How to Develop and Maintain Your Professional Network
People often stress about the development and maintenance of their professional network. Networking does not need to be thought of as intimidating; it can be learned. Your professional network is one of the most effective career development tools you have and you can carry it with you your entire professional life with the proper engagement.
The ease of developing a professional network is based on your accessibility. You can be accessible in traditional ways—attend a conference, speak, get published, volunteer, join clubs or organizations.
If you are at a conference such as Autodesk University sitting in the corner, at a craps table, or worse yet, in your hotel room, you are not accessible and you will not get the true benefit of your time and money. A better way to approach a conference is to attend the sessions along with breakfast, lunch, and the evening events. You will meet new people while interacting with people you met in years past. This will develop and reinforce your network.
There are large and small conferences and each has its benefits. Large conferences such as AU can help you build a more diverse network because of its sheer mass and attendees of varied backgrounds. By contrast, a small conference, such as the Revit Technology Conference, is more focused, which may help you build a more reliable network and even true friendships.
At any size conference, after a well-presented session many people want to discuss the topic further with the presenter. There is no better way to get to know people, or for people to get to know you, than during these impromptu conversations.
Writing articles or blogs will have similar effects to presenting at conferences. Here, too, people will reach out to discuss the topic further. If there is passion about the topic being discussed or presented then there will be excitement to receive these calls and emails because continued conversation fuels the passion. This will help someone go further, work harder, and strive to achieve more.
Technology also gives the ability to be accessible. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and other websites and apps give people of similar interest the ability to get to know each other and connect. This may be a more superficial connection, but it’s a connection nonetheless.
I believe that technology is better suited to helping maintain networks than to building them from the start. Reaching out to people online that you do not know or have never met usually doesn’t build a strong network. And if a network isn’t strong there is no reliability behind it. You cannot depend on the knowledge of those within your network because you do not truly know them.
Technology can be helpful once you have met someone—then you can connect with them online. Keep in mind that personalizing the message is more likely to achieve positive results. Avoid sending the standard message: “I'd like to add you to my professional network...” Instead, add a personal note such as “It was a pleasure to meet you at AU. Our conversation (or your class) regarding fireproofing structural members in Revit was inspiring. I look forward to seeing you next year.” Your new contacts are much more likely to accept the connection and remember you.
Once connected, you have their contact info so you can do the maintenance required to keep that connection. For example, if you see an article that pertains to a project they are working on or an interest of theirs send it to them, comment, and keep in touch. Do not let these connections lapse; working on your network once you need it is too late. It is something that needs constant nurturing and cultivation.
Something that is overlooked in this day and age is the importance of connecting on a more meaningful level. Make a phone call, send a letter… yes, I mean a handwritten letter. Tell someone how much what they are doing means to you, how a class they taught motivated you, how their activities were noticed. Think about the joy you feel when someone reaches out in a non-superficial way; it takes effort and it is more significant. Make someone else’s day—show them that their friendship, knowledge, and labors mean something to others, specifically you.
How you network depends on your personality. As you may have noticed from the nature of this article, I am a social person and conferences are the equivalent of my spinach. I have a natural internal desire to network and conferences give me this forum. I enjoy talking to people who I know have similar interests and passions. For example, BIM is a passion of mine, so further enhancing the use of technology in the AECO industry is something that I can discuss with anyone who has the slightest interest in it as well. I find value and enjoyment from the relationship-building process. Others may not get the same enjoyment from the process, but they will see the value of the results.
The time and energy put forth to build this professional network can be valuable in a number of ways. A network can be utilized to advance your career. It can be used to gain the knowledge to develop a new way to do something quicker, better, more efficiently. This, in turn, will benefit your company and increase your chances for promotion. You can utilize your network to change jobs within your profession by learning about another company and what they are doing in Revit or with BIM that can feed your desire to change the industry. You can even utilize it to help you change professions entirely, if that is your aspiration. It is the six degrees of separation theory: someone you know knows someone who can assist you in gaining the knowledge, connection, or introduction required for the change you are craving.
In addition to career development, this network can give you personal growth. It feels pretty darn good to have helped someone. As an example, recently someone reached out to me via LinkedIn. She mentioned that we attended the University of Toledo at the same time in a similar course of study. She wondered if I would talk with her regarding some struggles she was having in her career, and she hoped I would have some pointers or advice for her. We talked on the phone one evening for maybe an hour, and I heard her story and I did have ideas on a different, yet similar direction she could go. I even gave her some names of people to whom she could reach out for a potential career change. It was not a long conversation, but it felt good. I gave her optimism, which, in turn, gave me joy.
The best approach to networking is to think of it as paying it forward. While building your network you should think about mutual needs—not just what someone can do for you, but also what you can bring to them. You only get out as much as you put in.
My challenge to you in preparing to attend Autodesk University is to reach out to those that you met last year—at RTC, AU, online, or even those who published an article that helped you. Let them know that you will be in attendance. Make plans to meet up with them, sit together during lunch, or just let them know a class that you are signed up for that would be of interest to them. Research what classes, if any, they are teaching and tweet about them. A little preparation will go a long way in your network maintenance.