You’ve heard how valuable building a network is for your career and future success. I don’t need to remind you that the way to get jobs, promotions, business opportunities and access to resources is not just about what you know. While what you know certainly is important, if nobody knows what you know, or rather, if the right people don’t know what you know, your knowledge won’t help you get ahead.

Who you know is critical for what you know to matter.

Who You Know
View from inside Oslo’s Main Library

Networking vs. building a network

Are you ‘networking’ or are you ‘building a network’?

Arguably, you don’t need to build a network at all, because you’re already part of one. You know people, and they know people. Who know people, who know people ad infinitum (or at least ad however many billions of people there are on Earth). Hence, you’re at the center of an already existing network, which just might hold the key to your success in life.

For the purposes of this article, however, I’ll be talking about ‘building a network’ in the sense of intentionally growing your sphere of influence by connecting with, and getting to know the people in your already-existing network of other humans.

Many people feel very uncomfortable at the thought of ‘networking.’ It can feel awkward, even ‘icky.’ In fact, studies have shown that the mere thought of professional networking makes people feel dirty both physically and morally. In his TEDx talk How To Hack Networking, my friend David Burkus provides some great insights into this dilemma, and how to overcome it.

Personally, I like to think of it as ‘building a network’ rather than ‘networking’ (thank you, Sarah, for that paradigm shift!). Perhaps the greatest advantage to the proliferation of social media is the diversity of networks you have access to. How you go about building your personal network from the seemingly infinite possible connections, will have a big impact on your future success.

Because, building a network is a lot more than simply adding a bunch of connections to your social media platforms. Building a network takes time and intention – and it takes a personal investment in real human beings.

You have a tremendous opportunity to build value into your network, so think beyond adding people on LinkedIn and Instagram. Instead, think about which relationships will help strengthen the quality of your network.

These relationships can come from all kinds of sources:

  • Coworkers
  • Friends of friends
  • Family connections
  • Professionals in your industry
  • Professionals outside your industry
  • Current or former classmates
  • Professors and teachers
  • Instructors, trainers, coaches
  • Gym buddies
  • Your kids friends’ parents
  • Professional associations
  • Social media connections
  • People who like to nerd out in the same ways you do (think, hobbies and interests)

Just to name a few…

So what does it take to build a strong network from all these potential connections?

“Networking is more than dropping a coin in and telling people what you want. People don’t just sit around waiting to grant your wishes.” –Adam Karpiak

Building a network is a lot like tending a garden. You have to sow, water, and fertilize. You have to ADD TO the garden by nurturing it, not just harvesting, pulling plants out of the ground and expecting more to grow automatically.

Build stronger relationships

There are many ways to strengthen the already-existing relationships in your network. Here are a few ideas:

  • Meet 1:1 for coffee or lunch, or set up a Skype or Zoom call with remote connections.
  • If it’s someone you don’t know well, so a little research prior to meeting, to learn more about what you have in common, and more importantly, what is important to them (review their LinkedIn profile, do a quick Google search, read articles they’ve written, etc.).
  • Besides the obvious things like what type of work they do and where they went to school, search for clues such as what kinds of causes they are engaged in, sports or recreational activities, hobbies, kids, etc.
  • Prepare a list of relevant, open-ended questions in advance, that will help you learn more about what they value (see the end of this article for examples of good questions to ask).
  • If this is a busy, high-profile individual, send them your questions prior to the meeting, so they too can prepare in advance, and you can assure them you won’t be wasting their time.
  • Find ways to add value to their lives – what kinds of referrals or connections might be helpful to them, and who do you know that might be a beneficial introduction.
  • As a follow-up after the meeting, send them a note with resources you discussed, make a helpful introduction, or write a recommendation on LinkedIn. Better yet, send a hand-written thank-you note.
  • “Ping” people regularly to maintain connection and develop the relationship (via LinkedIn, email, phone call or text message – use whichever medium is most natural and relevant for you and this individual).

Be intentional about investing in relationships, and the relationships will work on your behalf. For one of the most comprehensive guides to building success through human relationships, read Keith Ferrazzi’s book Never Eat Alone.

Prune when needed

As a budding gardener (lame pun intended), I’ve learned that sometimes you have to prune the plants in your garden to allow for energy to flow where it needs to flow, and give room for new growth.

Have you ever ‘pruned’ your social (media) connections that aren’t providing positive energy into your life? Are there people in your personal network who take your focus away from what matters, who drain you with negativity or pull you off track?

Consider if it’s time to do some pruning.

Take a moment to assess the quality of your personal network:

  • What value do you provide for the people in your network?
  • Which relationships should you be investing more time and energy into?
  • Who are the people in your personal network who drag you down?

Value, diversity, impact

It’s been said that your network is your net worth. Invest in the network. To build a strong network, be authentic, keep it real, and look for ways to add value for people.

So far, we’ve talked primarily about the personal network of friends and connections that already exists around you. While there are many great reasons to strengthen already exiting relationships in your network, broadening its reach and diversity is also important your network to have real impact.  David Burkus’ book, Friend of a Friend, is a really great resource for anyone looking to expand, improve or better understand their human networks.

So, how do you broaden and diversify your network?

Don’t ask boring questions

Going to networking events or meetups in your local area can be a great way to expand your network connections. However, many of these events are super awkward. You know, the ‘schmoozing’ kind of events where people are trying to pitch their products or simply pawn off their business cards. Whether you enjoy socializing or despise it in this context, these types of events are not always the most effective for building a valuable network.

But, with the right mindset and preparation, they can be.

From my perspective, networking is all about getting to know the person behind the online profile, the job title, the surface stuff. Therefore, when you arrive at an event and meet someone new (and that IS the purpose of attending these things!) avoid asking shallow questions that you can easily get the answer to by simply looking up their LinkedIn profile.

Get to know people on the level of what really matters to them. And if you do it well, you can get there way faster than with boring chit-chat.

At the LinkedIn Local meetups I cohost here in my home town, we like to give people an assignment in advance, that includes prompts for questions that yield more interesting conversations. It starts with discouraging ‘boring questions.’

Be interestED, rather than interestING! 

Being genuinely interested in another person is the fastest way to get to know someone, and to get that someone to like you. And let’s face it, in business, and in life in general, getting people to like you is actually really important in order to accomplish… well, almost anything.

Boring questions:

  • What do you do?
  • Where are you from?
  • Where did you go to school?
  • What do you think of this weather?

A question of value

If you want better answers, ask better questions.

First off, come prepared. Asking good questions is a skill that takes constant practice, a craft honed through experience, an art to be studied and constantly refined. If you want to truly get to know people, ask questions that will draw out what they value.

Coming prepared with some killer questions that get people to talk about what really matters to them, can make all the difference in what kind of experience you and those you talk with, will have at the event.

When you arrive, try the following exercise, which I call the “3x3x3 Networking Exercise.” I’ve adapted it from a great story on how to quickly get to know someone, told in The Art of People by David Kerpen. This book provides some very practical relationship-building skills.

The 3x3x3 Networking Exercise

3 Questions, 3 Minutes, 3 People

Seek out 3 individuals you don’t know. Ask each of them the following 3 questions. They have 1 minute to answer each question:

  1. What is the most interesting thing you’re working on?
  2. What is your favorite cause to support, and why?
  3. If you had won the lottery, what would you be doing now?

I guarantee you will have much more interesting conversations if you ask these questions. And I’d love to hear YOUR take!

👇🏼 Drop me a note in the comments with how you would answer those questions – or, share your own favorite networking questions. 👇🏼

Resources and References

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