Most people think networking is about making new connections—which is true—but you also have to invest in the connections you already have, whether they’re people you met at the last networking event, or your former coworkers, clients, and friends. In fact, even your current team, boss, and clients are as much a part of your network as anyone else. Here’s how to put to good use the people you already know.
1. The Stunt Double
Who they are. People who are like you—job-wise, that is. In other words, people in your department or who do the same job as you, or people who do your job either in other departments or at other companies.
Why they’re helpful. They’re great for bouncing off ideas, seeking advice for a specific problem, turning to when you’re hiring someone, or simply having a buddy to hang out with at industry events.
How to invest in the relationship. Chances are, these people are going to keep similar schedules, be interested in the same industry events, and face similar day-to-day challenges as you. This is great news—because it makes for an easy way to connect with them. Consider inviting someone in this category to attend a conference or event with you. (Bonus: You get to show up with a buddy!) If the person works at your company or is working on a project with you, you can also suggest going out to drinks to unwind after a major company milestone (say, the product you’ve both been working on launches, or you hit a major deadline).
When spending time with people in this category, don’t be afraid to open up a little—otherwise, you’ll never know when you’re facing the same challenge and might be able to help each other.
2. The Outsider
Who they are. People who are in your industry but not your role, in your role but not your industry, or in your company but doing something totally different.
Why they’re helpful. They can offer fresh approaches to solving problems and broader perspectives on your work, role, or industry. They can also be good sounding boards when you’re thinking of making a career change.
How to invest in the relationship. Get to know people in other departments at your company—whether that’s through a kickball league, a volunteer outing, or a casual happy hour—and connect with people you haven’t spent time with before. You can also start spending time with friends or friends of friends whose jobs sound fascinating, even if it’s something that doesn’t seem related to your work. The sky really is the limit when it comes to building these relationships.
3. The Higher-Up
Who they are. People who have the jobs you’re interested in at one, two, or levels ahead of you.
Why they’re helpful. They’re the ones with the power to hire and promote you (and/or give you the guidance that makes that happen), mentor you, and teach you more about your field.
How to invest in the relationship. Make an effort to keep in contact with senior individuals you’ve worked with—even if just for a single project—or those you’ve connected with at an event. Check in with them on a regular basis (say, every six to 12 months) to share an update (e.g., if you get promoted, change jobs, or win an award), and don’t be afraid to ask for their advice. Sometimes just bouncing an idea off someone is a great way to stay on his or her radar, provided you don’t go overboard or demand too much time.
Scheduling a lunch catchup or coffee is a good way to maintain the relationship, but just an email often does the trick. Keeping these more senior people in the loop about your career will make it more natural for you to get in touch when you do want to ask for advice or a favor.
4. The Newbie
Who they are. Those with less experience than you, like junior employees or interns.
Why they’re helpful. These folks can tell you a lot about team dynamics and morale that you might not be able to see. They can also give you a chance to practice your leadership skills if you’re not yet a manager. Somebody with a “beginner’s mind-set” who’s newer to your function or industry may help you think about problems differently.
How to invest in the relationship. People more junior than you may be afraid to strike up a conversation—so make it easy for them by being the one who initiates. Take the new intern out to coffee when he or she starts, and then check in every couple of months to see how things are going. Or round up the more junior people who sit near you for a midday coffee or ice cream break or a lunch out of the office, especially if their schedules are on the flexible side.
Tell junior team members explicitly that you’re glad to help them. And when someone asks you for something, be prompt with your response—those more junior than you are the most likely to feel intimidated if they get blown off.
This article is adapted from The New Rules of Work: The Modern Playbook for Navigating Your Career by Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew, cofounders of The Muse. It is reprinted with permission.