Your relationship network needs to be more than just a casual friendship with your colleagues or friends if you want it to affect your career in a positive way. This doesn’t mean you have to be more ruthless; simply that it’s important to be strategic in the connections you make with the people who can help you.
By identifying and locating high-value connections, you can build genuine relationships that also serve a professional purpose, and from here, you’ll be well on your way to improving your position in your industry. But this takes a special blend of strategizing and social skills and finding a balance that works for your specific scenario.
Luckily, we’re here to guide you through it and show you how to make the connection that will provide mutually beneficial opportunities and carry you through your career.
What Exactly is Relationship Networking?
In its simplest form, networking is about forming relationships. These differ slightly from basic social relationships in that the motivation for forming them comes from the chance of furthering your professional standing. Whether this is through expanding business opportunities or gaining valuable experience in the industry you’re trying to enter, relationships networking is a means to a professional end.
However, this doesn’t mean that the relationships are one-sided or ingenuine; quite the opposite. Without real, emotional connections, a network is flimsy and superficial. The benefits of relationship networking come not only from the career opportunities that open up but from the genuine bonds all parties are offering to one another.
An effective network, therefore, follows the most rudimentary social principles. In addition to these, it’s approached in a more calculated and strategic manner in order to maximize the value of the connections that are being sought.
Networking is about building a reputation for yourself as someone who creates value for others, as a means of inspiring reciprocation from them and therefore being offered support in return.
This networking process, as laid out in a strategy, can be split into three distinct stages, all of which we will go into in more detail shortly:
Planning – this is the research stage, in which you’ll identify your motives, decide on what will make a high-value connection for you, and figure out where you’re going to go looking for them.
Execution – executing your networking plan means going out there and getting your feet wet. This is where you will be making your first connections and finding out where you can be adding value to them.
Follow-up – this is the nurturing stage of the networking process. It involves keeping your leads hot, but without being pestering, making sure you check in where needed and nudging them if necessary, towards your planned goals. This is also the main stage at which you will be able to add value to your contacts and deepen the relationship.
So, there is a distinct difference in the approach to relationship networks, and everyone involved knows the motivation involved. But only the genuinely empathetic and hard-working people will be respected enough to make the most out of a network relationship, so keep reading to find out more about how this works!
How to Build a Relationship Network
We’ve touched on the principles of how to build a network, but if you’re just getting started, you’re going to want to know the specifics. Below is a more-or-less comprehensive guide to making connections that count and will pay dividends in your professional life.
Network Relationship Planning
The first stage of networking can itself be broken into multiple stages. Your specific approach will need to be tailored to your goals, and this means your goals need to be identified first. Some examples of the questions you need to ask yourself to build a networking strategy are:
Why are you networking? If you’re finishing business school, or you’re a new graduate looking for a mentor to give you insights and opportunities relating to your chosen industry, you’re going to develop a strategy that follows a different path than if you’re starting a new business and you’re looking for your first customer base.
Whom are you looking for? Your situation will therefore determine the people you’re looking for. Identifying customers will involve your market research, and identifying mentors or industry connections will involve a similar discipline or research to find out what they need and where to find them.
What are your targets? From here, you’ll need to set some targets to know when to stop. For example, you might be looking for your first ten connections, and to see where you go from there. You might also want to figure out what makes a connection high-value, and stick to prioritizing these links in your networking efforts.
How are you going to manage your network? This is the part of the plan that involves looking after and nudging the relationships forward. There’s a whole section on this below, but in general, it will depend on the size of your network and the reason for it. Managing your network involves adding value where you can, taking it where it’s appropriate, and making your personal connection with your professional contacts deeper.
Once you’ve got your reasons for networking, you should have an idea of where to look to find your connections.
Where to Find Your Relationship Network
As we stated, your high-value connections could be anywhere, and only you will know where to look, based on the kind of people you’re trying to find. Here are some of the most common ways people typically find their relationships network.
Professional Conferences – These can be talks about industry topics or even networking conferences. Either way, they’re a melting pot of different levels of professionals from within the industry and can be a great place to pick up contacts face-to-face. These are good places for almost anyone looking for professional networks.
Community Outreach – For entrepreneurs looking to make a name for themselves within their market, outreach into the community can make a difference. Sponsoring events, or arranging them yourself can put you in direct connection with potential customers or investors and doubles up as a means of building your reputation as a trusted voice in the industry.
Individual Outreach – if you’re looking for a mentor, or if large groups are difficult for you to integrate with, sometimes your first connections can be gathered in a one-on-one setting. This usually starts with an introductory email, perhaps asking for an interview or a lunch meeting.
Online – For finding both customers and professional connections, online networking has the fasted return and casts the widest net. Having an online presence is a great supplement to real-life networking, and can act as a stand-alone in some cases, but typically isn’t set up for the intimacy of the bonds that can be created by actually showing up in person.
Host Your Own Event – If all else fails, and you don’t know where to find the people you’re looking for, it’s possible to run your own networking event. This can be under the guise of a get-to-know-you event and can be marketed to the specific niche you’re interested in. The more specific your niche, the more powerful this event can be, since there may be no other gathering like it to bring like-minded people together.
