Jan 112012

I have the unique experience of starting to build a professional network… twice. Most people build it once and keep it. I built my first a few years ago when I had to. Two years ago, I moved to a new city and found myself once again without a group of professionals who could provide insight and direction in my new home. Starting over has been almost as daunting as the first time. In some ways, it has been harder. Here are seven things I have learned about starting building a network.

  1. It is easier to do when you have to.
    The first time I built my network, I had to. I was out of work and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career. My coach held the proverbial gun to my head and made me get started. She held me accountable every week with questions: How many contacts did I make? How many interviews did I attend? How many follow up names did I get? I knew those questions were coming and that fear of not having an answer drove me. This time, I have a good job. I (mostly) know what I want to do for my career. I  don’t HAVE to build a network. My coach isn’t holding me accountable every week. Therefore, it is harder to make myself do it. I have spent two years trying to get serious about doing it again, even though I know it is important, have the experience, and know no one is going to bite. Having to make that first call because I WANT to is harder than doing it because I HAVE to.
  2. It is better to do it when you don’t need it.
    When I was out of work, I was driven because I needed a job. That need would come across in my voice and face, no matter how hard I tried. I battled inner demons that told me I was a loser. Now, those demons are not there. I can relax and have a conversation with my new contacts. They know I am not desperate and therefore, their response has been more relaxed as well. I get different information from them, more of it useful. I think this is because both our defenses are down and we are connecting as friends.
  3. People are willing to help.
    When I was looking for a job, I was amazed at how many people were willing and eager to help. I have found it exactly identical now. So far, everyone has opened their rolodexes and pointed me in fascinating directions. They take time from their busy schedules to share a few minutes. Never underestimate the giving capacity of people. They are wonderful!
  4. Setting a goal with a measurement makes all the difference.
    I have been telling myself for months I needed to start talking to people. I made a little bit of a start and then stopped. Then a couple months later, I tried again. And stopped. I couldn’t get any traction and I am the one preaching to everyone to do it. Physician heal thyself.One of my goals for 2012 is to make one new contact every week. Like a good kid, I wrote down the goal. I shared it with my wife. I am now responsible. I made my first appointment by Tuesday. The second appointment came on Wednesday. I thought that was good for the week, but fate stepped in. I hadn’t, after all, made the contact for last week. On Sunday, I ended up in an unexpected meeting with a neighbor I have respected for some time. We naturally fell into conversation and I worked my network interview right into the flow. I got my new contact for the week.Side note: I blew one aspect I always preach. I forgot to ask him for additional people to contact. After he left, I kicked myself for the next hour. Then I sat down and wrote a quick note, thanking him for the time and asked if he could recommend some people. He immediately replied he would make a list. Moral of the story? Even if you goof up, follow up and they will most likely still come through for you.
  5. Having some sort of tracking tool is very helpful.
    One of the most difficult things I faced when building my network a few years ago was keeping up with all the contacts. I was, of course, making connections full time. The number quickly increased exponentially and I was overwhelmed trying to keep track of everyone. I had to fall back to a spreadsheet and a calendar to keep up with all the appointments and contact information. Once I set up a tracking system, it became easier and routine. I didn’t lose track of anything and I could concentrate on meeting people again.This week I decided I needed to get in front of it this time. I have searched the web for a good network management tool for years without luck. I even contemplated using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool, like Act!, but since they are geared to the sales process, I found it cumbersome and expensive. This week I found a potential tool that is web based. I am trying it out for the next few weeks. If it proves to be worthy, I will review of it soon. Since I have already found some gaping holes, I don’t want to give it airtime just yet.
  6. Starting with friends is the easiest way to overcome inertia.
    Everyone always asks me how to get started, because beginning is scary. I always give the same answer: Start with your friends. You already know them and they know you. They love you and have your best interest at heart. They care enough to give honest feedback. They will be flattered you asked them first and will hand over their friend’s names more readily than anyone else you meet. By starting with your friends (and family, for that matter), you will gain valuable experience on how to run the interview and it will be much easier to tackle someone you have never met by the time that level comes along. Trust me on this one.
  7. It is still the funnest thing I have ever done.
    Yes, I a an extrovert and love talking to people. I’ll tell you, though, once the initial fear is conquered, this can be the most fun you can have for $5 (price of coffee). I have never had as much fun as when I was doing this full time. It was full time, too. As I said, I did over 125 interviews when I was out of work. I put in an easy 40 hours each week with all the paperwork, correspondence, and meetings. It was the best job I ever had. If I could figure out how to make talking to people pay, I would quit my job in a heartbeat. It is rewarding, intriguing, and enlightening.

I hope you take the challenge and reach out and expand your circle of friends. Find someone new and learn what they do. Get started. Don’t wait another day.