Networking is absolutely essential to career success. To paraphrase poet John Donne’s famous line from almost 400 years ago, “No one is an island.” Equivalently, no one’s professional success is truly self-made. Everyone gets at least some help along the way. While very few of us will have the opportunity to stand on the stage of a major awards show “thanking our team,” we should all be intentional about having a team.
At the beginning of your career, your team likely includes your parents, siblings, school friends, and others with whom you were close growing up. As time goes on, you’ll find managers you like and mentors who are committed to you. You’ll build your professional network, which is essential, as networks are far-and-away the #1 means for finding a new job, according to a study by Right Management. As the adage goes, “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”
With all of this in mind, let’s cover the different forms your “team” can take, as well as the role and importance of each.
Family and friends – Invariably, we all look to family and friends for professional and life guidance. Family and friends have our interests in mind and will be “in our corner.” That said, it’s important to consider a few potential downsides of relying on family and friends for professional guidance. Family members – particularly our parents – can push their belief set and aspirations rather than guiding us to form our own. Consider all the parents who wanted their children to be doctors or lawyers or some other pre-chosen profession. Remember, it’s your life and your career. You need to own it. Second, family and friends may feel that they need to tell us what we want to hear rather than telling us what we need to hear. Good career guidance relies on being willing to deliver a tough message when needed, and not all of our family and friends are going to be willing to do so. For these reasons, the importance of family and friends in providing professional guidance best diminishes as you continue in your career.
Network – In this day and age, it’s almost irresponsible not to maintain a professional network given the value you can draw from it. With LinkedIn, MeetUp, Clubhouse, other social media sites, and email and cell phone numbers we keep for our adult lives, it’s also easier than ever to build and maintain a network. You can build your network through a variety of means, including:
- Job searches you conduct
- Companies for whom you work
- Local, regional, national, and global professional associations to which you belong
- School alumni groups
- Social clubs, gyms and fitness clubs, and hobby groups
- Networking events (though these can be hit-or-miss)
- Country clubs
- Non-profits with which you work
- Schools that your children attend
- And likely many others
Be purposeful about building your network, and start on it as early into your career as possible.
Mentors – Too few of us have mentors to whom we look, though even 1-2 good mentors can be invaluable to us in our careers. Mentors with whom we work can create opportunities for us. Mentors of all types can give us career guidance. So what makes a good mentor? Several factors:
- They’re there when you need them
- They’ve “been there” and will have relevant perspectives to share
- They put your interests first, even when at odds with their own interests (such as the case of your manager when you are considering another job)
- They guide you to the answer without telling you the answer
- They tell you what you need to hear, even when it’s uncomfortable feedback for you to receive
When pursued thoughtfully and nurtured over time, mentoring relationships can have a huge impact on your professional success and happiness. Don’t under-estimate their importance.
Champions or sponsors. These are typically more senior individuals with whom you work who can reach down and pull you up. Such people may also be mentors, but their relationships with you don’t necessarily need to be as close or deep as a mentoring relationship. What’s important about a champion or sponsor is that they are able to create opportunities for you. At points in our careers, many of us follow a manager we like or take an opportunity with someone who has shown a particular interest in us. Such situations can absolutely help accelerate our careers. However, it can sometimes be risky to be too closely associated with someone, as your stock will more likely rise and fall with theirs. Consider the case of a new head coach for a professional sports coach “cleaning house” and replacing all of the assistant coaches who had worked with the prior coach. Invariably some good assistants lose their jobs in these situations, just because they were seen as too connected to the prior coach. The same thing can – and does – happen in the corporate world, in government, and in other professional settings. For this reason, you should always consider the potential downside of overly “hitching your wagon to someone else’s star,” as written by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Followers. As we progress through our careers, we invariably work alongside people with whom we would like to work again. These individuals can be managers, peers, subordinates, or more distant work colleagues. Make sure you keep a running list of who could play such a following role as you progress in your career. They’re the people you want to bring with you when you change roles or employers. You know each other. You know how to work with each other. You know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Bringing these people with you when you’re in a new role can often help you make a better, faster start and create growth opportunities for them. The option of having these people alongside you can provide enormous benefit. Just ensure that they are legitimately the right people for the roles in which you’re placing them. Forcing them into roles for which they’re not qualified quickly will be seen as nepotism, and that will ultimately hurt you.
