Building a Professional Network
It’s not what you know, but who you know. These words were said to me by a fraternity brother of mine during our time spent at undergrad. It’s easy to downplay such advice when you are firmly rooted in the safe cocoon that is college, where everyone you need to know is readily available. However as graduation loomed, this particular fellow, used ‘who he knew,’ (along with tremendous work ethic and business savvy) to successfully set up his own franchise of popular sandwich shops. His success made me rethink his oft-repeated phrase. There is nothing more integral to short and long term success than setting up a specific and detailed networking plan. As someone who has worked in PR, politics, sales, and non-profits, I cannot stress enough the importance of networking and strategy. So, I have written a letter to my 21-year old self in which I outline some best practices and mentalities I wish I’d had at that juncture in my life. I hope you also appreciate this advice on how to develop a successful business network to expand the potential of your career.
First off, bet $100 dollars on UConn basketball in 2014. Your bank account will thank me later. So, you’ve graduated, got a job in a new city, and are starting out. A freshly graduated, too-smart-for-your-own-good, stumbling out into the real world young professional. Congratulations, you are now the lowest of the low. Since you are at the bottom rung of the proverbial ladder, you need every trick in the book to separate yourself from the herd.
Develop an organizational plan: This may seem obvious, but let me dive into specifics; this plan needs to be intricate and finely tuned. Three month plans, one year plans, five year plans, ten year plans all need to be specific and applicable to all aspects of your life. These outlines should be visible to you every day, so you can visualize your goals on an everyday basis. Develop a home work space that is private, clean, and organized. Pin your goals there. Think of it as your studio, where you will be ‘creating’ your career path. I’ve found that when you approach mundane tasks such as this from the standpoint that you are ‘creating’ and ‘strategizing’ toward a larger goal, you are much more motivated and don’t lose focus on them.
Give more than you get: Abandon the mentality that networking is strictly of benefit to you. The more you give to a relationship, the greater chance it will return and benefit you down the road. Always frame an interaction from the standpoint: “how can I help this person?” The delayed gratitude you receive will be worth it. Pay for lunches, check in with people on the holidays, ask about their life; these are all small things that demonstrate you are interested in them as a person, and not a contact.
Leave no stone unturned: Networking should not be myopic. It is an opportunity to EXPAND your knowledge base. Just because you work in politics doesn’t mean you can’t develop some valuable contacts in the financial world, or the IT universe. You are never ‘above’ a contact, in the sense that they are not worth your time. Everyone has something of value! You’d be surprised at the skills many people have, and how you can learn from them. The broader your skill set, the more valuable you become in the eyes of your superiors. Never stop acquiring new information.
Find a mentor: I am doing this section a disservice by only writing a paragraph. The impact a mentor can have on a career is paramount. Veterans in your field are surprisingly keen on helping the young’uns starting out. Find someone, and write a courteous, gracious letter with honesty; “I am young and inexperienced, and would love if you could help me learn,” is a paraphrased version. Our generation has unfortunately fostered the ‘I’ve got this’ mentality, and any time you demonstrate an eagerness to absorb information from someone more experienced than you, you stand out. Easier said than done, I know. However, this is easily achievable through some diligent googling and proper etiquette.
You’ll notice all of these tips and tricks have a common theme: communication. Anyone with a valuable network of contacts and associates has exceptional skills as a communicator. Organization, strategy, and finding a mentor may seem like small tips, or efforts that won’t immediately generate a return on investment. You may get down when these efforts don’t pay off immediately. So, my final nugget of advice is patience. Everything you do won’t immediately pay dividends. Some of your efforts won’t go noticed for years, until they suddenly facilitate an opportunity you previously didn’t see. Trust the process, embrace the process, and have faith in your skills.
Your 25-year old self