This is kind of an abstract post, so I’ll ask some questions up front for you to think about as you read over it — what are your best professional networking tips, particularly regarding how to build your network, and then how to maintain a network? Which networks, associations and affiliations have been the most fruitful and the most enjoyable for you? Have you seen a lot of overlap and “lucky coincidences” between your various networks, associations and affiliations?
I’ve been thinking about different business relationships you have to cultivate over the course of your career, from people in your network to mentors to sponsors and beyond. When I was younger, if you had asked me about “how to build your network,” I might have defined it as very self-focused. You choose who you want to bring into your orbit and keep them there — people who are handpicked for knowledge or skill or experience as it relates to you.
This version of “how to network” might be represented visually like this:
But I don’t think that’s quite right. At least, the older I get — the more entrenched I get in career #3 — and the more I read about professional networking tips, the more it seems like this above version is too isolationist. Instead, I find, it’s easier to think of building your network as you finding and joining preexisting networks, where people know each other already and may come to know you as well (a note on that later).
How to Build Your Network
So – you can handpick which networks you join based on shared qualifications (alumni networks), subject matter (e.g., lawyers interested in X), shared experience/background (e.g., former colleagues of Firm Y). The picture below shows networks A, B, C, and what may become Network D — and the gray figures are all the potential connections within the network you can make. (We’ve talked about what A, B, and C might look like in our posts on finding and joining professional organizations, as well as on our post on how to make new friends and network. Note that some networks that readers have felt enriched their lives and helped their networks, like The Junior League, aren’t necessarily career-related.)
So if you attend a conference for Network A, then you can see all those people who you already know in that network — and meet more people as well. I would also argue that you could make a small “ask” of anyone in Network A if the need arose: an informational interview, getting an actual name for someone hiring for the open job, even a quick 15-minute call. I think you could make an “ask” of any person in any of those circles, with bigger asks for people already connected to you. But a quick question, 15 minutes on the phone, an informational interview — these are things you can usually get with a simple “we both used to work at Firm Y.” (I went into a bit more detail in this on my post on how to network when you’re junior.) Up there by the gray D — maybe you only really know one person in a kind of isolationist relationship — and you know her well enough that she would be willing to make an introduction for you to someone else in her network. But that depends heavily on the relationship you have with that one woman — whereas it’s going to be easier to meet people in networks A, B, and C.