How to build an effective professional network

How to build an effective professional network

by Felicity Menzies

In an earlier post, I shared Herminia Ibarra’s ABCD model of network advantage. According to this model, a network’s advantage (A) is a function of its breadth (B), connectivity (C), and dynamism (D:

  •     Breadth: Your network consists of strong relationships with a diverse range of contacts
  •     Connectivity: Your network links or bridges across people and groups that wouldn’t otherwise connect
  •     Dynamism: Your network has a dynamic set of extended ties that evolves as you evolve

As Ibarra cautions, unless you have deliberately sought to develop a network with the above qualities, your current network likely suffers from one or more of the following common network weaknesses:

  •     Birds of a feather: Your contacts are too homogeneous, all like you.
  •     Network lag: Your network is about your past, not your future.
  •     Echo chamber: Your contacts are all internal; they all know each other.
  •     Pigeonholing: Your contacts can’t see you doing something different.

If your network suffers from these weaknesses, you are limiting your potential. Studies show that individuals with effective networks are more likely to find a job, be promoted, earn a higher salary and achieve high levels of performance in their current role. In this blog, I share practical tips for revitalising your network.

Step 1: Delayer Your Network to Create Space for Valuable New Connections

Because our time is limited, we can sustain only a limited number of close personal relationships. When refreshing your network, you should consider letting go of people who are currently taking up your time and energy but are not adding value to the accomplishment of your goals. This includes any individuals who demand your time but who don’t perform any of Cross & Thomas’s six core functions of a network: new knowledge and ideas, power and influence, feedback and coaching, emotional support and encouragement, meaning and worth, and work-life balance. You should also step away from relationships that interfere with the accomplishment of your goals. For example, contacts that cannot see you doing anything new, contacts who are overly critical, or social connections that encourage unhealthy habits that interfere with your performance.

Also, because of our universal tendency to cluster in groups of people like ourselves (affinity bias), it is likely your network may consist of many people who are like each other and like you. The effort required to maintain multiple homogenous relationships might be greater than the benefits of doing so. If a contact doesn’t bring novel information or perspectives to your network or performs a function that is already being met sufficiently by others, it makes sense to step away from that relationship to create space for a new relationship that offers a different perspective or function.

When delayering your network, it’s important not to burn any bridges. An abrupt end to a relationship can be hurtful and confusing. It can damage trust and your personal brand and reputation. The key to stepping away gracefully is to gradually dial down what you give to that relationship. For example, rather than responding immediately to a request, respond after a delay, apologising that you have been busy and offering something of value, but not to the same extent as you may have done previously. The key when delayering is to protect the other person’s and your face. Over time, most relationships wither away when they no longer fulfil the needs of both parties. By gradually reducing what you bring to a relationship, you encourage your counterpart to look elsewhere but avoid the confusion and confrontation that an abrupt end to a relationship can trigger.

Step 2. Identify Which Relationships Need Your Attention

Once you’ve decided whom to step away from and whom to keep in or add to your network to increases its advantage, the next step in revitalising your network is to assess the strength of ties of your ideal network. Make a list of relationships you want to protect and nurture and rate the quality of your relationship. For example:

  1.  “could be stronger or more positive,”—this includes weak ties, strained ties and contacts you would like to connect with but have no current relationship
  2.  “not necessarily perfect but a generally good current relationship,”
  3. “very strong and positive,”—characterised by mutual trust and dependency

Existing or potential ties in category 1 are those that you need to focus on, whether that involves strengthening current relationships or establishing new ones.

Step 3. Make new connections

Once you’ve created space in your network for new contacts and identified where the gaps are, it’s time to turn your attention to making new connections.

The overarching principle when building your network is to be proactive and opportunistic. Building networking into your everyday activities, such as meetings, business trips, presentations, celebrations, or social occasions is an efficient and effective way to meet new people and strengthen relationships without coming on too strong and without eating into your workday too onerously.

Other practical ways to expand your network include.

  •    Ask contacts for referrals and introductions
  •    Attend an industry conference or seminar
  •    Engage on social networking platforms
  •    Agree to speak at events or sit or moderate panel discussions
  •    Extend a lunch invitation

Focus on identifying opportunities where you will cross paths with valuable contacts and use those opportunities to reach out and to establish or strengthen a connection.

In an article for HBR, Uzzi & Dunlap suggest the best activities for developing strong positive ties are high-stakes activities. High-stakes activities are those that foster mutual dependence for the achievement of an outcome. For example, cross-functional project teams, sporting competitions, not-for-profit boards. Partnering collaboratively in a project or activity that people are passionate about builds strong bonds of loyalty and trust among those involved. Shared activities are not confined to professional activities. For example, you can develop strong ties by joining school committees or alumni groups.

Industry seminars and conferences are also useful for connecting with new contacts, but approaching strangers can be intimidating. How many of us have attended a networking event alone and come away without having spoken to anyone new? Even if we find ourselves alone at an event, it’s tempting to occupy ourselves by playing with our phones rather than approach someone we don’t know and risk rejection or an awkward exchange.

Next time you find yourself alone in a crowd, Peter Bregman, writing for HBR, offers the tips below for approaching strangers. Applying these tips can help you to turn a moment of potential awkwardness into a successful networking opportunity.

  •    Look approachable—Be visible, make eye contact, mind your body language and smile. Don’t fiddle with your phone.
  •    Open with a small interaction—Make an observation or ask for information or help.
  •    Introduce yourself—Introduce yourself with a warm handshake and smile.
  •    Get personal—Ask people open-ended questions about themselves. Use their name.
  •    Ask for advice or an explanation—Give the other person an opportunity to help you or to showcase their knowledge.
  •    Disagree lightly—Communicate a different point of view on safe topics to engage and stand out.

When making new connections, it is helpful to have a succinct elevator pitch prepared. Your elevator pitch is a brief summary of who you are and should help others to understand what value you can bring to your relationship. You should focus on presenting your value in a compelling and memorable way. The best elevator pitches are short (around 30 seconds long), convey what makes you different to others, and share something about yourself on a personal level such as why you do the work you do.

Next Steps

Once you’ve made a valuable connection, to develop an enduring mutually dependent relationship, the relationship must be nurtured. In next week’s blog, I look at techniques for nurturing and sustaining your network.

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.