During the first .com bust in the early 2000’s I thought that I had built a strong network. When my start-up’s public offering was pulled, and after the 3rd round of layoffs, I knew I had to find a new job. As I started to reach out to my network, it fell short for me. Everyone I talked to was nice but dismissive. My ability to find a job was to search for open positions and apply. For almost a decade, I dismissed the value of a network, based on that experience, hunkered down and just did my job. While I did invest in myself through training and professional certifications, I didn’t “waste time” on trying to build out a professional network, personal board of directors, or even try collaborating with colleagues in similar roles that worked at different companies. I was merely dismissive of the value of a network.
That is until I realized that I was 100% dependent on the company I worked for and didn’t have that much control of my career. At the time, I worked for Target Corporation, which I loved doing. Target’s culture was all-consuming at the time, and just keeping up with navigating the company, managing my day to day duties, and engaging with my team took up all my time. As I moved up in the company, specifically in my department, I realized that my peer group was getting smaller and smaller. My peer group dwindled, and in fact, I was competing with them at the same time. I recognized that I needed to find outside perspectives and to start building my network again, but I didn’t know how to do that.
Through a work colleague, I met Richard. Richard was a part of a consulting company that had also started a local networking group called Think IT. When I met Richard for the first time, I figured he would focus on selling me what his consulting company offered. Instead, he told me about the story of how Think IT came to be. In short, Richard started this networking group to help technology professionals connect after the 2008 financial meltdown when many found themselves in transition in their careers. As the economy recovered and those same individuals were in new jobs, they turned around and paid it back and helped others. Richard had built a community based on giving back vs. taking. That resonated with me. Richard encouraged me to show up, but that if I did, I had to participate actively and share my insights and expertise. Not once in that first meeting did Richard ever tell me what his consulting company did, he was singularly focused on my needs vs. his.
Over the years, I become highly involved in Think IT and other local groups in my community. In the beginning, I asked of time from many in those communities. I sought out advice, picked people’s brains on their careers, what their journey was like, and where I should invest in myself. While I gave back during the networking events, I felt like I was taking versus giving as it related to the 1:1 meetings I was having. At some point, someone reached out to me for networking, and I, of course, took the meeting. Each time I met with someone, I would help them however I could. If it was introducing them to someone else that I had met, suggesting they get involved in the community groups I had exposure too, or merely imparting knowledge based on my experience, I gave what I could.
As the years went by, and I made strides towards my career objectives, my network grew. Whenever I changed roles or companies, I would reach out to my network for advice or to learn from them. I found myself more and more, reaching out to learn about those in my network that tackled similar challenges that I was facing. At times my network turned into my advisers. More often than not, they turned into friends. All the while, whenever I was asked to meet someone, I always did. These days I typically take one to two networking meetings a month. Even if my schedule gets in the way, I will connect via text or email to stay in touch.
I truly believe that paying it forward to others is the best way to invest in and create your network. Each of us has something we can share that will benefit someone else.
A couple of things to keep in mind as you start your journey:
You always have something to offer others
Based on your work experience, personal interests, and education you always have something to offer and something to talk about
Show up and participate
You can’t be a fly on the wall and meet people. Ask a question or answer one. Volunteer to be on a panel, give a presentation, or talk about a passion project. Exchange an email address or phone number and stay connected.
Be consistent, engage with your network regularly.
You can’t show up just once. You have to participate and give back to build relationships that will last.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Everyone loves being asked for their advice, and don’t be scared to ask for help. Learn how others achieved in their career or how they solved a particular problem. If you need something, people will be more than willing to help, but remember to turn around and pay it forward.
LinkedIn allows us to find expertise from around the world. You can search for people that have similar job titles to yours in any company around the world. You can ask questions directly to your LinkedIn community.
Don’t forget to network within your company
One of the best places you can start your network is within your own company. Reach out to someone in a different department, ask to talk to a leader you desire to learn from, join an internal group or club. You already have something in common, your employer, so conversations should come easier.
When you meet someone new, you should always ask these two questions: Who else would you recommend that I meet with? and What can I do for you?
When I first started writing this article, our current situation with COVID-19, social distancing, and the closing of much of our economy. At first glance, you might think our current situation makes networking impossible. However, with today’s technology, we can stay connected and communicating with others. With video conferences, chat apps, and collaboration tools, we can continue to network, host community events, and enrich ourselves and others. This past Friday, I participated in a panel about how CIOs are pivoting to enable work from home at a rapid clip. We had aver 150 participants and used a product called Sli.do to facilitate the Q&A. In the chat function of Zoom, participants were posting their emails and LinkedIn profiles so they could connect. People inherently want to connect, and those that want to bring us together will continue to find ways to do so.
I am continuing to network, using these collaboration tools, trying to continue to pay it forward and learn from others. In these times, it is more important than ever to help each other out, stay connected, and ensure our mental and physical health.