Build Your Network Before You Need It

By Allison McWilliams (’95), Assistant Vice President for Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

At some point, possibly sooner than later, you are going to be ready to make a change. You’re going to be ready for a new challenge, you’re going to be ready to live somewhere new, you’re going to want to make a wholesale career change, or, unfortunately, you are going to find yourself in a toxic environment and need to leave. Whatever the reason, when you get to that moment your network will be critical in helping you to figure out your next steps, exploring opportunities and interests, and even possibly making connections and opening doors that leads you directly or indirectly to that next step. Rarely anymore do new opportunities come through cold applications dropped into the black hole of a job posting (though it certainly can happen). Your network is critical to both your current and future success. And that means you can’t wait until you need it, to begin to cultivate it. That work can and must start right now.

So how do you do the work of building a strong network that can help you at some unspecified time in the future? The good news is, this work is actually pretty simple and, if you approach it in the right way, even fun. Below are four tips for building and maintaining your network, beginning today.

  1. First, reflect on your goals, strengths, and interests. What are you working towards, either in your current role, or in the future? How can your current role or organization help to develop your skills and grow your strengths? What knowledge are you lacking about yourself? How well does your current role, organization, and location align with your values and interests? Take some time to write the answers to these questions down. If you’re uncertain of some of the answers, make note of that, or seek out a trusted mentor or friend to provide some objective feedback.
  2. Second, take some time to assess your current strong and weak ties. What are these? Your strong ties are those people who know you best, who most align with your values and beliefs, who are your constant champions and advocates and often will identify opportunities for you. These include family, close friends, and mentors and sponsors. Your weak ties are your looser connections, the people who diversify your network and your perspective, and those who can connect you to a broader range of opportunities, but may not necessarily do so of their own volition. How deep are your strong ties? How broad are your weak ties? Are there places where you have gaps that you could intentionally fill?
  3. Third, create a regular practice of curiosity conversations. These are informational interviews, without the pressure of feeling like you’re asking for anything other than the other person’s time. Look around your organization and identify individuals you don’t know very well. Every other week, ask one of these people to have coffee, with the purpose of learning about his or her path, challenges and successes, and lessons learned. Ask for feedback on how you can think about your career decisions. Ask for recommendations of other people you can reach out to for another conversation. Do the same with your strong and weak ties.
  4. Fourth, grow your resume and your network with experiences. It can be tempting to expect our work roles to provide all of the development that we need, especially when we work a lot. But you should resist this temptation. Just like you don’t want your network to consist only of strong ties, you also don’t want to limit it just to your current work colleagues. Look for opportunities to volunteer, join boards, join social networks, and other experiences that expose you to a broader universe of people. As an added benefit, these experiences allow you to grow your skills and even discover strengths and interests that add to your resume in intentional ways.

Finally, be sure to cultivate your network. You can’t not speak to someone for several years and then ask them to serve as a reference for you. And, you can’t just ask the people in your network for things without ever giving anything back. But “giving back” doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s as simple as the periodic phone call or email to check in and let the other person know how and what you are doing. It’s asking the work colleague if there are ways that you can support their goals, not just asking the other person to support yours. It won’t be the same level of contact for everyone in your network; some weak ties will need less cultivation than others. But you can’t let your network sit dormant and then expect it to work for you. Cultivation is key.