Regardless of your field, your position, or whether you are self-employed or not, your network is perhaps your most important professional resource. While your education and experience are essential building blocks, your network is most often what will get your foot in the door with any professional opportunity you desire.
You may be thinking in a traditional business sense about ways to get out there and meet new people, such as joining your professional association, serving on a board and maximizing LinkedIn and other social media sites. However, it is also important to develop your relationship skills and cleanse your karma! After nearly 20 years of counseling professionals, I recommend the following:
Understand networking can happen anywhere, anytime. My best business contact was made when I was at a cosmetic store trying some new lipstick, of all things. The make-up artist asked me what I did for a living. I seized the opportunity to practice my elevator pitch, something that was new and awkward for me early on in my practice. She shared she had a friend who was a psychiatrist who just opened a practice near mine. I said I would love to meet the psychiatrist friend, and handed the make-up artist my card. The psychiatrist called me a few days later, we had coffee and she said she would fill my practice when I came back from my maternity leave (something I was anxious about, having just left my full-time employment.) We have cross-referred hundreds of clients since, and developed a friendship to boot!
Know that you are representing your professional self, even when you are off the clock. If you hold yourself in a way that facilitates respect, people in your personal network will be a resource for your career. I have been pleasantly surprised how many referrals from my practice have come from people in my personal life (friends, family, neighbors and even acquaintances.)
Pay it forward. Instead of focusing on what you can get from others, think of how you can be of service to them. Simple things are much appreciated, like giving endorsements and recommendations on LinkedIn or an email introduction between two people in your network could help one another. In marketing my practice, I have found the best way to establish referral sources is to send business to others, who will undoubtedly feel grateful and return the favor.
Say yes to everything you can. While being mindful to not overcommit, seize every opportunity to grow your network. Accept invitations and attend business and networking events, talks and workshops or even webinars.
Remember that follow-up is key. When you make a new contacts, remember to get business cards and follow up with an email or a LinkedIn invitation and perhaps an invite for coffee or some other event that would be of interest to them.
Be willing to volunteer your time and talents. Pro bono work can quickly lead to paid opportunities. Virtually every complimentary presentation I have given has led to a paid booking and unpaid article writing led to paid work. Remember we all start somewhere and don’t be turned off by the bottom rungs of the ladder as they are necessary steps upward.
Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone. Dig deep and aim high. Apply for positions that require growth. Try new professional experiences, whether it is public speaking or training others.
Be kind to everyone. Have a healthy respect for the fact that it is a small world. People support the people they like, so check your ego at the door and demonstrate kindness to everyone you meet. Be a positive support to others, even your “competitors”. There is plenty of business to go around and you will be viewed positively by being a team player.
Have integrity and be reliable. Your reputation is everything. Respond to emails and voicemails in a timely fashion. Do your best work and if something prevents you from doing so, be up front and proactive about it, rather than disappointing others. Do what you say you are going to do, like scheduling that coffee meeting you suggested.
Don’t be afraid of rejection. Introduce yourself to the people you want to meet. Ask to become involved in a project or group that interests you. As Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”