Key to Career Success Is Building a Network

It Takes More Than Just Networking

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Joe Hodas
Joe Hodas
My father-in-law is someone I look up to professionally and personally as a man who achieved success and balanced a great career with raising a wonderful family (that should score some brownie points). So I was humbled when, after the hundreds of times I have sought his advice and direction, he recently told me that he had learned something very important from me -- the value of building a network. Which, by the way, is much different than networking.

Everyone talks about the importance of "networking," and that is probably the most common advice given to job seekers in this very difficult market. However, I think many assume that "networking" means going to local events and professional organizations, meeting a few people, grabbing a few business cards, hearing about what opportunities might be available. While certainly helpful, it's much different than the concept of building a network.

Building a network starts before you even have that first job. It's about understanding how your past, present and future are all linked together in ways that you might not recognize at the time. But trust me -- it all comes full circle. I am a great believer in business karma, as it has revealed itself to me many times throughout my career. There has always been a "contact" involved in every career move I have made, and most successes I have achieved. But "building" is the key word in building a network. It takes time, effort, thought and strategy. Even with the growth of online networking tools like LinkedIn and Facebook, it is no less time consuming, although certainly more efficient.

As my father-in-law exemplifies, it's never too late, or too early, to start building your network. But it takes discipline and a personal approach. So in my case, I use the following strategies to ensure that I am always building that network no matter where I am in my career.

1. Stay in contact with at least three people from every job.
The old adage of "never burn a bridge" is good advice, but it's only half the equation; you should be building bridges. When you move to your new position, make sure you provide your new contact info to your old colleagues and consciously choose at least three of them to keep in touch with after you leave. Send a follow up e-mail after a month to check in. Look for opportunities to share new knowledge or potentially provide new opportunities for them or the company.

2. Review LinkedIn profile updates regularly and congratulate people when they make a change or get a promotion.
Demonstrating an interest in someone else's career is a great way to build your network. Whether that person is senior to you, or junior, you never know when or how your paths may cross. So reach out to folks and build your LinkedIn network -- don't just use it passively when you're looking for that next job, as it's often a day late and a dollar short at that point. I review my weekly LinkedIn updates and I try to reach out to anyone who I notice has made a change to their profile to just let them know that I'm watching their career as well as my own. A well placed "congrats on your promotion" or "tell me about your new company" can go a long way, and it lays the groundwork for when you might need that person's help in the future.

3. You're not the only one building a network.
We've all gotten that mass e-mail from a friend or colleague letting us know they are "on the market" and asking whether you can help. While I don't advocate that type of shotgun approach for job searches, I do advocate lending assistance. I'm not suggesting that you put your contact book up for grabs, but recognize that building a network involves making connections between your colleagues. But be strategic about it -- only make introductions when you're confident it will be mutually beneficial. In addition, keep your eyes out for job openings or other opportunities that might interest someone in your network and shoot them a note when you see something. It's an easy way to show them you're thinking about them.

4. Try to reach out to at least one "old friend" a week.
It seems that our available time is inversely proportionate to the growth of our networks. However, it is critical that you make the time to reach out to someone to whom you haven't spoken in a while. I try to go through my address book or even my old-school business-card Rolodex (hey, as long as they still print them, we'll still get them), and reach out to at least one person with just a quick "How's it going? What are you up to these days?" I also use the once-a-week outreach strategy when I come across news and information that may be relevant to a contact.

5. Make time to meet in person.
This one is really hard when time is tight. There's not always a clear payoff to taking a "get to know you" type of appointment. But that brings it back to karma -- you never know. So I try, within reason, to accept most requests for a quick meeting (non-sales related), and I also try to create some of those meetings with people who are in my industry so I can get to know them. Most likely, we know some folks in common and it helps strengthen the network.

So whether you use LinkedIn, you choose to keep in touch with four people instead of three or you're not a big fan of coffee -- what really matters can be summarized in four simple rules to follow: Stay in contact regularly with people you know; don't let it slip because you "don't have time." A quick note via e-mail is all it takes and you don't want the first time you reach out to someone in five years to be when you need something from them. Also, be genuine. Reach out to people with a reason and a purpose, and always try to have their needs in mind before yours. Look for opportunities to engage. It doesn't have to be significant -- a quick congrats, an article, an opportunity. If you see something that you think is relevant to someone in your network take action, before you forget. And finally, follow the principles of karma and be nice to people. Give them your time and energy and you'll likely get it back ten-fold elsewhere.

Joe Hodas is the senior VP-brand communications at Vladimir Jones, a privately held, full-service agency in Colorado specializing in integrated marketing, advertising, communications and insight. Hodas formerly led communications for Consumer Capital Partners (Quiznos, Smashburger) and Frontier Airlines, where he worked on the team that launched the "a whole different animal" branding campaign. Contact him via Twitter at @VJbrandcomm or at [email protected].
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