No one ever had a great career by themselves.
For a long time, I’ve been amazed by how many really talented people focus on developing great, even world-class skills and then feel frustrated that they can’t get the job they want at the company or firm where they want to work. A lot of amazingly talented people come to see me to discuss where to take their career next and they often believe that being great at what they do, being a gifted lawyer or an architect, is enough. And what I tell these talented people is that the next step for them is to ensure they have a route to market their skills and that the start of that route to market is their network.
A critical part of a great career today is access to the right information and the right people at the right time. You just can’t know everything you need to know, and you can’t know everyone you need to know in order to have your great career. Your network is the way to multiply what and who you know. Pretty cool, huh?
Sure, you can just hope that you get lucky and that you happen to know someone who understands everything you need to in order to get your movie treatment looked at by someone in Hollywood. But, as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy, and so if you know this is something you’re going to need, be intentional about developing the right network to get the outline of your future blockbuster reviewed.
The point is, having the right contacts to be successful is actually part of your job. It isn’t an optional thing you can choose to have or not have, not if you want to have a great career. Having the right relationships in order make your skills come alive and blossom into the success and recognition that you know you’re capable of is going to be the result of the combination of your skills and your network. Sure, there are people who are so talented that their network effortlessly develops because everyone calls them, but try to ignore them, because that isn’t what it’s like for most of us. Yep, people wanted to get with Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard or Mick Jagger. Don’t think too much about the difference between you and either of them. Treat them like a mirage and find ways to avoid comparisons with them.
For the rest of us, it’s valuable to know folks who think well enough of us to share their insights and the people they know with us.
It’s easy to think of the person who knows everyone as the person with the strongest network, but there are different ways to have a strong network. You don’t necessarily have to know a huge number of people to have a strong and committed network. A strong network is one that has what you need, supports you, and will help you when it counts.
We all need support in different ways at different times. Sometimes we could use some information about what is happening with our competitors, and your personal friends probably won’t know that. Or maybe you have an idea that you think is so good that you can’t believe that no one else has thought of it. Your spouse won’t necessarily be able to help you realistically evaluate your idea; you need someone who has the context and understands the topic in depth. This is where your network comes into play.
But how do you make sure that you have the kind of support we are talking about? How do you become a powerful networker? And what are the tricks?
At the heart of being well networked is being someone that others want to know, and although it is easy to think about the salesperson or extrovert as the good networker, there are a lot of ways to be that someone others want to know.
One of my best-networked friends is Audrey, who runs Horizons For Youth, an amazing Not-For-Profit in Chicago. Audrey is not especially outgoing or social but everyone respects the work that she does helping to get kids from low resourced neighborhoods a great education, and helping their families get the support that makes it all possible. In spite of being a pretty reserved person with no interest in drawing attention to herself, when Audrey needs something she’s got an amazing network of motivated experts who can help her or find someone who can.
But we are not all in the business of making the world a better place in the way that Audrey is, so what can the rest of us do to be someone that others want to network with?
See how many of these ideas you can check off:
Be interested in other people and care about what is important to them. It’s important to find common ground with your network and to cultivate real relationships, not just ones that benefit you.
If you are not a very social person, this can seem unnatural and awkward, but it is really as easy as asking about something that has nothing to do with your connection and then being interested in their answer.
Be someone who has a distinct perspective and be generous with your perspective. This means, don’t be stingy about sharing ideas because of overdone worries about whether others might steal your ideas or become your competition.
Think about your connections even when you don’t need them, and connect them to ideas and articles and tv shows and people, when you see something that would be valuable or interesting to them.
Connect your friends to others who would create value for them. This has the added benefit of showing them you think that they’re valuable by connecting others to them to others you know.
Don’t wait until you need something from someone to try and build a relationship with someone who can help you. This is why building a network feels so uncomfortable for so many people. It’s common to avoid relationship building until you need something and then it is too late to do it naturally. You are not building a valuable and reciprocal relationship with them if you need something, you are just trying to use them.
Sad fact: I’ve literally seen this story unfold more than 100 times in the course of my career. It happened to me recently. A guy I know called who wanted a job at a firm I used to run. He reached out to me after years of dodging my calls when he had a job. Here’s the sad part of this story, this is probably the 4th time in the past 20 years he has reached out to me to use my network to his advantage when he was between jobs. I helped him as much as I could the first couple of times but after that just didn’t feel like he was someone I had any real need to support. So here’s an obvious networking tip: don’t be that guy!
There are a thousand ways that having a willing and able group of people who look out for you is valuable, but there is probably no needier time that most of us have than when we are considering our career options– that is when we are changing jobs (or thinking about it).
A lot of people are afraid of the whole idea of networking. If you need a little reminder of why it is so important to work on your network before you need it, remember that the difficulty level multiplies the more you need it. A key trick is to develop good networking habits so that you do regular upkeep with your contacts, then things get easier because connecting with people becomes a part of your routine.
What do these habits look like? What can you do right now?
Email someone you worked closely with in the past but don’t now and tell them you want to get together (by phone, in person). Do it right now without worrying about what you will talk about. Set the time for a few days or a week from today and then you have a few days or a week to figure out what you will talk about. Don’t over think what you’ll talk about. You know them, they know you, you’re checking in. This works best if you start with someone who was a work buddy, more than a work acquaintance.
Start using your LinkedIn account. Scroll through the news feed and reach out to two people who have changed jobs or otherwise posted. Congratulate them, ask them if there is something you could do to help with their startup, or like their post with that inspirational statement about making work a more caring place.