By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University
You no doubt have heard, either as a student or as a working professional, that the key to success is building a strong network. You know that you need people who will support you, who will mentor you, who will open doors for you, and maybe even hire you. But who, exactly, are these people? And, how do you find them? And, how do you start to build a relationship with them so that they will WANT to help you on your personal and professional path?
These are hard questions, and these can be hard people to find, as a young professional recently shared with me. You don’t want to just walk up to someone and ask them, “Will you be my mentor?” And yet, if the people around you aren’t inclined to support you in that way, how else do you make those connections happen? And who is best positioned to be helpful to you?
I would like to introduce you to a framework that can help with this dilemma. But first, a little bit about the concept of strong and weak ties. Each of us have multiple connections, some stronger than the others. Some are close family and friends, others are loose acquaintances, people we might recognize if we saw them on the street, but who are not people we know well. The first group is what is known as strong ties, the people who know you the best, who support you no matter what, and who, sometimes, have a bit of a biased view towards your choices and decisions.
The second group are your weak ties, the people with whom you only have a surface-level connection. These people may not be willing to go out on a limb for you. But they can broaden your perspective, and have the potential to open many more doors to you than your strong ties can.
The point is, we all need both strong and weak ties in our networks. We all need multiple connections, and multiple types of connections, in order for our networks to do the work that they are supposed to do. And, in order for your network to work effectively, you have to do the work, as well. You can’t sit back and wait for people to come to you. You have to actively build your network, build connections, and build relationships.
So, what are the types of people you should have in your network? I recommend thinking about building a network of IMPACT:
Influencer: has considerable personal, political, or organizational capital; has and controls access to resources and opportunities; makes and impacts strategic decisions
Mentor: has more experience than you in that area in which you are interested in being mentored; willing to engage in a personal and purposeful relationship over a period of time; facilitates your growth and development
Peer Coach: is going through a similar experience at the same time; mutual sharing of lessons, feedback, and learning; can serve as an accountability partner
Advocate: identifies opportunities and provides connections; speaks up for you when you are unable to speak up for yourself; may not have or be willing to spend personal capital on you
Connector: can suggest opportunities, provide introductions, open doors; may not personally advocate for you or support your development
Teacher: provides skill development, coaching, lessons and wise counsel based on depth of knowledge but not necessarily shared experience
You need each of these people in your life. The strength of that need will vary, depending on your goals and life stage. At certain points you might need a strong network of peers who can relate to what you are going through, provide honest and real-time feedback, and mutual accountability. At other times, it may be important that you have access to influencers who can hold a seat at the table for you. Sometimes you might need more of a teacher and wise counselor than a deep-relationship mentor.
What’s most important is that you can’t be passive. You have to get clear on your needs. Spend some time reflecting on where you are and where you are trying to go. Create two or three goal statements for yourself, and then examine the gaps you face in meeting those goals. Which of these developmental supports is going to be best-positioned to help you? Who is missing in your network, and how can you start to bridge that gap? Notice the common thread here: all of this is the work that you have to do for yourself. And if you find that someone is not inclined to support your growth and your work towards achieving your goals, pay attention to that, too. The most valuable people in your network are the ones who are willing to do the work, not for you, but with you.