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New Ideas for Building a Professional Network

Photo by Waag Society

One piece of career and business advice we regularly encounter is the need to network - regularly, frequently, all-the-time! And we are reminded that the advice applies to almost everybody, from the aspiring entrepreneur, to the stressed-out startup founder, and almost every other business and career combination you can think of.

However, what is often missing from this advice is the deeper purpose of networking. It isn’t just to generate exposure, or find potential business leads; it is also about creating a network of diverse individuals that you can learn from, and exchange ideas with. People who can influence you, and who you yourself could influence.

Before we begin to explore the types of people you should have in your network, we need to understand the two primary networks you encounter, and the people that make up these networks.

The Two Primary Business Networks

Social Networks

Not social media networks, but social networks; the personal network you build up over years, consisting of family, friends, work colleagues and casual acquaintances. Essentially any contacts you collect through social encounters that are in no way related to work and business activities.

Professional Networks

The opposite of social networks. Which doesn’t imply that some of these contacts aren’t also social contacts, but they were collected as a direct result of business activities. This would include accountants and lawyers, but also peers - people involved in a similar career, or projects, but not necessarily working for the same company as you. It could also include industry experts and thought-leaders you meet at conferences, expos and trade-shows.

Chamber of commerce, trade associations, professional institutions and niche specific networks are sometimes referred to as artificial networks, but essentially they are very similar to professional networks.

People in Your Network

There is very little benefit in having a network that consists purely of contacts. You won’t gain anything, develop, or grow without regular engagement between you and selected individuals in your network. Part of this is made up of the occasional phone-call, e-mail, casual meetings at conferences, and even use of social media networks including Twitter and LinkedIn. But a more important role is played by identifying certain individuals to take on specific roles from which you are both able to benefit.

Industry Experts and Thought Leaders

Every industry has a handful of well recognised, and respected, experts and thought leaders. These are the people who to some extent shape the industry, and are also able to predict where it is headed, and what should change.

They are not mentors, but they do inspire.

Unfortunately, they are also extremely busy, and usually quite senior in relation to you. Depending on your approach, and what you expect from them, this does not mean that they are unavailable. Selena Soo has written extensively on the subject of connecting with influencers, and it is difficult to dilute her advice into simple bullet points. You can read a more detailed explanation here, but for now, it is worth remembering the following:

  1. Make it short, so it’s easy to digest.
  2. Share something specific that you liked about their product/blog post, etc. (i.e., an entertaining story or a deceptively simple tactic they offered).
  3. Share how you have taken action or will be taking action.
  4. Express your gratitude.

Industry experts and thought leaders are not people you turn to for career advice, they are people you turn to for industry insight; what do they see in the future for your industry, and how would they tackle specific problems?

Mentors, not Role-Models

People often make the mistake of calling a role-model a mentor, when the two are actually very different. A role-model is someone who inspires you, and who you aspire to be like, without them necessarily taking an active role in your development.

A mentor, however, does take an active role. While they are similar in that they are both usually someone who inspires you, the mentor is someone you have direct, and regular, contact with. A mentor guides you with advice, and coaches you personally, and career wise.

The ideal mentor is someone slightly senior to you, and who shares similar values and goals. They could either work in the same company as you, or in a similar field, but it is also not an unadvised role. What this means is that you don’t just appoint someone as your mentor, without their knowledge or consent. You have to ask them if they are willing to act as a mentor to you, and then together you discuss expectations, roles and timing.

Peers Without Pressure

Peers are colleagues and acquaintances who not only work in a similar field as you, but also have a similar role as you. Though they are not senior to you, they may well have more experience than you, or simply a different outlook in certain situations. And this is where their value lies.

Any interactions you have with experts, thought leaders and mentors will be formal, controlled and focused on a specific outcome. Your interactions with your peers is vastly different; casual, social and with a more personal element to them. Some interactions will never evolve beyond this, but occasionally you will form a stronger connection with a peer, someone you don’t mind swapping personal stories with, and then switching to asking for specific advice or opinions on something within your career or industry.

What is important to remember with peer relationships is that they are more bi-directional in nature than your senior relationships. These interactions are not solely about helping yourself, but also about helping others. Just as you might turn to them for advice, you have to be responsive to them turning to you for advice.

