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How To Turn Your Crappy Network Into A Better One

Wishing someone happy birthday on Facebook counts as networking–and might be more important than you think.

How To Turn Your Crappy Network Into A Better One
[Photo: Flickr user Open Data Institute Knowledge for Everyone]

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” You’ve heard that trite career adage before, and probably rolled your eyes because you don’t know anyone who’s well-connected enough in your field to hook you up with that dream job.

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But while nepotism is real and elite institutions do open more doors, you might not be quite as screwed as you think. According to J. Kelly Hoey, author of Build Your Dream Network: Forging Powerful Relationships in a Hyper-Connected World, there are still a few things you can do to make your crappy network less crappy. It takes patience and consistency–but not a ton of effort.

Stop Sending “Looking For A Job” Emails

Sometimes what seems to you like a problem with your network is really an issue of your own objectives, Hoey points out. The most common “knee-jerk reaction is, ‘I don’t have a network,'” she says, and “the second is, ‘My network doesn’t know anyone.'”

But you’re much more likely to think those things when all you do is hit up your network with blanket requests, like, “I’m looking for a new marketing job, any leads?”

On the other hand, “sending an email to someone saying, ‘I’m switching careers and I’m highly interested in a junior marketing position at Ford Motor Company and see you’re connected to someone there’ is going to be highly productive,” Hoey explains, adding that she got an email the week before last saying, “Do you know anyone in the auto industry?”

“I was like, ‘Did you look at LinkedIn? Did you follow the auto companies to see who in your network might be worth connecting to?”

Doing this kind of basic research, says Hoey, gives people in your network “something to target” so that they can think of something similar in the highly likely event that they can’t help you with exactly what you’re looking for. Being excruciatingly specific won’t narrow your options; it can actually widen them.

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Keep Tabs On Your College Friends (And Their Friends)

Hoey is aware, however, that making better networking requests won’t instantaneously enlarge or improve your network. But you can’t really make any type of request if you aren’t up on what your network is up to.

In other words, hit that “follow” button–on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, you name it. Hoey says that people tend to think of networking as an active undertaking, but most of it is passive.

Following people on social media may feel like the “empty calories” of networking, but it’s actually the reverse: “Being and staying connected to people through social platforms” takes very little effort, but it’s a crucial prerequisite “so you can leverage the data they’re putting in there” when it’s time to get your network’s help with something, says Hoey.

After all, your most influential contact is rarely “the person right in front of you,” says Hoey–they’re the “direct connections all your connections have.” The hidden power of “loose connections” has been a truism of network theorists for years, and it’s something that LinkedIn research backs up. By silently keeping tabs on your friends, you’re putting a down payment on future opportunities to be put in touch with their friends.

Always Say “Happy Birthday”

It’s possible to take this passive approach to keeping in touch with people, too. Many professionals look at networking “in such an immediate way,” says Hoey, that “they overlook the importance of maintaining and growing relationships with their peers.”

One Fast Company contributor recently described his habit of sending a quarterly email to his professional network with a few life updates. A mere four emails a year to maintain your network isn’t too shabby, but staying in touch can be even less time-intensive than that. When Facebook reminds you it’s that person’s birthday, Hoey says, don’t ignore it; the one-line birthday wish you share once a year is enough to stay “on the periphery” of their network–and according to that “loose connections” theory, the periphery is where it counts.

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Hoey spoke not long ago with a senior partner at a prestigious New York law firm who’d served in the early ’90s on Harvard Law Review “with someone he described as the person who was clearly going to go far.” But after graduating and passing the bar, the two didn’t stay in touch. Around 2008, the partner reached back out to his former law school classmate–to congratulate him on being elected president.  In response he received a thoughtfully worded form letter signed, “Barack Obama.”

The point, says Hoey, is to keep an eye on what your friends and acquaintances do, starting even before you enter the workforce. If someone seems smart and interesting now, they’re likely going on to do interesting things later, so don’t wait until they’ve achieved something big before getting back in touch. Think more in terms of “Happy 30th, Barack!” than “Congratulations, Mr. President!”

Do Something Nice For Someone

Some people think joining professional organizations, nonprofit boards, and industry groups are smart networking moves. But Hoey says that’s only true when you commit to actually contributing to them. Volunteer, and not just once. Offer to head up a specific initiative you’re interested in, and see it through for the long haul. You can’t just add your name to a membership roster and expect an organization to deliver up dozens of powerful new contacts to you.

Hoey adds that it’s possible to be helpful in really small ways as well. “If you saw social media on this other person or discover that they’ve got a blog, just promoting somebody else’s stuff is a really great way to keep a relationship going”–and it takes no time. But the larger task of improving a lackluster network does. “There’s not a quick fix,” says Hoey. Small gestures, actions, and “cyberstalking in a good way” can add up, but you’ve got to keep at it.

People only really feel their networks have failed them when they’ve gone out with an ambitious request and come back empty-handed. But it’s those times when you don’t have a career crisis you need help solving that really count, Hoey explains. It’s not as hard as you think. “Just be a decent human being in your interactions with other people. Rinse and repeat.”

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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