, you'll have people at work you're actually happy to see when you walk in every morning, or people you wouldn't mind hanging out with after you shut your computer down for the day. Plus, if those friendships are strong, they'll persist when you get a new job, get promoted, or leave the company. Remember, every job is temporary, but good, strong friendships don't have to be.

How to Make Friends, Professionally

Most workplace friendships happen organically, so there's no reason to go out of your way to "try" to make friends with people. After all, you spend a ton of time with them, so it makes sense you'll get to know each other. You may need to unlearn the desire to seclude yourself at your desk all day, though. Go out for lunch with your coworkers when asked, or ask them to go grab a coffee. Don't be that overly distracting coworker, but do offer from time to time. If they ask you, go for it, at least as much as you're comfortable with.

It might be tempting to just say no and hide behind your keyboard, but the worst thing that can happen is that your colleagues stop asking you because they assume you either don't like them, or you'll just say no like you always do. Eventually you'll be overlooked, not just personally, but professionally, too. Don't force it if you hate it, but try to step out of your comfort zone from time to time—it'll do you a world of good.

Beyond that, you still have to be willing to meet new people. Here are a few ways you can put yourself in the position to:

  • Get involved in hiring at your company. In many organizations, it's not just HR that does the hiring. If your department does hiring by panel, or wants people to help interview potential candidates, get involved. You'll meet a ton of people that way—people you may want to trade business cards with even if they don't come aboard. Internally, you'll have the opportunity to have really frank conversations about the nature of your department and company with other people you work with. When I helped hire people at my last job, I got a chance to review resumes, make new friends, and I got more insight into the inner workings of how we hired and fired than I ever would have if I sat on the sidelines.
  • Attend those crappy after-work events. I know, they're painful. The company picnic and the obligatory weekend get-together feel like they're draining the precious non-work time you have. We're not going to tell you to force it if you're going to hate it the whole time (especially since everyone will be able to tell you hate being there) but if you can push yourself from time to time, even showing up once in a blue moon will do wonders for you personally and professionally. Everyone you work will be elated to see you (and surprised—they'll likely tease you about it, I know how that goes) and you'll probably have more fun once you're there than you think you will. There are some exceptions of course: trust-falls and rocks-and-ropes courses are universally terrible, but it never hurts to make an appearance at a happy hour for a departing colleague or show up at the company picnic, even if it's just for an hour. Make the rounds, say hello to everyone, and then stealthily vanish because you "got an urgent phone call."
  • Make those crappy work events better. Here's your opportunity to be the change you want to see. It's easy to complain about work-sponsored events; it's more difficult to get involved and make them better. At one of my last jobs, we were known for after-hours LAN parties, where we'd all bring in our gaming PCs and consoles to the office for a few hours of multiplayer gaming while the company sprung for dinner. We'd hijack a conference room for movie nights once every few months, and we'd poll the department to decide what movie to play. If those things sound like more fun than a pot luck, they should, because they were (although we did plenty of pot lucks too—everyone loves a chili cookoff or an excuse to show off their "world famous" barbecue.) Ultimately, you have the choice: you can be jaded and hate everything, or you can do something to make it better. It starts with improving your attitude, but it doesn't have to stop there.
  • Get involved in a professional organization or society. Outside of the office, another great way to make friends is to join a professional society. If there's a trade union for your profession, consider joining. At the very least, you'll be exposed to other people who share your profession and the opportunity to learn from them. For example, even though I'm not working as a Project Manager anymore, I'm still a member of the Project Management Institute. The people you meet through professional societies can often give you leads to where your industry is going and where there's demand for your skills. You may even get a mentor out of it, or someone who can help you plan your career. Many groups have forums and web-based communities that you can participate in when you choose to. It's easier to catch up on forum posts and comment than it is to get dressed up for a fancy dinner, and in these cases you have the option of doing one, the other, or both when you want to.
  • Offer your help when you can give it. Building a professional network is about making friends, but friends also help each other when they can. No one's saying you have to bend over backwards (unless you want to), but introducing a friend or former colleague to someone at your company looking for a new hire is a great thing to do. After all, that person likely won't forget that you helped them out when they needed it, even if the introduction didn't turn into anything. Putting in a good word for friends and colleagues is the best way to make sure they'll return the favor if you ever need it—not because they're indebted, but because they actually appreciate what you've done for them.

