Energy, authenticity and gratitude: How to build a robust professional network

A friend of mine likes to say, “Networking is a lot like dating: you never know where it’s going. Sometimes, years after a missed connection, the person you liked will be the one to introduce you to your future spouse.” 

At the beginning of 2020, I was a full-time graduate student in the home stretch of finishing my MBA and Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship graduate certificate. I kept hearing professors, mentors and peers say, “Get out there and network. People find their dream jobs through people, not job boards.” 

I listened and took action. I started building a pipeline to conduct informational interviews.

I thought about developing my network in terms of concentric circles radiating out. I made a shortlist of the people nearest to me that I could get access to readily. I initially focused on my graduate school and work colleagues with existing networks. These individuals were not working in my field of interest per se, but I hoped they might know people who are. I reached out and we met. I conducted a few in person before the pandemic hit and the rest by video. I shared my interests and career goals, then asked if anyone came to mind that I should talk to to learn more about my area of interest. Typically, several names surfaced, and I asked if they would make virtual introductions to avoid a cold call. They generously obliged and warm email introductions followed. I scheduled my first few meetings. My pipeline was now in its infancy. 

When 10 people each introduce you to 2-3 new people, it’s easy to see how quickly a list grows.

This was in February. I was starting to get into my groove and after I completed a handful of coffee meetings, the pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders were issued. I had another dozen meetings already on the books and I refused to be deterred. Initially, we pushed the meetings out, and when it became evident that physical distancing was our new normal, I moved them all to Zoom. 

I’m a talkative introvert who is genuinely curious about people. I’m authentic in my desire to hear their stories and learn from their experiences. I recognize that these interviews aren’t about me — it’s about connecting with other professionals and planting the seeds of a relationship.

I conducted over 50 informational meetings on Zoom and have met incredible people through this process. The kindness and generosity that I’ve received from strangers, who are now acquaintances, could fill another blog post. I have been forwarded job announcements that I never saw online. I have been introduced to senior executives in corporate offices in neighboring states. I’ve learned that people genuinely want to help strangers. I also learned to notice which conversations increased my energy and curiosity to learn more, and I’ve been following those leads. I also have tremendous gratitude for discovering that some doors are better off left closed. A one-hour call, for example, spared me years of potential suffering by learning about a company culture that would be a poor fit for me.

Receiving such kindness from strangers is deeply moving. I have felt oddly supported during this uncertain time that we are all in together. The coronavirus pandemic has many professionals busier than before with the added complexities of balancing remote work and community needs, but this is also a time when people are looking for ways to connect and give back to their professional network. 

Despite being in a pandemic, the fundamentals of networking remain the same. Video conferencing is the new normal, and it allowed me to have a more personal connection than if I had simply made a phone call. This also provides an incredible amount of practice for when you officially receive the call for a virtual interview.

Here’s how you can build a robust network right now:

  1. Identify a list of 5-10 people who you know (colleagues, professors, past supervisors, family and friends) with connections to broader networks. I referred to this first group as my “Connectors”. It does not matter if your Connector is working in your field of interest. The intention is to reach into their networks with the goal of connecting with someone working in your field or at your company of interest. 
  2. Start a networking spreadsheet. List these individuals and relevant details to help track status and progress. It may seem unnecessary now, but as your network grows, you’ll want  to track all the moving parts in an organized way.
  3. Contact your Connectors to request a virtual meeting. I started with an introductory email. Be specific in your request and what you hope to accomplish. Every message should be unique and crafted based on your relationship. 
  4. In advance of the meeting, prepare a few open-ended questions to get the conversion rolling. Depending on how well you know this person, it’s a good idea to review their LinkedIn profile and conduct online research to familiarize yourself with the person’s background.
  5. Host the meeting and keep the focus on building a relationship. This is not the time to sell yourself or ask for a job. Be authentic. This is a great opportunity to practice your elevator pitch. After that, ask open-ended questions and let them take center stage. 
  6. Remember your role. You are the interviewer. Practice active listening. The 80/20 Rule is good to keep in mind: The interviewee should speak about 80% of the time. People love talking about themselves and it takes the pressure off of you!
  7. ​At the close of every informational networking meeting, I always ask two key questions: 
    • Is there anyone you suggest I reach out to to learn more about this field, position, company, etc.
    • Would you be willing to make a virtual introduction to connect us?
  8. This is one of the most important steps in successfully growing your network. In my experience, warm introductions resulted in a nearly 100% success rate.
  9. Take notes after the call. Focus on listening during it.
  10. Send a thank you note to the person you interviewed. Express your appreciation and gratitude for their time and suggestions. If you have their address, a letter is ideal; however, with most people working from home, I sent most by email.
  11. Follow up with your new introductions and schedule the next round of meetings. Since you will be meeting these people for the very first time, be sure to do extra research in advance and look for mutual interests. Practice your elevator pitch and have your questions ready. Send your note of appreciation within 24 hours and follow up with your next round of introductions. 
  12. Most importantly – remember to have fun and enjoy this process! You will be meeting people who are doing amazing things through their profession in service to the community. 

Networking is an act of faith, trust and surrender to the unknown of what is unfolding and becoming. My story is still unfolding. There are so many more people working in my fields of interest that I hope to connect with. One day, I hope to look back and think, “If I never contacted that one person who seemed so out of left field, but so-and-so thought we should know each other, then I never would have landed my dream job.”

Nicole Spencer earned her MBA and Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship graduate certificate from PSU in 2020. She has successfully led teams and programs to advance environmental and education initiatives for 15 years. Nicole is currently seeking a position with a mission-driven company operating at the intersection of business, sustainability and community.

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