So, now you’re ready to find your people, there are some important steps to consider in how to meet, retain and nurture them. The meeting is, of course, the first step, but nurturing is equally, if not more important, and both take similar skill sets and an approach that focuses on increasing value.
Time to Build Your Network
Showing up is just the beginning. Finding your high-value contacts and then looking after them comes with some conscious effort on your part. We’ll go into the details of how to manage your networking in the next section, but first here are some ideas for how to make a start on building a strong network of your own.
Become a connector of people – If you have connections in your new network that aren’t looking like they’re going to be much use to you, it might be tempting to let the lead go cold. However, if you go into your networking attempts with the understanding that everyone is useful to someone when you identify a low-value connection, keep them in mind for someone else who might value them highly. This means that in the very first networking event you can be creating value for the people around you by introducing them to one another.
Form Relationships – Don’t look simply to find the next rung on the ladder. Good networks are built on friendships, or at least, close and personal professional relationships. So, be genuine and empathetic. This leads us to the next tip:
Listen – Don’t make your interactions one-sided and don’t simply listen as a way of passing time until your next opportunity to speak. Engage in active listening and remember people’s names. Your networking efforts need to be centered around displaying your good qualities to the group so that your presence is memorable.
Give back - If you focus entirely on what you can get out of a relationship, you’ll be immediately pegged as self-centered and not an interesting or rewarding person to know. Selfishness is rarely inspiring, and you gain what you put in from networking relationships, so focus on adding value, and let the benefits to you come organically.
These best practices apply to pretty much any form of networking you’ll be applying from the list in the previous sections.
Once you’ve made first contact, it’s important to know how to nurture your network. This is the stage at which your connections will go from a brief touchpoint to a powerful and important networking relationship, so without it, all your prior efforts will be for nothing.
Network Relationship Management
Network relationship management or follow-up follows similar basic principles that you need to find the initial connections. This means you should always be looking to maintain value addition to your contacts! Here’s how this can be broken down:
Your first impression should have made you memorable to your contacts. If this is the case, a brief and friendly follow-up message should go down really well. A follow-up message basically fills the role of bridging the gap between the professional setting (the networking event) and the personal, which is showing that you are committed and want to continue the relationship.
Leads will go cold a lot quicker without a follow-up message; everyone is busy, so regardless of your first impression, you will be forgotten with time. Further, there are a lot of red flags relating to how serious you come across if you don’t follow up in good time.
This can simply mean sending a quick email, 24 to 48 hours after making contact, thanking someone for their time, providing a quick piece of information you’d promised to forward, or connecting them with your online presence, like LinkedIn or social media.
The trick to a follow-up email is to keep it short. It’s not a push for your contact to act on something, and there should be no pressure, but it can end with a query or a comment about reaching out in the next few weeks to discuss something. Keep it short and friendly, and don’t be too keen. If you’re in doubt about how to approach this, there are plenty of templates and suggestions for writing follow-up letters available online.
Nurturing Your Professional Relationships
Now that the contact has been cemented it’s still not the time to sit back and relax on it. Your contacts need to be maintained and nudged gently in the direction of value on both sides. If you find something that they can use, make contact and introduce them to it. If you have a question they can answer, be sure to reach out.
However, if you’re reaching out to gain value from them, and you haven’t made contact with them in six months, it won’t look good, it’ll leave a bad impression. People don’t appreciate being contacted simply when it’s time for them to give you something. So, keep track of important dates for them, of personal details, and check in at appropriate intervals to see how they’re doing, and that way your communication channels will always be open when you need some help.
This part also requires you to be genuine. If you can remember the names of their loved ones, or their pets, or the fact that they have a birthday coming up, it shows that you’re a giving person and that you care enough to remember these things and reach out.
Only nudge when necessary. This is really the trickiest part of the nurturing process, and what truly differentiates a social network from a professional one. Don’t forget the main motivation behind this professional network, so find a comfortable interval for nudging people forward, be it with a request to connect you with someone you need, or if dealing with customers, a push closer to a conversion.
Networking is about keeping a balance between what you give and what you take. So, try to keep on the right side of the value transaction. An ideal networking relationship has two or more people who give more than they get. That way, everyone benefits to the highest levels. When asking for help, consider how much you’ve already given. If you think it’s not enough, maybe see if you can go without or ask someone else, until you’ve contributed more to that contact.
All of these principles are pretty intuitive for most, and not too hard to manage when your network is in its infancy, but as your network grows, the complexity and information involved will become harder to track. When this becomes the case, it could be a good idea to use CRM software like Dex.
Dex allows you to keep track of all these specific dates and valuable pieces of information for each of your contacts and can integrate with various platforms like LinkedIn and social media. It lets you pick up the conversation where you picked up, and alerts you when the time has come to reach out and keep the lead warm.
Network-based relationships are designed similarly to another other relationship: through a mutual arrangement of give and take and through authentic honesty and kindness.
As professional as we may be, we still respond to the principles of cooperation and social norms. When people add value to our lives, we are inspired to reciprocate, and this urge is at the foundation of all professional networks.
Therefore, growing your social skills – in combination with planning capabilities – allow you to identify your targets, reach out, add value to other people. Successful networking is all about maintaining relationships until the time comes that another party is able to help you out, too.