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Career Coach: Don't wait for a crisis to start networking

By Kathryn M. Bartol
Monday, June 28, 2010; 16

You may think that you can be successful by relying on yourself and working hard. While that may be a viable path, it is certainly a difficult one -- and risky as well. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Ted Leonsis, entrepreneur and owner of the Washington Capitals and Wizards, noted: "If you don't have good connections, good networks, nothing will happen." It is much easier to be successful with help from others, and that means building relevant relationships through networking. Here are a few tips to help you boost your career prospects through networking.

Help others. Networking is actually more about giving than receiving. Helping others builds relationships. Because people tend to reciprocate for help they receive, you are likely to receive returns on the helping you provide. This might not happen right away and from everyone, but helping others builds social capital in a similar way as putting money in the bank over time builds financial capital that you can draw on when you need it.

Match your networking efforts to your career goals. Realistically you don't have time to network with everyone you meet because building relationships takes time and maintenance. So you need to make some choices. Think through who you might be able to help and who can be helpful to you. You probably have more ways to help others than you think, so make a list. Maybe you have knowledge in a specialized professional area and can give advice. Perhaps you are an avid reader and tend to know about developments of interest to others. Even career advice based on your own experience can be valuable to others.

Look ahead a bit. It's much easier to build relationships when you yourself are not in need of immediate help. So don't wait until you have a major need yourself to suddenly want to "network." In economies such as the present one, for example, it is all too common to experience job displacement. In times like that or when you have a significant work crisis for which you could use some help, that's not a great time to try to start a network where one does not exist.

Avoid the proximity trap. While it is important to recognize the opportunities right in front of you (such as co-workers and one's boss, classmates, etc.), avoid the mistake of making contacts with just those in your immediate vicinity. If your work will benefit from coordination with or direct help from others outside of your work unit, it is a good idea to branch out to establish such connections. This can make your work and that of others go more smoothly -- and help you build a strong track record.

Build connections in your field of endeavor. If you have chosen a profession, be sure to build some connections in that profession. This is important for understanding how your profession operates and what you need to do to be successful. If you haven't chosen your primary occupation yet, networking can help you learn about different types of work so that you can make more informed choices. Joining professional associations and attending related events is one way to build connections in your field.

Use technology, but with care. Technology tools, such as e-mail and professionally oriented social networking sites, offer useful aids for networking. Think very carefully, though, how you want to portray yourself. What goes on the Internet is difficult, if not impossible, to retract and may be available for years to come. You'll be wise to maintain a professional image that highlights your strengths. Be careful not to over rely on e-mail and online mechanisms. For solid relationship building, at least some face-to-face usually trumps electronics.

Find your own style. Individuals have different personalities and need to adapt their approach accordingly. If you are gregarious, you probably have an easier time working a crowd. If you fall more on the shy side, you can still network well, but you'll probably do better if you focus on a few people at a time.

Choose your networking venues carefully. It usually works best to network in situations in which you have some relevance. This is because you are more likely to be helpful and have something meaningful to talk about. Such situations can be wide ranging and include work, your neighborhood, hobby-related activities, school or alumni events, meetings related to your profession, etc. Although it happens that fabulous connections are made at random events of little relevance, the odds are not there.

Follow up and maintain connections. The effort to initiate contacts doesn't make much difference if you don't do anything to follow up and maintain them.

Kathryn M. Bartol is the Robert H. Smith professor of management and organization at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. Her research centers on leadership, networks, knowledge sharing and creativity. She can be reached at kbartol@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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