How to Build a Powerful Professional Network
Setting up a lifetime of success - Issue #59
Have you heard of the book Your Network is Your Net Worth by Porter Gale? She makes the case that your true “net worth” isn’t measured by the wealth you have amassed.
Instead, your most valuable asset is the meaningful connections you have created and actively maintain with other human beings.
The world is changing rapidly. Relationships are spanning the globe and are no longer restricted to the people you physically meet every day. Succeeding in this new world depends on your connections with kind, smart, and talented people.
The old ways of networking and power plays are fading from relevance. It will no longer be about who you know, the favors you owe, or your title. It will be about the value you can bring to the table. It will be about the kind of person you are.
“I believe in the power of social capital to improve your productivity, expand your professional options, and raise your overall quality of life. I believe that seeking out and working in collaboration with others who share your interests and values will provide a stronger foundation, enabling you to reach a higher level of success than you would on your own.” — Porter Gale
Why a strong network matters
Creating something of lasting meaning, impact, and value is rarely possible alone. We need to collaborate with others who share our beliefs, values, and vision.
You can’t leave this relationship-building to random chance (e.g., people you happen to work with at the office, neighbors that live near you).
“Nothing of significance was ever achieved by an individual acting alone. Look below the surface and you will find that all seemingly solo acts are really team efforts.” — John C. Maxwell
Traditionally, we have relied on our employer to inject us into this readymade network. We collaborate with our coworkers on the shared vision of the company.
This is all well and good, as long as you never waver or lose faith in that vision. If you decide to leave, or your employer falters and fails, your node is removed from that network and links to you fade away.
Yes, you can connect with your old coworkers on Linkedin. However, we all know that it isn’t the same as being in the trenches together.
You can no longer rely on a bond that is only based on shared employment and daily interactions at the water cooler. You need to create a strong network that is based on entirely different factors that remain fully under your control.
True, the world is changing. But, luckily, we can take ownership of our relationships more easily than before. We can forge strong relationships with likeminded individuals across the entire world. Take control of your career and treat it like a business. Managing relationships is critical for the survival of that business.
As I’ve talked about before, the power of your network will determine how successful you will be in landing great job opportunities that bring you closer to your ultimate career goals. Access to the hidden job market isn’t granted if you don't connect with great people.
The people with the most influential networks have better opportunities than those who struggle to compete with the masses for the best jobs. Also, your network is even more critical if you strike out on your own to create a business of you. It is much easier to build awareness, raise capital, and find customers for your new business when you have a robust network.
Finally, as you scale your business to find partners and hire employees, nothing can replace the trust you’ve created within your network. I’ve tried partnering with people I didn’t know very well, and I’ve hired strangers before. It’s challenging, to put it mildly. I’ve had greater success over the last few years by building and maintaining deep relationships first.
Assess your current network
As a first step, you need to take a hard look at the state of your existing network. Most of us have networks that evolved organically instead of intentionally.
We’ve accepted requests from friends, coworkers, and recruiters. We’ve reached out and actively connected with a few people, but usually without a real strategy or goal in mind.
If your network is anything like mine was, it is heavily weighted within a single industry and geographic region. Mine is still saturated with Silicon Valley Tech folks (e.g., startup founders, Tech execs, designers, product managers, engineers, VCs, Angel investors).
However, I’ve been working diligently over the past few years to expand it more broadly.
How powerful is your network? What do the people in your network do? Are some connectors themselves?
We are transitioning to the concept of a valuable network independent of the old definitions of “power players,” but let’s not kid ourselves. Some people are in stronger positions of influence than others.
A few people can introduce you directly to an investor who will take a meeting with you, no questions asked. If you’ve tried to get close to an investor before, you know how valuable this warm intro is.
Other people can bring you in for a role, and the job is yours if you want it. The interviews become a formality. Power, influence, and position still matter, for now.
When you are just starting in your career, your network tends to be composed primarily of your peers. For example, college students connect with other college students. That’s fun, but it’s not a very powerful network — yet.
As you develop in your career, your network will grow with you. However, it takes time and patience. Some of my peers who started with me as young designers are now C-level executives at publicly-traded companies. Some of them have enjoyed great success and transitioned into the world of investment.
If your network is composed primarily of peers, I challenge you to reach beyond your social circle to bring in older and more powerful individuals. As a student, this might require connecting with faculty, advisors, and mentors.
Meet and connect with more experienced people at conferences, workshops, meet-ups, and other events. Don’t be shy about speaking up, reaching out, and connecting with these individuals.
I spoke at the Fluxible conference a few years ago. My talk was on Designing for Love and Money, and I talked about treating your career like a business. A student in the audience asked how you can get a start when you don’t have the experience, and you’re not well-connected in the industry yet.
Speaking to a room full of hundreds of people, I said, “Send me a connection request on Linkedin right now. Connect with me and tap into my network. I’ll do what I can to help you.”
Guess how many people took me up on that?