Finally, your network of peers should include people in a more junior role than yourself, and people in a similar role as yourself, but from an entirely different field. The junior peers are people who you can help, while also learning something from them. Like the peer from an entirely different field, your juniors can often bring fresh insight, thoughts and ideas. Nobody’s input should ever be discounted just because they are younger, or newer, than you, or don’t work in exactly the same industry.

Actually Building Your Network

Once you have a better understanding of the types of networks you can have, and the types of people you need within each network, actually building the network becomes a little easier. With this added knowledge you are able to adapt your approach, and the people you engage with, multiple times during each event you find yourself at. Additionally, you may even find yourself networking at non-traditional events and social gatherings, not in an overt (and overpowering) manner, but simply by identifying people you should remain in contact with, or nurture further engagement with. Networking is not always about finding an immediate result, lead, contact or mentor, sometimes it is just about building relationships that may eventually lead to something else.

Networking At Work

It should go without saying that the first place you start networking professionally is at work. This is where you will find your initial group of peers, and possibly identify someone who could become a mentor to you. It requires being social, friendly and available, without being overbearing. You don’t want to be the person who never says no, and who is always the first to volunteer for new projects, so focus on a balanced approach.

  • Invite coworkers to join you for lunch occasionally.
  • If your coworkers invite you to join them for lunch, or after hours drinks, accept if you can, and decline if you have other commitments. This is where a balanced approach is required: if you always join them, you can seem too eager to please (and risk affecting your own personal social life), but if you’re always declining, they will eventually stop inviting you.
  • Attend work events, even if they aren’t always exciting. And if they really are that dire, suggest a few ideas that could make them more appealing. Moderation is, again, important. If you are the only one who hates these events, it says more about your own attitude than it does about the actual event(s).

Doing the above not only helps you build a network of peers, it can also lead you to being introduced to those equally important peers from an industry different to your own. Many of these connections will never move out of your social network, but a few will eventually evolve into something more professional.

Attend Multiple Events

The number of connections you can make, and the size to which your professional network can grow, are limited by the number of interactions you have. Within your normal day-to-day routine you will regularly meet new people, either within your industry or somehow related, that count as professional contacts. But to extend beyond this means having to regularly attend industry related events, trade-shows and expos.

It is only at these events that you will come into contact with people related to your industry, but not within your normal circle of contacts. Some may be industry experts and thought leaders, while others will be from different countries, giving you valuable insight into how different cultures tackle similar problems.

Given that many of the attendees at these events will be from different cities and countries, any contacts you make will need to be nurtured and maintained through regular contact with each individual. The more events you attend, the more likely you are to also see each other again, something that you don’t necessarily have to think about when it comes to your more localised professional network.

Remaining in contact is important both with your localised network, and your extended network, and this is easily managed through brief interactions on Twitter, LinkedIn, and the occasional email or telephone call. Not to the point of distraction, but enough to always remain on the radar, so to speak.

Arrange a Help Me Help You Dinner

Rand Fishkin recently wrote about his early experiences in the SEO industry, including a few people who cleverly networked events by organising dinners afterwards. This ultimately inspired the Help Me Help You Dinner concept, which, when used correctly, can be a powerful tool to grow your network outside of what you know. The integration of help in these dinners also allows you to fully explore the true power behind a strong professional network.

An important consideration is that even though you may have contacts in your network who you have little in common with, and whose industry is so removed from yours that it appears to be of little benefit, they could still be useful. Think of how valuable you will appear to any of your customers if they happen to mention a problem they have, that you yourself cannot help with, but you are able to put them into contact with someone who can - someone from your professional network?


Some people naturally excel at networking, while the rest of us look at networking the same way we view unpleasant medicine - necessary, but difficult. As mentioned earlier, by understanding what network you want to grow, and what types of people you need within each of those networks, you can ease some of the pressure and unpleasantness. This is then extended by knowing where and how to meet the necessary contacts to grow each of your networks.

What remains unchanged though, is the need to always be yourself - be more human, as Rand Fishkin described it. For him, this meant attending some functions with his wife, not as a token, but as something familiar to him that allowed him to be more relaxed.

Networking, and building a professional network, is about more than swapping business cards and talking business. It is about building relationships.

On 02.07.2014 in