Reframing Our Professional Networks For the Digital Age

When I think about networking in professional settings, two situations come to mind.

  1. That one national conference or big meeting you have to go to once a year for work or school. You’ve got to get your formalwear dry-cleaned, order a new stack of business cards, and make sure your CV is up to date before you leave. There’s inevitably going to be one person who is practically air-cannoning his cards or credentials into people’s faces.
  2. That one person with the “500+” connections sign on LinkedIn, because she’s added everyone from her high school friends who haven’t worked since then to the local accountant in Missouri to a DJ in London to a fisherman in Boston to…

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. But you get what I mean.

From field-to-field, industry-to-industry, there are nuances in how networking is approached and received. For example, in the science field, many of us meet at annual conferences and we still contact via email; in the sports industry, I have met many people at events or found contact over social media and LinkedIn. The business world is even more specific.

A layman’s description of the professional network might read something like: a social network that is strictly related to professional relationships, including colleagues, coworkers, potential future employers, etc.

That seems like a sound definition, no?

So, when it comes to professional networking in the digital age, especially for millennial like myself who are about a decade into the workforce, how does that definition play out?

Here are a few approaches I have take to broaden my circles.

1. Listen first. Then add or ask.

“Bring value first” has become a catch phrase and a cliché, but it’s also the gospel truth of networking.

It’s really the reason why we all hate cold calls and cold emails. There’s something suspicious and assuming about calling someone you’ve never met and essentially asking for a favour.

There’s also something frustrating about being asked a basic question that is readily available and answered in your content. When it’s clear that someone hasn’t taken the time to look on their own first, we tend to write them off as uninterested, unprepared, or, sometimes, entitled.

(Side note: Let Me Google That For You has been one of my most-used websites since 2008.)

When looking to expand to your professional contacts, especially when trying to move up the ladder, listen first. Consume content, tweets, videos, articles, books first.

If your questions still are not answered, reach out and ask. I have found that most people like talking about their work, especially when someone exhibits a clear knowledge and interest.

If your questions were answered, provide feedback. Respond with a comment, an addition, or, when useful and appropriate, your own criticisms.

These are simple to do in the world of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram DM. Just make sure you’re thorough enough and accessed enough of their readily-available information before wasting time and your 280 characters.

Whether a question, comment or criticism, your response to someone’s work should still offer them value. That presents you as competent and interested, which is exactly the look you want in the professional world.

Whatever you do, minimise arrogance. We can all learn something from literally anyone, which is the goal of network expansion. Plus, nobody wants to befriend, help, or connect with someone who thinks they are more expert on a topic than the actual, published, known expert.

2. Connect laterally.

Although it’s tempting to search for a direction connection with the top ten people in your field and plow down all others in your path, don’t. In my experience, connecting with those in your same position is a massive bonus.

Firstly, everybody knows somebody. If your goal in the field is really to have those top ten peoples’ email addresses in your contact list, then connecting laterally is for you. Social media has made the world a lot smaller in this way. For all you know, Joe, the new graphic designer at your partner company, might know somebody who knows somebody important. Don’t write him off because he’s on your level right now.

Also, everyone comes from a different background, so we all have different knowledge and experiences. Even on a lateral level, that makes for a great network.

When I started out on the business side of sport, I connected with others just starting out. Some of us studied business, others sport science, others marketing. We pooled our knowledge and bounced concepts off each other. Even though we were lacking in experience, we cumulatively found solutions (or someone knew someone who did!).

Lastly, lateral now doesn’t mean lateral always. Joe the Graphic Designer might get promoted to Marketing Director. Maybe he will take on a joint project with Nike. He might take a new job at Facebook. In the future, you might wish you had agreed to that weekly coffee meet-up offer because now, five years later, he landed your dream job.

3. Interact purposefully and regularly.

LinkedIn has become vastly more popular in the last few years. More business, public figures, and individuals are more readily using Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Contacting is so much easier than ever.

Don’t be the person who falls off the proverbial face of the planet after “network time” is over or you’ve checked the box. It’s awkward to meet with somebody at a conference one weekend, connect on Twitter, not speak to them for two years, and then ask for a favour out of the blue.

Do you notice the trend here?

Networking professionally can be an extremely selfish pursuit. If you’re starting it purely for your own gain, it’s a hunt that no one else wants to be baited into.

However, if you are giving value to your field, if you are promoting others, if you are asking good questions and sharing and creating and collaborating, people will want to connect with you too. For me, networking is the chance to be a part of a collective bettering of my field.

But that means a lot more “giving” and a lot less “taking”.

It means time. There’s no quick game that’s successful here.

Truthfully, my “professional network” is slim at best. There are a handful of people that I see just a conferences and who I email strictly for work purposes.

But, honestly, for the most part, my “network” grew simply from having respectful, purposeful, regular discussion with others in my field. They became my friends. They’re my colleagues, business partners, mentors, and coworkers. We better our impact zones together.

Good luck!