Alumni Advice: How To Build And Maintain Your Network

By Jennifer Richwine (’93), Executive Director of the Wake Washington Center, Wake Forest University

Jennifer Richwine head shot photo

Jennifer Richwine (’93)

Years ago when I was a senior at Wake and beginning my job search, I heard over and over again how important it was to network.

 “Build your network.”

“You need to be networking.”

“Make sure you use every opportunity you can to network.”

These well-meant pieces of advice stressed me out.  I’m an introvert, I hate small talk, I freeze in a room of people I don’t know, and the sound of the word “networking” evoked images of slimy salespeople looking for the next big fish.  I didn’t care if “networking” was the best way to find a job or to be successful in my career, it wasn’t something I thought I could do with even the smallest amount of success.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized if I turned the word from a verb into a noun, it became a completely different thought process.  A network is a good thing.  Having a robust network is even better!  Who doesn’t want to have a great network at their fingertips?!

Now that I’ve been in D.C. for a total of 9 years (6 years after graduation plus the last 3), I realize that having a strong, meaningful network is essential to success in this city. And if done well and with thoughtful intention, it can even be fun.  Yes … FUN … even for introverts.

How do you begin to build a network that is more than just a stack of business cards or an insane number of LinkedIn connections? And how do you maintain that network so that it has value now and in the future, regardless of where you are or what path your career has taken?

  • Building a network is not about finding a job. If you think of building your network as simply finding a job, or a means to an end, it will never be fun, it probably won’t be successful, and people will know you are seeking transaction more than interaction. Building a network is about making and fostering relationships.  It’s about getting to know people with similar interests and goals and sharing ideas and concepts and connections.  It’s about getting to know people with completely different interests and goals and learning from them.  Your network should be viewed as something you are creating for your life, not just for a moment or a singular need or purpose. If you are going to put the time and effort and energy into creating a network, then you should reap the benefit of that work long after you get your next job or promotion.  If you build a network solely to find a job, you are shortchanging yourself and are likely turning off people and connections who want to know they are valued for more than what they can do for you in that moment.
  • Be curious. Curiosity – about who people are, what they love, and what they do – is the key to good networking. Relationships are jump started when you show genuine interest in someone and their experiences. Rather than trying to teach them about you, spend as much time as you can getting to know them. There will be plenty of time for you to tell them about yourself.  When you are at a cocktail party or any other social gathering and don’t know how to start a conversation with someone, go with the easy questions: “How do you know Mike?” “What is your relationship to this organization?” “How long have you been involved with the foundation?”  Those questions are easy to ask and likely even easier to answer.  Once you get past the basics, you can ask deeper questions that get to the heart of who they are and what they care about. And once you know what they care about, you know a lot more about when and how to interact with them, which enhances the power and potential of your network.
  • It’s not all about you. Networking gets a bad rap when people value it only for what they can get out of it, and not what they contribute. When you view your network as a way to give back as much as to receive, you will begin to see just how valuable that network is. It doesn’t matter how young you are, or how little experience you have, you always have something to offer those in your network. And if you are curious and ask the right questions and know what the people in your network care about, then you can look for ways to help them. Maybe the CEO who seems to have everything needs a reliable babysitter for his children and your best friend is looking for extra work. Perhaps the entrepreneur you met last week is looking for someone who understands social media and you know the perfect person to help her. Or maybe you read an article about the pros and cons of crowd sourcing that speaks to the very topics you discussed with a non-profit manager last week so you forward it her way. Making it about other people almost guarantees those other people will want to make it about you in return.
  • A good spreadsheet is gold. As much as I like to think I have a ridiculously good memory, the more my network grows the harder it is to remember everyone. The key to a robust and productive network is to capture and update and maintain as much information as you can. Keep a spreadsheet of everyone in your network. Have columns for when you met them for the first time (and where), dates of subsequent meetings, what you talked about, what some of their keen interests are, and then whatever is most helpful in remembering something unique about them. Use your spreadsheet on a regular basis, not just for yourself, but to help others. When a contact calls and asks if you know someone who has experience with non-profit board management, you can slice and dice and sort your spreadsheet to find people who fit that criteria or will know someone who will.  If your network database is just your contacts on your phone, this becomes a lot more difficult to maintain and not nearly as helpful.
  • Write thank you notes. Networks are at their best when people feel like they are being helpful.  Most people agree to meetings and making connections and offering advice and counsel not in order to be thanked, but they do like to know when their contributions or connections have been beneficial to someone. Write thank you notes often to those in your network. Remind them what their relationship with you means and why you are grateful.   It’s an easy and effective way to stay top on their minds and to strengthen the relationship.  And I happen to know a great book about writing thank you notes: With Gratitude
  • Maintaining your network is KEY. One time conversations do not add to your network. In order to have a robust network, you need to update and maintain it on a regular basis.  When you change jobs, email your network and let them know and give them your new contact information.  When you find out someone in your network has been promoted or changed jobs, write a brief email or note to congratulate them. When you read an article that would be interesting or helpful to people in your network, send it to them with a short note (preferably individually and not a group email; if it has to be group email, always BCC everyone). When you meet someone who is interested in or working on similar projects as someone else in your network, offer to connect them.  These are all simple and easy ways to maintain your network and making sure it continues to provide value to you and to others.
  • Start with the Wake Forest network. No matter where you live, you should always tap into the Wake Forest network. There are established Wake Forest communities all over the country and often they are your best resource for strengthening your own network.   You can search for your local WAKECommunity or Affinity Groups that match your interests here.  Many of these cities also have Wake Forest LinkedIn and Facebook pages that offer connections and Wake Forest events in your area – every single one of them is a built-in opportunity to network. Volunteer to help with planning events and gatherings for your Wake Forest community.

With the opening of the Wake Washington Center, D.C. is a prime spot for networking between and among Wake Forest students, alumni, and parents. There are networking groups by type of profession and/or interest, like Global Deacs, Decorated Deacs, and Wake on the Hill.  We have also held workshops in the Center on mentoring, managing up, financial management, and other professional and personal interests. And you can always stay up-to-date on other gatherings on the Wake DC community page.  We also plan to begin a series of alumni and parent virtual panels for students on campus to learn from our D.C. Deacs about networking in D.C., finding an internship, finding a job, what it’s like to work on the Hill, at the State Department, at a think tank, at a non-profit, etc.  Stay tuned for more information on those in 2018!

“Your network is the people who want to help you, and you want to help them, and that’s really powerful.” – Reid Hoffman (internet entrepreneur; venture capitalist; author)

“The currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.” – Keith Ferrazi (author and entrepreneur)

“Networking is more about ‘farming’ than it is about ‘hunting.’ It’s about cultivating relationships.” – Ivan Misner (“Networking Guru”)

“The richest people in the world look for and build networks; everyone else looks for work.” – Robert Kiyosaki (businessman and author)