If you ask anyone how they got where they are today, you’ll quickly learn that many successful business professionals have connections. These connections, however, were likely not handed to them. Instead, they were forged through successful professional networking.
You can only get so far by yourself; the reality is that professional progression and opportunities are driven by the relationships you build. “Business revolves around people, and it is driven by relationships, which affect every aspect of business, from sales to recruitment,” said Yiannis Gavrielides, CEO of Covve. “It is therefore important for us all to build and maintain real professional relationships.”
Professional networking requires initiative. You have to make an effort to meet people and then establish and maintain those relationships. “Networking is a deliberate activity to build, reinforce and maintain relationships of trust with other people to further your goals,” wrote Anders Ostlund, founder of networking site Fryday, on Medium.
Today, as social media changes business tactics, you can network by sending an invitation on LinkedIn or following a contact on Twitter. But with increased accessibility, it’s more essential than ever to build your personal brand and network like a pro.
Here are four ways to grow your professional network:
Social media sites, particularly LinkedIn, have changed the professional networking landscape. Many people rely on their LinkedIn network for referrals, introductions, reviews and references – all of which come in handy when you are looking for a job or hiring new team members, said Michael Brown, a career consultant and author of Fresh Passion: Get a Brand or Die a Generic.
You can use LinkedIn for business in several important ways:
Don’t be afraid to ask someone in your professional network to introduce you to someone they know, Brown advised. Most people are happy to facilitate connections or even become mentors who help you enrich your professional relationships.
You can also ask for help from a networking “wingman.” It can be awkward to brag about yourself to a stranger, Whitman said, but a friend can talk up your successes and achievements – and you can do the same for them.
Networking is not a one-and-done deal where you meet a contact and then speak with them only when you need something. If you really want to connect, nurture a sustainable, give-and-take relationship.
“After meeting someone, assuming there is rapport, I make sure I stay in touch,” Gavrielides said. “Staying in touch with people requires effort, and it is important to regularly reengage … I feel that conversations must be natural, but the effort to reengage must be conscious, as we are all too busy to do it effortlessly.”
Ostlund noted that while social media sites are an excellent way to begin relationships, authentic professional relationships require in-person meetings to build depth. Trust is hard to develop without the personal interaction involved in face-to-face conversation.
Focus on growth and think about the people you encounter daily, Brown said. Grab a business card or search for them on LinkedIn if there is any chance you can call on them professionally in the future.
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t network selfishly, Whitman advised. Create a foundation first; learn about the other person and tell them about you. Once there’s a foundation, it’s OK to ask for something, but don’t jump the gun and ask for favors outright.
“Networking should be authentic and should be part of both our business and professional lives,” Gavrielides said. “We are naturally social beings and should ensure we socialize rather than engage in forced exchange. The relationships I built along the way are now customers, suppliers, partners, colleagues, investors … [and] many are close friends.”
A comprehensive networking plan is essential, and software apps can help with that. We’ve already discussed LinkedIn, but you should consider adding a few other tools to your professional networking arsenal.
With both online and in-person networking, remember that it takes effort to succeed and grasp potential opportunities.
Online and in-person networking are essential as you navigate your career path. However, networking’s benefits go beyond employee referrals and new job opportunities. Professional development expands your skills and knowledge base. By interacting with others in your field, you learn what people outside your company or niche are doing, giving you a fresh perspective.
You’ll also have ready access to experts who can help you figure out the answers to your toughest challenges. In fact, asking for help is one of the best ways to keep that connection strong.
Don’t overlook industry events as excellent opportunities for professional networking. Do your homework in advance so you know whom you want to meet. Then, with your talking points in hand, introduce yourself. You are on your way to an expanded professional network.
Professional networking is a skill you can develop and improve. The art of networking is dynamic, so staying abreast of new and effective methods and platforms is essential. Even if you aren’t looking for a new job, networking is crucial for building relationships that can help your current position and enrich your professional life.
Sammi Caramela and Jennifer Post contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.