So you have a network, now what?

I can’t remember when I was first told how important networking is for professional development. “It’s not what you know, but who you know…” was presented as a statement of fact. Just something we learn fairly early in our careers. We are advised to go to ‘networking events’ and gather new contacts. We are encouraged to keep in touch with people we meet and invite them to future activities. So yes, I have built a network and established a connection with lots of great people. Some of those connections have led me to great new jobs, or have helped me with my work.

But what do you do once you have built your network? How do you maintain and nurture it? And how do you ensure that your network remains engaged and supportive of you and your ventures?

You are probably already reaching out to your network contacts on a semi-regular basis. A quick catch-up here, coffee meeting there, lunch or dinner along the way, annual holiday cards etc. If you use Linked-in or other social networking tools you might even be keeping members of your network up to date with judicious status updates, changes to your profile and the sharing of great content and helpful information (and if you are not yet doing this – you should absolutely start).

But have you given any thought to how you create opportunities for members of your network to learn from each other?

At its heart, I believe a network is about collaboration and exchange. The people you meet and get to know should benefit not only from their connection to you but also their connection to each other via you. Think about that last point for a minute. It’s not just about how you can benefit from knowing the members of your network, or even about what you can offer to them in return for their support. For a truly valuable network to evolve and sustain you in your professional growth, you must create opportunities for members of the network to grow and gain from each other. Less of a ‘hub and spoke’ with you at the centre. More of an intricate spider’s web, with each connection enhancing the strength of the whole.

Create a table full of inspiration
One way you can take your network to a new level of engagement and interaction is to set up a meeting of minds between 8-10 members of your network who may not have previously met.

The composition of the group is important. What would each person stand to gain from meeting the others? In one recent example I hosted a group of entrepreneurial friends who were each at different stages in their business journey. In another, it was a group of business developers from different industries. Be creative about the intersections that might work.

Select each person carefully for chemistry and fit. The goal is that they should each gain a new connection and enjoy meeting each other. No one should dominate the gathering for their own agenda. Select people who will understand the give and take of such a meeting.
Break the ice by introducing each person to the others in the group and the links that you thought might bring them together. Before the gathering is done, encourage people to exchange business cards and set up follow-up meetings.

The people I have done this with have gone on to collaborate on some amazing new projects together. Several have continued the connection long after that first introduction, and they recall that I played a part in helping them find each other. It is at once a selfless and strategic way to develop the staying power of your network connections.

Let me know what you think. Have you tried this? Have you ever been part of a network ‘sub-group’? Is there enough diversity in your network that many members do not yet know each other (increasing the diversity of your network might well be a post for another day!)
[fancy_box]Guest post courtesy of Executive Roundtable Member, Gabriella O’Rourke. Gaby is Director of Business Development at WeirFoulds LLP and is a consummate networker and connector.[/fancy_box]

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