Transform Your Network with These Simple Practices

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Would you rather go to the dentist than to a networking event? If so, read on.

Networking is considered a professional necessity. Conventional wisdom states that if we don’t build and sustain our networks properly, we’ll lose out on opportunities like promotions, new jobs, and important information.

The bad news: The conventional wisdom is right. The good news: Most of us are networking all wrong. Read on for three simple practices to transform your networking experience.

Practice #1: Match your methods to your style

Traditional networking events were made for a certain type of person: an extrovert. Who else would enjoy entering a room of complete strangers, having a 5-minute conversation with a contact, and then starting a new conversation over and over again?

If you are an extrovert, you’re in luck. The networking world is made for you.  Make the most of those large-scale events by:

  • Shifting your perspective from “What can that person do for me?” to “What can I do for that person?”
  • Debriefing your networking experiences with a colleague to determine how to maintain connections with new contacts.
  • Following up with new contacts to cement relationships and keep connections alive.

If you’re not an extrovert, your experience may be a little harder. You’ll need to find ways to network that match your style. Luckily, there are plenty of options. You’ll simply need to be creative. Try these practices to start:

  • Seek out opportunities to connect in smaller group settings or one-on-one. These environments are generally more conducive to introverts.
  • Find events that have a clear structure for interaction. Often, introverts do better meeting strangers through a defined process than through open-ended, free-flowing conversation.

For more ideas on how introverts can excel at networking without changing your personality, try The Introvert’s Survival Guide to Networking.

Practice #2: Don’t neglect what you have

It’s easy to think that your network isn’t good enough. No CEOs. No one in venture capital. No one with a particular skill set.

There are two problems with the belief that your network isn’t good enough:

1. It overlooks the rich network you already have (unless you’ve been living alone in the wilderness for 10 years).

2. It sets you up for disappointment and failure.

Every person, except for the hermit living alone in the wilderness, has a network. Your network includes the people you work with on a daily basis. These are members of your operational network, who help you get the job done. You also have people who give you advice and feedback about how to improve. These people may be mentors, former bosses, teachers, or even family members. Finally, you have people who help you think strategically about your ideas about the future. This group, called the strategic network, might be very small and consist only of a spouse or trusted family member who you talk with about hopes for your career, department, or organization. (For more on the three-network model, see “How Leaders Create and Use Networks” by Herminia Ibarra and Mark Hunter.)

These people make up your network. They deserve to be recognized and thanked. If you don’t, you open yourself up to disappointment and failure: disappointment because you will never be satisfied with what you have. Failure because networks erode over time. Without intermittent, small gestures of appreciation and gifts of information and time, your contacts will fade. When it comes time to ask for a recommendation, advice, or feedback, you’ll have fewer resources to draw upon.

Practice #3: Create simple, sustainable practices

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the networking possibilities from which to choose. If you, like me, live in the Boston area, you could easily attend two networking events every business day. That’s not a sustainable practice.

Luckily, quantity isn’t important. Instead, what’s important is sustainability. If you set a manageable goal, you can enjoy success and avoid the danger of not having contacts there when you need them.

A basic, sustainable networking practice looks like this:

  1. Take one person out for coffee or tea per month. Use this time to catch up on the person’s projects, work challenges, and current interests. Be ready to share your own projects, challenges, and interests. Don’t feel like you need to ask for anything. The goal is to keep the relationship alive, not to come away with a prize.
  2. Forward one piece of information per week. In the onslaught of media demanding our attention, it’s easy to miss information of value. If you see an announcement about an upcoming public speaking workshop, pass it on to a contact interested in honing presentation skills. If you receive notice about a new project beginning that would interest a colleague, pass it on. In other words, get in the habit of asking yourself:  Who else would appreciate this information? And then pass it on.
  3. Take one non-directed walk around the office per day. This is a great excuse to casually run into people, catch up, and gain information about what’s happening. If you work virtually, there’s no excuse for not doing your own kind of walk around. One colleague became active as a subject matter expert on a LinkedIn group relevant to his field. He spent 10 minutes on the site daily to weigh in on hot topics. If your company uses Slack or a similar app, go on for five minutes daily to see what’s happening and make a few comments.

If you’re ambitious, you can add more practices to your agenda. Not sure what methods are right for you? Try choosing a few from this list of 21 networking practices.

Maya Townsend

Maya Townsend went from hiding in the corner at networking events to leading a company (Partnering Resources) that helps individuals, teams, and organizations thrive in our networked world. Today, she uses knowledge of the art and science of networks to help leaders find opportunity in complex business ecosystems, influence change, and build high performing, collaborative workplaces. Co-editor of The Handbook for Strategic HR, she'll happily tell you why you should throw out your performance reviews and why most HR departments need a total makeover. Sign up for her biweekly email, and you'll never miss her columns.

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