Remember our core point here: Your "professional network" is just a circle of friends that have work-related things in common. Making friends isn't hard if you actually try, and since you already have work or careers in common, you have plenty to chat about. There will be some people you just won't click with, but with a little effort, you'll come out with friends worth having on multiple levels.

Stay in Touch with People, Genuinely

So far we've talked about which types of people would make great candidates for your professional network, and how to meet those people and get into situations where you can get to know them better. That's all great, but there's are two things we don't want to overlook that are very important:

  1. Be Genuine.
  2. Stay in touch.

We can't understate the importance of being genuine with people and not just leading with what you want from someone. After all, you'd be able to tell if someone was only chatting you up because they needed something, right? Don't be that person to someone else. There's nothing wrong with asking for help, but most of us usually only ask people we like, trust, and respect. The same should apply professionally. Be honest, open, do your homework, and approach someone you trust with the help you may want from them in mind. Ideally, when you do ask someone for an introduction to someone at their company, or to pass along your resume, you'll do it the way you'd want someone to ask you to do the same: with tact, class, and the understanding that you're not asking for miracles, just a helping hand.

Also, when you approach someone, it shouldn't be the first time they've heard from you in months. Everyone says they'll stay in touch when they leave a job, but few people actually do. Don't be one of the people that doesn't. Keep up with your old colleagues after you've moved on, and check in from time to time with friends from your union or professional society just to see how they're doing. Ask them out for coffee. It's disheartening to leave a job and the friends you've made there only to lose touch with them because you were just so caught up with your new job that you forgot to reach out and say hello from time to time. Do it now, you won't regret it.

Use Technology to Help

If the idea of keeping up with your coworkers or people you might happen to meet sounds daunting, it doesn't have to be. Remember, this isn't about collecting business cards in a rolodex—the best professional contacts in your network are people you don't need to think too hard about to remember well. That said, the right tech can help you keep up with the people you want to stay in touch with. Here are a few tools you may already know, but could use better to keep your professional network alive and well:

LinkedIn: LinkedIn is the professional social network. You know, the one you visit whenever someone sends you a connection request and otherwise forget exists. It's time to look at LinkedIn in a new light. We've shared some tips for making the most of LinkedIn before, and the new LinkedIn Contacts brings your contacts together in one place so you can follow them more easily. The real beauty here is that LinkedIn Contacts will tell you when one of your friends just got a promotion, changed their job title, moved to a new company, or added a new degree. You'll be able to say hello, congratulate them, and in general just be more in touch with their professional lives. Don't forget your other social networks either—if you have communities you're a part of on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook, use them to stay in touch with the contacts you've made too.

Rapportive, Smartr, and Other Smart Contact Managers: Keeping up with family and old friends can be difficult enough, adding more people on top of that doesn't exactly make things easier. A smart contacts manager or address book, like Rapportive, Smartr (byXobni), and Cobook can all help you out a bit by notifying you when people change jobs, update their social profiles with new contact information, or when you haven't reached out to someone in a long time. Previously mentioned Luper reminds you to call important contacts so you stay in touch, as does another app we love, NextCall. In every case, these tools take the hassle out of remembering to stay in touch, and lets you focus on just doing it periodically when the time—and the mood—are right.

It might feel disingenuous to use technology to keep up with people you would normally consider to be your friends. After all, if they're your friends, you should remember to stay in touch, right? We all know that's not true. Everyone's busy, and even good, old friends can fall by the wayside because our lives move so fast. If you can think of a good friend you haven't spoken to in ages, you know what I mean. If there's any way technology can help make our lives better—both personally and professionally—it's to help us stay connected with the people that matter to us.

So we've made the case for making friends with the people you work with, and for seeking out people who do the work that you do. We've also shown you how, and how to stay genuine when you do. All of this serves two purposes: First, you'll make friends that could stay with you for life. Second, you'll meet people who may be able to help your career in the future, either because they can teach you something valuable, pass along useful information, or put in a good word for you the next time you're looking for a job. The former is more important than the latter, but when the latter comes in handy, it's hard to understate how great it can be to take that friend out for drinks after you landed a new job thanks to their help.

At the end of the day, professional networking is about making friends and putting effort into relationships. You're not just building a network, you're building a group of friends that you genuinely care about, that you'd be willing to help if they asked you to and who are willing to help you too. It may start out as "networking," and it may feel awkward when you need to call in a favor, but it should finish with people you'd invite to a dinner party or have at your wedding.


Text by Lifehacker

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