Last time?we learned about Oppenheimer’s incredible ability to succeed despite everything, even attempted murder. To commit criminal acts with impunity is, of course,?not?the lesson we want to take from that story! Today we will cover nine proven strategies for building an effective network.

Years ago I worked with a company that helped students navigate the long and complicated graduate school admissions process. Often I would sit in on the meetings students had with the company’s admissions consultants. These consultants outlined the process for students, worked with them to write the best possible applications, and gave them inside tips to wow the judges at admissions interviews.

One of the most important parts of any graduate school application are the letters of recommendation. Watching this portion of the consulting process proved to be among the most painful. I cannot count how many times I heard a consultant say, “Your letters of recommendation can make or break your application. Who do you have to write good letters for you?” and the student could could hardly list a soul outside their own family.

?At that point, folks, it’s too late. The student can’t go back and strengthen relationships with their university professors in time to get a good letter. They can’t suddenly build a relationship with an old boss. Either they already had the relationship needed to write good letters, or they didn’t.

?This leads to the first of our tips for building an effective network:

  1. Nurture the network before it is needed.?As the grad school applicants learned, if we suddenly try to build a network when we first need something, it will often be impossible to do so in time to make it effective. However, even if we could, we are likely to be seen as manipulative. If others begin to wonder why we are suddenly so?nice to them, our networking efforts could be seen as little more than a cheap ploy (which, if we are trying to build a network at the last minute, is precisely what those efforts are).
  2. Change the focus of the network.?Most people look at networking from an inward perspective: how will my network lead to new and greater opportunities for me? We want to turn that around with an outward perspective: how will my network let me use my good work to help others more effectively? Many of us can recall a friend or coworker who never seems to actually do anything, yet manages to be successful anyway. That is what we call “evil” networking. Networking is not meant to be a substitute for good work but, as mentioned in the previous post, it is the art of being appropriately recognized for the good work we do. Instead of focusing on how our networks can help us, we are most likely to be recognized if?we use our networks to more effectively help others. Which leads to…
  3. Don’t keep score.?If done well, by focusing on others, we should get as much (if not more) out of our network as we put in. However, the goal is not to create a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” environment. Build relationships and give to others?without expectation that relationships will always be perfectly reciprocal?and you will be amazed what comes your way.
  4. Make a structured plan to do it every day.?For most of us, if we don’t keep track of our networking activities, they are among the first goals?along with exercising and eating right?to fall by the wayside. Find something you can do each day, however small, to build your network, and make sure you have someone to report to and hold you accountable. For those who are more shy, a decision to speak to at least one stranger every day would be a worthy goal. If shyness isn’t an issue?but building a lasting network is, an effective goal might be to reach out every day?via phone or email?to a contact we lost touch with (more on that in the next tip). The biggest concerns I hear when I talk about everyday networking revolve around time constraints. We already have so much going on in our day; where on earth are we going to find the time to add networking on top of the rest? Here’s the good news: we can make networking a part of our routine without taking any additional time. Just find those activities we need to do anyway?and build people into them. Do we need to eat? Then we can eat with others. Are there any other activities we do regularly that we can add other people to? Even if we turn just one solitary lunch a week into something more social, we’ll have done something meaningful to build our network.
  5. Reach out to weak and dormant connections.?Research has?shown?that weak ties?those?who we are only weakly connected to,?like?acquaintances rather than friends?often prove more helpful than strong ties?people we know well and communicate with regularly. Dormant ties?connections that may have once been strong but with whom communication hasn’t occurred in some time?prove to be of similar?value.?Weak and dormant ties have been shown to be more useful to people looking for a job, as well as to those who simply need good advice.?This may seem counterintuitive. The reason weak and dormant ties are so valuable?seems to be because of the novel information they provide. We are likely to already know much of what our strong ties have to share, whereas weak and dormant ties can provide information and opportunities we never would have come across otherwise.?By reaching out to the neglected nodes in our networks we will find great value, for them and for us.
  6. Use all the tools available, not only the ones we like most.?Technology plays both a beloved and hated role in networking. That fact is that it’s here, it’s not going anywhere, and if we don’t use it, we will fall behind. This does not mean we should neglect perhaps the most traditional and powerful networking tool of all (speaking face to face), but that we should take advantage of everything at our disposal. We can use our phone to keep a list of people we meet, along with a few interesting details about them, so next time we see them we have something to speak about. We can take advantage of phone calls, text, email, social media, and every other electronic knickknack we have to keep in touch and to share helpful information with others. I once worked with a gentleman named Glenn who was especially skilled at this. He knew my academic background was in neuroscience, which is not at all common in my line of work. Every now and then he would come across a research paper that was within?my field of expertise, and he would email it to me. What he shared was consistently interesting. Before long he had effectively?trained my brain to to look forward?to any email that came from him, because what he shared was genuinely useful.
  7. Always follow up.?If we meet someone who seems like a good fit, don’t let the interaction end with a mere goodbye. Make sure to get contact information so you can keep the lines of communication open. One of my favorite strategies is also one of the most old-fashioned; after a meaningful interaction, I like to send someone a handwritten thank you note. In today’s world especially, when handwritten notes are so rare, a small token of appreciation like that can go far. I am confident half of my current clients have chosen to work with me because I sent a handwritten letter at what happened to be just the right time.
  8. Don’t build a clone factory.?In social interactions our natural inclination is to gravitate toward those who are most like us. This is perfectly natural, for those are the people easiest for us to get along with. We mustn’t?let that inclination turn our network into a collection of self clones. The most effective networks are those filled with a variety of people from many walks of life and with a range of personalities and skillsets. When we need help, the last thing we want is the advice of a bunch of people who think just like us.?Those different from ourselves will often prove to be the most valuable nodes in our network. (If all we’re looking for is confirmation of our own ideas, no?networking is required; we can simply sit in a closet and listen to our own voice.)
  9. Shutup.?It is a curious quirk of human psychology that even the most humble among us loves to talk about ourselves. Use that. Effective networking does not require one to be a great talker. One needn’t be funny or a powerful storyteller. One need only become an expert at asking interesting questions that give others the opportunity to talk about themselves. Ditch the traditional “first date” questions like “What do you do?” and “Do you have any siblings?” Consider creating a list of interesting questions that you can tailor to fit multiple people and situations, the kinds of questions that people rarely ask. One of my favorites is, “If you were independently wealthy, what would you most want to do with your time?” Then, instead of planning the next thing you want to say, genuinely listen.

For Your Consideration

  1. Make a list of ten people in your network whom you would consider a weak or dormant tie. Commit to reaching out to one of those people each week until your list runs out. Then make another list!
  2. Consider the kinds of get-to-know-you questions that you normally ask those you meet. How could you ask those questions in a more unique, creative way? For example, instead of “Where are you?from?” try, “What is one of your fondest childhood memories?” It is a question rarely asked, and in answering the person will likely tell you precisely where they are from.?Next time you meet new people, use your more creative questions and avoid the same old questions that everyone tends to use.
  3. What networking tool are you least comfortable with (Facebook, the telephone, etc.)? Write a strategy for using that tool more effectively, and commit to doing something with it every week.