Who’s In your Top Ten and Why Are they There? Strategies for Strengthening your Professional Network

Maintaining a strong professional network is essential to business building and most other leadership endeavors. Professor Herminia Ibarra who studies gender and networks emphasizes their importance:

“Networks are crucial to your day-to-day job. Networks are what allows you to generate new ideas, get information and the support you need to expand your influence. Networks enable you to offer more and have more impact.”

Building Effective Networks, Herminia Ibarra, video link below

Unfortunately, many women I train and coach tell me they don’t like to network. They don’t like going to networking events, and having to maintain “small talk.” Many of these women feel networking is superficial, and they’d prefer to develop relationships more organically.

I understand this sentiment as I used to hold these same opinions. But now I distinguish between networking and building my network. For some networking is focus on a process. For me the network is the outcome that provides a solid foundation or infrastructure of support for our endeavors. I have learned you don’t necessarily have to go to networking events (though it helps). But there are ways to build your infrastructure of support that strengthens your leadership. But first you have to understand the basics of your network.

Types of Networks

First, know that you most likely already have at least one of three types of networks.

Dr. Ibarra identifies three different types of networks:

  • Your Operational Network: the network of people critical to you doing your day to day job.
  • Your Personal Network: your network of family and friends who support you.
  • Your Strategic Network: the network of new and diverse relationships that provide information, resources and opportunities for advancement and growth.

Most of you reading this blog have operational and personal networks. What you must do is learn to leverage those networks for more strategic purposes. Building good relationships with people in your operational and personal networks increases your social capital and can help you build your network more strategically.

Stay in touch with the people in these networks. Reach out for help when needed. Offer to help when others ask for help. But make sure your networks are mutually beneficial–to you and to the people in those networks. As Andrea Thompson, marketing leader and author of the Audacity of Overcoming, said in one of our workshops, “When those relationships are not mutually beneficial, they are predatory.” You don’t want to be seen as a network predator, preying upon people you know to get what you want or need, without giving anything of value in return.

Next, analyze your current professional network. Start with identifying the top ten people in your network. The number ten is arbitrary. Some of you have large extensive networks but have not approached your network systematically. Others of you may have difficulty identifying ten people you consider to be crucial to your leadership. Try hard, though, as ten is a good number to start with in order to analyze the effectiveness of your network.

Even if you can easily identify the top ten or even twenty people in your network, are you able to state why they are in your network? Do you really understand the value they bring or the role they play in your network?

Network Roles

Understand the types of roles that various people could play in your network. In my workshops I teach seven roles that are crucial to transforming a professional network into a strategic network.

These roles are:

  1. Connector— a person who knows a lot of people in a lot of different businesses, professions and industries and doesn’t mind connecting you to the people they know.
  2. Mentor--a trusted confidant who provides counsel concerning one’s career. Usually they have more experience and provide wisdom on navigating the career path or leadership culture based on their own successful navigation to where they are in their career.
  3. Mentee--any junior professional to which you serve as mentor. By mentoring others, you are investing in emerging talent and you are helping to inculcate successful leadership values in junior colleagues.
  4. Advisor/Intercessor–a person to whom you go for discreet advise and who can intercede on your behalf.
  5. Promoter-a person who endorses and promotes you and your work. When you ask someone for a reference, you are asking them to promote you. So make sure you wisely select trusted leaders with whom to share your accomplishments and track record.
  6. Collaborator–a person with whom you partner at the launch of a new project or program, especially when the project or program is mutually supporting and both have a vested interest in the success of the project. A collaborator may also be someone with whom who check in for brainstorming ideas at the launch of a new initiative.
  7. Sponsor–a senior level leader in any industry who can advocate on your behalf. They will help fund projects and provide exposure to you and you work. Inside corporate workplaces these are often senior level executives. For small business owners or entrepreneurs these may be clients who recognize your value and bring you into their organizations and institutions.

These roles aren’t exhaustive. After you start really analyzing your network, you may identify additional roles needed in your network that are unique to your leadership.

Analyze Your Network

Now, take a moment to analyze your network using the following network diagram.

Place the top ten people in your network in the circle that represents the role they actually play in your network. Any individual may play multiple “roles.” You may have multiple people who play the same role. What’s important is to note any gaps you have in your network. What role is missing from your network? Who in your current network can help you add the appropriate people to your network? How diverse is your network? These are questions to ask that will bring insight into how strategic your network is. From there you can identify ways to strengthen your network.

Additional Tips

Of course attending networking events can help you meet people that can become a part of your network. But with this framework in mind, you can now go to a networking event with a strategy in mind. Now you can intentionally listen to understand what others can bring to your network, and just as important, you can identify what you can bring to their network.

Joining networking groups will also help. Many companies sponsor business resource or affinity groups that enable you to build your network with colleagues, meet outside speakers and interact with executive sponsors. There are also network organizations that focus on specific populations. For instance for many readers of this blog, the Black Women’s Leadership Network is a community of leaders who aim to build connections and support for existing and emerging Black women leaders.

Finally, don’t forget about your community organizations where you provide volunteer service. Likeminded people from a diverse set of industries and backgrounds invest their time, talent and treasure to support community organizations. These are valuable assets to your network as you are to theirs.

Finally, dedicate time to using your social media platforms to strengthen your network. Carve out a specific amount of time each day to go through your feeds, discover what people in your network are doing, and identify the activities that most connect to what you are doing. Engage with those people whose work you most identify with. If you find a match on a pressing issue or program, consider reaching out to the person through direct message.

Additional Resources

For more guidance on building your network, I invite you to check out chapter eight of my book, Influence Starts with “I:” A Woman’s Guide for Unleashing the Power of Leading from Within and Effecting Change Around You.

And here’s the video, Building Effective Networks by Professor Ibarra that will provide more insight into the gender differences in networking.

1 Comment

  1. Rhonda Jarrett

    I believe this should apply to life in general. We should maintain friendships with those who encourage, support and elevate.

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