Personal boards of directors. Following from the construct of companies having boards of directors, some people form their own personal boards of directors. Paraphrasing an article on The Muse, think of these individuals as unpaid career coaches. As with a good corporate board of directors, you need to be intentional in considering who you consider as members of your personal board. Seek a diversity of experience and perspectives. Rely on people who will “tell it like it is” or tell you when they see you as being “off course.” Consider subject matter expertise that will be relevant to you in your current role or chosen career path. Identify people who can help you build your network or otherwise serve as a “connector” for you. Accept that board members will come and go as your situation, interests, aspirations and needs change throughout your career. And while your board members are unlikely to ever meet as a group and may not even know that you consider them as board members, you can still derive immeasurable value through your discussions with them as individuals.
Peer exchange groups. A somewhat rarer form of “team” is the peer exchange group (PEG). The Forum construct created by the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) is probably the best-known example of a PEG. New members of YPO are grouped into Forums, typically including 8-10 individuals. YPO’s organizers take great care in selecting the groups, to avoid situations where two members might know each other socially or have a professional relationship such as supplier-customer. Most members of YPO would describe Forum as the single most important part of their YPO experience. They will often describe their fellow Forum members as being their closest confidantes, sometimes even closer than their spouses or partners. All types of topics are covered in forum, whether work-related or personal. Confidentiality is essential. Even minor breaches can lead to a group deciding to remove a member. Another “golden rule” of Forum is the notion of experience sharing rather than the giving of advice. When a member of the group presents an issue with which they’re wrestling, other members are only able to ask clarifying questions and share relevant experience, the idea being that the presenting member needs to come to their own view of how to address the situation they’re facing. Given the widespread acclaim among YPO members for Forum, the concept has been replicated with varying degrees of success by professional groups and alumni associations. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, information is available online, or you can read a great summary of the PEG construct in Mo Fathelbab’s book Forum: The Secret Advantage of Successful Leaders.
Irrespective of how you build your network and form your team, you should adhere to several principles:
Quality over quantity. Unless you are intentionally aiming to maximize the size of your followership or audience, focus on populating your network and team with people whose backgrounds, perspectives, experience and skills are relevant to your professional path. Don’t just go for big numbers.
Be authentic. You always want to put your best foot forward, particularly when you meet someone new, but don’t be someone you’re not. In the end, doing so isn’t going to serve your true interests, and you’ll eventually be found out as a phony.
Give more than you get. This won’t be possible with everyone, but it’s a good aspiration to bear in mind. If you look at your network too much as, “What can they do for me?” it’s going to catch up to you sooner or later. People will realize you’re in the relationship more for yourself than for mutual benefit, and they’ll stop returning your calls, emails, and texts. Set a goal of being a net “giver.”
Give before you receive. Again, this won’t always be possible, particularly when you reach out for help from someone who you don’t know (such as an informational interview), but again, it’s a good aspiration. Even in situations where you initially ask for help, you should at least ask the other person if there is anything you can do to help them. They’ll appreciate the offer, even if they don’t need your help at that moment.
Think win/win. Consistent with the prior two points, make a real effort to find mutual benefit in the situations you discuss with your network or team.
Keep up contact. Too often, we reach out to people only when we need something from them. It’s always better to regularly maintain relationships that are important to you. Show genuine interest in the other person, their work and life details, what’s new, what they’re passionate about, and what their challenges are. Help them along the way as you can. Then when you need help, it won’t feel so “out of the blue” or awkward.
One final point. Introverts often express discomfort in doing what’s needed to build their network and supporting team. Bear in mind, though, that 25-40% of the population is estimated to be introverts, so you’re in good company. Also remember – quality over quantity – so focus on building a smaller number of meaningful relationships with the people who know you best.
How we help. We can review your key relationships to help you identify potential mentors and champions, structure a personal board of advisors, build your network, and develop an action plan to strengthen it over time.
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