Business Leaders: How To Grow & Leverage Professional Networks

Group of businesspeople shaking hands with each other in front of whiteboard in the officeProfessional Networking For Business Leaders: Ways To Cultivate & Leverage

There’s an adage that almost everyone is aware of no matter what industry they work in: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. While you certainly can’t overstate the importance of experience, skills, and hard work, there’s a lot of truth to this saying. Fostering relationships with people throughout your industry can help you build a network of connections that you can turn to when needed. For example, people who change jobs or advance their careers successfully are frequently able to do so as a result of reaching out to one of the connections that they made over their professional lifetime. 

However, building a network of contacts isn’t just a strategy for advancing one’s career. Professional networking is also essential to growing a business. As a business leader, you’ll not only benefit by having a professional network in place to rely on when needed, but continuously growing that network will help you leverage it to the advantage of your business.

What Is A Professional Network?

A professional network consists of the connections you’ve made and the relationships that you’ve built over your career. But these connections have to be maintained at some level if you want to leverage them in the future. For example, if you made a connection with someone within your industry a decade ago at a trade event, then it will be challenging to turn to that connection if you never made an effort to keep in touch. On the other hand, if you stayed in touch, you might find that they have climbed up the corporate ladder at a company that you’re looking to do business with. Such a connection could make it easier to build a working relationship between your two companies.

Connections with actual people matter and they can help your company earn more business. If you’ve maintained professional relationships with people at other companies, then it can give your organization a leg up on other companies who may be competing for their business. Make an effort to maintain existing connections while at the same time expanding your professional network to build more relationships that can prove vital to the future of your company.

Different Types Of Professional Networks

There are different types of professional networks that you will want to foster and maintain as a business leader. For example, personal networks include social media connections and fellow alumni. In contrast, strategic networks typically include contacts who aren’t in your industry but who might be thought leaders that could benefit your business in some way in the future. But there are two main types of professional networks to focus on: expansive professional networks and nodal professional networks.

Expansive Professional Networks

An expansive professional network is a network that consists of practically anyone. For example, an expansive professional network could include industry contacts and former colleagues as well as friends and family. Contacts don’t necessarily have to belong to the industry your company is in; they could simply hold positions at companies in which their experience and expertise could be valuable to you, even if it’s just in the form of helpful advice.

Nodal Professional Networks

A nodal professional network is a network that consists of contacts who can contribute to the growth of your business in one way or another, even if you may not be able to leverage their potential value until later in the future. Nodal networks are more narrow, but these contacts are much more valuable and may have a significant amount of influence within your industry. An example of contacts that might belong to your nodal network can include business owners and entrepreneurs that you could potentially partner up with in the future. Decision-makers at companies whose services your organization can’t quite afford yet, but who you may want to develop a partnership with once your business grows big enough, belong in your nodal network as well.

Who Should Business Leaders Include In Your Professional Network? 

A professional network can include almost anyone; however, some connections will be much more useful than others. You will want to try to keep in regular touch with contacts that you predict will be useful to your business in the future, even if it’s just shooting them the occasional email or commenting on their social media posts once in a while. As for how to grow your professional network, here are  a few of the different types of contacts to  consider when professional networking:

Current Or Former Coworkers

Establishing a relationship with your coworkers is essential because you can always reconnect with them down the line. You may find that past coworkers have risen through the ranks and are key decision-makers at their respective companies, which could bring your company more business in one way or another. Or maybe your old coworkers have particular skills and experience that match the requirements of open positions that you’re trying to fill at your company. Some of your past coworkers can even serve as a way to make introductions to other professionals that can add value to your network.

Professional Peers

Your professional peers are individuals who may be at the same level as you are at a different company, whether within your industry or not. They are worth connecting with because they can give you advice concerning any challenges you’re facing that they may have already experienced. They can also be an excellent resource for other potential connections, business partners, vendors, and even clients.

