The idea of professional networking doesn’t have to bring to mind images of shady used-car dealers or inauthentic fast talkers. Building your network doesn’t have to mean schmoozing, badgering managers, or adding people to your friends list that you’ve never even met. In fact, it may help to think of networking not as a way of to use people for your own good, but as a way to build quality reciprocal relationships. Building a network is about helping others first by trying to see the world through their own perspective to discover ways to best benefit them.
This is the way to forge honest connections based on authenticity and shared human values and interests. When you are a genuinely friendly person you earn allies and collaborators instead of “winning” friends as personal assets. The best way to build your network is not to “network” but to start by working with people you already know.
Your most important professional relationships are those with the people who are your closest allies. Your allies are those who regularly confer with you, give advice, and seek to collaborate on opportunities together. Allies also talk you up to their contacts as you talk them up to yours. Allies stand by their friends during conflict and work to protect each others’ reputations when threatened. Developing and strengthening these alliances is the primary method for building an unshakable core of professional contacts.
But your network connections need not consist solely of deep relationships; this would lack diversity and severely limit your flexibility. While you always need that select group of loose allies, there are thousands of other opportunities to forge looser relationships with other professionals in your life. These may be people you meet at conferences, coworkers, or even old school mates. These connections require only low amounts of low-intensity time to maintain while still playing an important role in your professional life. Indeed, studies have shown that most professionals find their jobs through acquaintances that they rarely see. These so-called “weak ties” typically fall outside of your typical social circles and have access to information and opportunities other than those within your industry niche.
The network consisting of your allies and acquaintances can be considered your “first-line” contacts with which you have direct access. But your friends have contacts of their own that you don’t know, and the friends of your friends have even more friends whom you have never met. The important trait of each of these second or third-line connections is that most or all of them personally know your friend in some fashion. This expands your network potentially into the thousands and you are just one introduction away from meeting any of them. And your supply of new connections for your extended professional network is nearly endless.
But as you develop your network, it is vital to remember that the best way to strengthen relationships between yourself and your connections, both old and new, is to do something for them out of a genuine sense of compassion and caring. Be helpful. But to be truly helpful to someone you need to understand their values, challenges, and needs. When determining how to contribute to the success of an ally or other network connection, focus on your personal experiences with that person and your unique capabilities to discover what you have that the other person does not.