Four Keys to Strengthen Your Network in 2017

Who You Know

We've all heard the age-old adage "it's not what you know, but who you know." 
For better or for worse, at the outset of 2017, this still carries a lot of weight. Because competition for top jobs and promotions seems as tough as ever, I think the biggest opportunities in 2017 will go to those who aggressively invest in their networks. Sounds obvious, right?

But like any investment strategy, expanding your network to achieve specific objectives demands a solid plan. And how many of us actually take the time to sit down and plan this out? 

Well, I finally did. In making my plan for the year, I've jotted down some thoughts to set myself on the right track to make massive improvements in my network in the coming months.

Identify your key objectives

Before you start connecting and reconnecting, determine exactly how you plan to leverage your network this year. Are you exploring new jobs or even planning to switch career fields? Are you going to start a side hustle? Do you need a new mentor or adviser for your startup? Are you looking to serve on a non-profit board?

Once you have mapped this out, your story becomes much clearer when introducing yourself, both in person and online. For example, the rather generic message stating "I'd like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn" becomes "Hi, I am interested in learning about roles in software sales and see that you have extensive experience in the field. I'd love to connect and hopefully get a conversation going."

Honing in on your why with clarity does two things. One, it gives your audience a heads up as to why you're introducing yourself at all. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it enables you to focus your energy on those individuals and segments that can actually create value for you, whether you're on the giving or receiving side of any relational transaction that may occur. 

List and prioritize your networking opportunities

It might take some work in front of a whiteboard, but writing down all of your pools of potential contacts is a great way to visualize and prioritize the networking opportunities in front of you. 

Start by binning opportunities into large buckets like "professional," "personal/friends," "church/volunteer," and "online/social networking." I think of these groupings as my social circles.

After identifying your social circles, go one level down. Brainstorm several networking opportunities across each category such as "company picnic coming up in April" or "monthly golf outing with the guys." 

Once you have a solid list of events and opportunities across each of your social circles, begin to think of the people you might meet there. If you're serious about achieving your networking objective, prioritize the activities where you're more likely to meet someone who can help you get from point A to B. 

Give first

A network is like a bank account: you need to make deposits before you can request withdrawals. I used to think mistakenly that networking was all about what I could get, how much I could withdraw. In reality, every networking event or virtual interaction is an opportunity to give, or make deposits in your relationship accounts.

It can be simple. If you're going to a company picnic or poker night, offer to bring something special or help with cleanup. There are a million ways to add value to your network.

As a connector, introducing two strangers with mutual interests is one of my favorite ways to give. When I'm at a professional networking event, I take mental notes on which other attendees might make good acquaintances, even if I only just met them.

This can also be done virtually with a simple email. At a recent FourBlock event, I met an interesting guy from a another firm who has a friend at my company in health analytics consulting. Later in the evening, one of the program leaders mentioned to me that he knew a talented college student looking to get into a similar consulting role, as the massive investment required to complete medical school had lost its appeal. Seemingly a natural fit, I decided to connect them.

As a courtesy, it's a good idea to send a quick note to each individual first, before making the official intro.

Call it reciprocity or karma or whatever. These types of deposits come back around to pay immense dividends in the long run. 

Look ahead to the next step

Networking is similar to a sales process. You need to actively keep relationships moving forward, regardless of whether you are on the giving or receiving end. 

Always be looking ahead at the next step. What do you need to accomplish your objective? Maybe the next step is as simple as connecting on LinkedIn or Twitter. If an individual gave you a card, do you owe them a call or follow up email? Can this person give you a referral? Did you offer a referral?

Whatever the appropriate action may be, take care of it in short order. As a general rule, I try to accomplish any follow ups within a day or two, but sometimes a few business days can be a good waiting period, especially when you're on the receiving end. 

A Year of Opportunity

2017 is going to be a year of huge opportunity. I can feel it. I hope you are as excited as I am about the possibilities to really connect and help people in your network.

Have you thought about any specific networking goals? What is the one big change your network could help you with this year? Do you have a "give first" attitude toward networking? What is one specific action you can take today to make a deposit in your network?