Business Prospects

Prospects are very useful contacts. To do business or partner up with a prospect, you will have to engage with them regularly and build a relationship with them. However, even if you can't work out a deal right away, that prospect will present a valuable connection that you can return to at a later date. Never shut the window on failed business prospects as they may decide to do business with your company in the future. 

Customers & Clients

Both current and past customers and clients are valuable connections. Not only are they a potential source of future business for your company, but they can act as a go-between for other organizations you’re trying to do business with. A customer or client referral can go a long way towards establishing new relationships within the industry.

Industry Experts

Industry experts can not only provide their expertise in the form of advice and guidance, but they can also help you stay on top of industry trends. Such a connection can be vital to the growth and future of your company. Not to mention that they can inform you of opportunities that may not be widely available to the public yet, and which can help give you an advantage over your competition.

Friends, Family & Mentors

Sometimes an outside perspective can be helpful when it comes to your company. Asking for advice from friends, family, and mentors can help provide you with a different perspective, especially if you’re too close to the problem to find a clear solution. And even if your friends, family, and mentors don't have jobs that are relevant to your industry, those jobs may require them to have a certain level of expertise in specific subjects that could be beneficial to your company.

How To Leverage Your Professional Network as a Business Leader

Having an extensive professional network full of people with whom you’ve maintained regular contact with won’t do much good if you never leverage those connections. Knowing how to use your connections to help with your business is essential to obtaining value from your professional network. Consider these ways that you can use your professional network to your company’s advantage:

Revive Old Relationships

Reaching out to connections you made in the past but lost touch with is a great way to expand your existing professional network. For example, fellow alumni from your alma mater who studied in the same field as you can prove to be very beneficial. They may work within the same industry and may even have positions as decision-makers at their respective companies, making them valuable relationships worth revisiting. Past relationships will be more inclined to rekindle their connection with you, especially if you’re both working in the same industry, and there’s a chance that you could help each other in the near future.

Strengthen Existing Relationships

Existing relationships need to be maintained so that you can continue to strengthen them. Strengthening an existing contact is almost like nurturing a lead. Even if the relationship is with a current client, merely reaching out and wishing them a happy birthday with no ulterior motive shows them that you care about the relationship that they have with you and will strengthen that relationship. The stronger your existing connections are, the more you can rely on your connections for help or favors. Of course, you will also need to provide assistance and favors on occasion, which will help strengthen those relationships as well.

Cultivate New Relationships

Professional networking can help you cultivate new relationships in a few different ways. First,  nurture new connections that you’ve made to develop those relationships into something more substantial. For example, maybe you met someone in charge of sales at a software company at a tradeshow. You got their business card, which has their email on it. Even if you do not need their software, begin cultivating that relationship as their services or expertise may come in handy in the future. The more you develop new relationships, the more opportunities will come out of it. A new contact may even introduce you to someone they think can help your company as a result of having engaged with them over a few months following your initial meeting.

Amplify Your Message

You can leverage your professional network to amplify your message. For example, industry leaders and influencers can be a part of your network. If they understand your message, they will be able to spread it more effectively on your behalf. Such advocacy can lead to your message generating more awareness and strengthening your company’s brand identity.

Showcase Authority & Expertise

For professional networking to work, it has to be a two-way street. Offering your authority and expertise to your connections to help them overcome their particular challenges will help strengthen relationships. These persons will be much more willing to step in and help in return. By showcasing your authority and expertise, you’ll build a reputation throughout your network as someone that people can depend on. Such a reputation will result in many professionals making an effort to strengthen their relationship with you and potentially other professionals currently outside of your network reaching out to you as well.

How To Grow Your Professional Network With Intention

It’s one thing to understand the importance of professional networking, and knowing how to leverage your professional network, but actually building and expanding your professional network is another thing. Here are a few tips on how you can cultivate your professional network with intention so that your business can get the absolute most out of your professional connections.

Review Your Existing Professional Network

Before you begin growing your professional network, reassess your existing network. