Six Steps to Building Your Strongest Network Ever

By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

New year, new you. You’ve probably set some goals, made some resolutions, and are ready for total transformation in the people putting hands together in a huddle over an office deskcoming year. And, you know what? It’s probably not going to happen. Sorry to be the cold dose of reality, but the honest truth is that most New Year resolutions fail. As do most goals. Why? We either are too ambitious, too vague, or too uncommitted. Sometimes a combination of all three. And the end result is that a month or so after setting those goals, we slide back into familiar habits and patterns, cover up that list of resolutions stuck to the fridge with something else, and think, next year, next time.

The good news is, there is one resolution that you can make right now, stick to it, and see actual change as a result. And that is the commitment (notice the wording change: it’s not a resolution, it’s a commitment) to create the strongest network you’ve ever had in the coming year. And, as a result, you will be much more likely to meet your goals, because you will have a whole team of people cheering you on. How does it work? Follow these simple steps.

First, you actually do need to set some goals. I know, this is counter to everything I just said. But stick with me. Write out two to three things you want to learn or be able to do by the end of this year. These can be professional or personal goals. There may be an industry or a job function that you want to learn more about. There may be a skill-set like giving presentations or grant writing that you want to master. There may be some personal growth areas you want to explore, like art or creative writing or sky diving. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is something you want to do, and something that you are committed to. And, you have to write these things down.

Second, take stock of who is currently in your network. You can do this with a network mapping exercise which is just a visual representation of a list. Start with yourself in the center, and then start to put all of the places where you show up around you. This would be things like your place of work, church, civic organizations, school, and so on. You should also include past places, like previous jobs. Then start to list out all of the people in these places where you currently have meaningful connections. Take note of the places where there may be some gaps.

Third, make a list of the people who you currently have access to, but who may not currently be in your network as a meaningful connection. An example might be your boss’s boss. Or that person you met once at a volunteer engagement who you thought has an interesting job or life story. These are people who would likely return an email if you sent them one, but probably aren’t in your regular daily routine.

Fourth, go back to your network map. Identify two people you are committed to reaching out to in the next month for a coffee conversation, and schedule it. The point of these conversations are to catch up, to hear about what is happening in their lives, and to share a bit about what’s going on in yours. If you feel comfortable doing so, share the goals that you are working on and ask for their feedback. Rinse and repeat. You want to have two of these conversations each month.

Fifth, go back to the other list. Who on that list has the possibility to help you with your goals, either through feedback and advice, access, or connections? Who might just be an interesting person to talk to and to learn from? Make a commitment to schedule at least one of these conversations each month. Some of these folks are going to be pretty busy (see, for example, your boss’s boss) and may not have as much time to give you, at least not at first. That’s ok. Even fifteen minutes with someone can be a great conversation. Share the goals that you are working on, the progress that you’re making and ask for feedback. Also be sure to ask for recommendations of other people with whom you can talk. If the conversation feels comfortable, ask if you can reach back out to them in a few months for a follow-up. That’s how contacts become mentoring connections.

Sixth, and most importantly, capture the learning moments along the way. Think critically about what you’re learning from each of these people and how you can apply it as you work to achieve your goals.

Network building is an active practice that requires commitment and maintenance. Schedule these conversations into your regular work meetings until it becomes a habit. That’s how meaningful networks are built.

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