When it comes to career advancement and planning you often hear about networking. Most people think of networking as making contacts, attending networking events, or grabbing coffee with someone. Most people also think networking only matters when you are looking for a job. Networking, however, is more strategic and more involved than just that. It’s about building a military of people in your career ecosystem that can help you strategize, execute, and fight for your career day today.
Comparing your network to a military might seem dramatic, but when you dive deeper into what a military is and how it is structured it provides a picture of how our professional networks need to be. Militaries are made up of diverse groups of people serving in different functions and locations, yet they have a common goal to protect, support, and fight. The same is true of your network because in your career there will be a lot you are fighting for and against. I’m not talking about your enemies being just other people vying for a job. Your enemy can be status quo, time, resources, culture, or market conditions.
Reframing our view of our network as a military can help us avoid common networking mistakes when we don’t view it that way. Here are some principles we can derive from the military and apply them to create our own networks.
Networking before you have a need, not when you have a need
One of the first mistakes people make with networking is when they choose to network. Most people make the mistake of viewing networking on a need basis. For example, we are focused on building our network when we are looking for a job or if our job requires it because we are in a sales role. We view networking as an event or need basis but not a continuous activity. Think about our military, do we only recruit or train our army for when we are entering the war? Then the same is true of how we should be viewing and developing our network we should have it built and ready before the battle or war and constantly cultivating it.
Networking for multiple purposes and perspectives
Most people have the wrong view of the ‘why’ of networking. We think we network to find a job or find a sales lead and restrict it to that. Our military doesn’t have one purpose, and neither should our network. Our military is used day to day to protect and gather intelligence not only during wartime or state of emergency. Like the military, we typically need air cover protection for execution and decision making in our daily jobs. We also need mentors typically higher up or more experience than us who can offer surveillance or intelligence on what career moves to make or how to work with different parts of the organization or specific people. Our networks can help us with influencing change or decisions, feedback, execution support, connections, sponsorship, mentorship, advice, career planning, and talent acquisition for example. All of these are things we daily need in our careers.
Building a variety of networks
How often does plan A work out in life? We can’t restrict our networking to just one activity, event, organization, or strategy. We also can’t have one type of network. Our military consists of multiple branches and allies from other countries. Each of these branches have a different skillset, function, perspective, or access to resources, knowledge, or information. Similarly, we need multiple types of networks professionally. For internal networks at your office, you need a network of people required to get your current job done effectively and a network of people who can help you find or earn future job opportunities at your company. You also need an external network, people in your industry, your customer base, school alumni, job function, or geographic areas as well. Just like the military you need to have a diverse and spread out a network. If your industry or company is having to take cost-cutting actions like layoffs having an internal network might not help you secure your job. Vice versa, having an external network but not a strong internal one might limit your career advancement at your company, so you need both.
Enlisting Your Network
Now that you have a view of what your network needs to be you can tactically start building it. First, think about the branches of your network and map it. These are the types of branches you should have internal (at your company), external, functional, alumni, geographic, and industry. Then you can get specific on who to enlist in each of those branches. Think about the network of people you need for your current role, the network you have from past roles, the network you need to get future roles. Evaluate the strength of these branches qualitatively by assessing if there are gaps in any of these branches and/or quantitatively by using the LinkedIn contacts search feature to see the number of people who are in each of your branches. From there you have developed a target of gaps and strengths and can focus on building those branches out. Building those branches can and should involve multiple tactics like taking on specific projects at work, asking to be part of a task force, attending a conference/event, joining an organization, taking courses at your company’s training center, or finding a mentor who can connect you to his or her network. Apply these tactics to build a war-proof network so that no matter what you face in your career, you will be ready for the battle.