Whether you love the process of building a professional network or would rather have a root canal than go to another networking event, the value of your network remains the same. The contacts and relationships you’ve collected and built over the course of your career can help you find opportunities, make sales, improve your skills, and even foster friendships.
But the pandemic has had an impact on our networks. A study published in the January 2021 issue of Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, found that our social and professional networks shrunk by roughly 16% during the pandemic. That’s about 200 people, the researchers say.
In addition to attrition, neglected networks may also develop other shortcomings. You may not be connected to up-and-coming professionals. Your network may lack diversity in all of its forms, and valued relationships may become weaker. Regardless, it’s time to be more purposeful about your network. Try these steps:
Think about the state of your network
Ask yourself how you’ve been keeping in contact with your professional contacts and colleagues, especially in the age of social distancing, says networking expert Jake Kelfer, author of Elevate Your Network: 25 Keys to Building Extraordinary Relationships in Life and Business. Think about whether you’ve been growing your network, which he defines as adding to the number of contacts you have, or developing your network, which is strengthening the relationships you have. Have you been keeping in contact with your contacts? If not, it’s time to carve out some time each week to begin reviving those relationships, he says.
Look for the gaps
Identifying gaps in your network starts by thinking about the actions you may need to take—from looking for a new assistant to finding a new job—and identifying who in your network might be able to help, Kelfer says.
“If we are looking to transition jobs; if we are looking to invite someone to a dinner; if we are looking to attend a conference, and we don’t have people that we can readily call up to meet that we can readily access, we have to act,” he says. “So, the way we identify the gap is we’re going to understand that there is nobody in our direct line of work that can help us achieve the result we’re looking for,” Kelfer says.
Think about your “power partners”
As you’re examining your network, think about the people who deliver value to you—the ones who are always helpful, refer business, or consistently provide some other benefit, says Kim Marie Branch-Pettid, owner and CEO of LeTip International, an international networking group. “A lot of people think that a power partner would be someone in the same industry or similar industry that could give you business back and forth,” she says. That’s not necessarily true. She points to her own experience as an estate planner.
“I needed an estate planning attorney, I needed a business attorney, I needed so many different things, including a courier service. Those are all people I could give business to, or could give me business back.” Think about the well-connected people you know and those that are already helping you, and focus on developing more of those relationships.
Often, people find that their networks are filled with people who are just like them. But connecting with people who have different experiences, voices, and backgrounds will make your network stronger. This is a good reason to forge deeper relationships with your existing network, says Devora Zack, founder of leadership training firm, Only Connect Consulting, and author of Networking for People Who Hate Networking (Second Edition). “When you truly get to know people, you find out more about their experiences,” she says.
But also be clear about what you want and why. Zack says that too many people hedge when it comes to stating why they want to network, whether it’s asking for help finding a job or tapping someone’s expertise. “How can I help you get what you want if you aren’t clear?” she says. For example, you may want to meet more Black women or people with disabilities so you can refer business to underserved groups or recommend these professionals for job openings.
Be willing to ask for assistance if you find gaps you can’t fill, Branch-Pettid says. If you’re interested in meeting more junior-level people, reach out to younger colleagues or your college alumni association. If you’re interested in cultivating more racially diverse contacts, go to diversity-focused events in your industry or reach out to groups that serve the audiences with whom you want to connect.
Choose the best tactics for you
As more groups go back to in-person events, there are new opportunities to network. Some organizations are still hosting virtual events. And, of course, you can network without events. How you proceed should be determined by your own comfort level, Zack says. “But it’s great to network in a forum that is inherently interesting and meaningful to you,” she says. You’ll be more engaging and also have a chance to show yourself at your best because you’re interested, as opposed to dreading ‘speed dating networking,'” she says.
Kelfer uses tactics like texting his appreciation to members of his network on a regular basis. Go into your text or email messages and choose a letter. Then send a short text or email message to the first five people who crop up. “Just say something super simple to them, like ‘hey, just wanting to check in, what’s new in your world? What are you most excited about these days?'” he says. It doesn’t have to be long or involved, but this gives you the opportunity to restart a conversation, even if you’ve lost touch.
Doing some repair work on your network now and strengthening your network can help you have exactly the right contacts when you need them, Kelfer says.