If your eyes (and brain) glaze over when someone brings up the subject of network-building, rest assured that you’re not alone.
In fact, in a study that tested people’s feelings about instrumental networking, defined as networking in order to advance your career, respondents indicated that they literally felt dirty, “so much so that they think about taking a shower or brushing their teeth.”
It turns out that most people tend to feel just fine about those spontaneous moments of relationship-building whose goal is the more authentic pursuit of human connection and possible friendship.
Happily, there are several ways to combine the career benefits of having a robust professional network with the intrinsic rewards of actually caring about your fellow human beings and sharing real connections with them. These approaches are based on who you are, how you can relate naturally to and with others, and
See if you can comfortably fit some of these into your regular routine to keep growing your community of connections.
Be curious. One of the easiest ways to build a bond is to simply ask people about themselves. What do they love about their job? What’s their favorite thing to do on the weekend? Where do they want to take their career? What made them want to enter the library and information profession? People appreciate it when you take a genuine interest in them, and it’s a fun way to get to know more about them and discover what you might have in common.
Find your tribe. It’s important to have a diverse professional network – that is, people who do work similar to yours but also people who do all sorts of different things, which may open up additional career opportunities for you. But it’s also really enjoyable (and sometimes downright comforting) to hang out with people with whom you share something – a passion, a work interest, a hobby, or even a set of values.
Building relationships through common interests (this might be volunteer work, participating in a community chorale, or becoming active in the local medical informatics chapter) gives you an immediate topic to discuss or experience to share, the gateway to building a solid bond.
Ask for help. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness; to the contrary, it can often be a sign of confidence because you feel strong enough about your overall competence to be willing to learn new things. From a networking perspective, asking for help enables the other person to demonstrate his or her knowledge and invest emotionally in your success, whatever you may be attempting to do/learn.
Your appreciation of their expertise gives them a chance to shine, but also your sincere ‘thank you’ lets them know you value their effort on their behalf.
Offer to help. Yep, there is such a thing as career karma – generally speaking, what goes around does, in fact, come around, but often in a very indirect manner. This works two ways. First, when you ask for help, you’ll always want to offer to return the favor. The reality is that you may not be able to provide anything of value to that individual in the moment, but you’re clearly signaling that you’d like to establish a reciprocal relationship, the basis of building a healthy, mutually beneficial network.
But also, whenever possible, you want to offer to help others who might benefit from your expertise (or need help filling out that admin paperwork) as a way of investing yourself in a new networking relationship. There’s a saying that you need to ‘give before you get,’ and in networking this is not only a great way to establish a common bond but also a clear signal that you are willing to help others without needing or expecting an immediate payoff in return.
Open up to everyday opportunities. One of the mistaken assumptions about building a network or professional community is that your goal is to connect with people who are in your field or discipline or industry – i.e., people in your professional sphere. Although that can certainly be an important aspect of your network, it shouldn’t be the only one.
In fact, you may find many of your most interesting career opportunities come from contacts outside your immediate professional circle, because these individuals may see or hear of an opportunity for your skills that your LIS colleagues would be unaware of. So it’s wise to add a diversity of individuals to your network community – essentially anyone you come into contact with that you like and respect.
That might be your next-door neighbor (an accountant), the soccer parent standing on the sidelines with you (a healthcare worker), or someone sitting next to you on the plane (a career transitioner getting ready to start a new business). The broader and more diverse your network, the broader and more diverse your potential career opportunities.
Develop a Connection Mindset
Networking in its least-snarky form is simply about reaching out and connecting from a genuine place of sharing. It’s really a mindset of caring about other people, and understanding that for most human beings, social connection brings a multitude (and lifetime) of rewards. As an added benefit, developing a connection mindset will ensure that as your professional skills grow, so will your career opportunities.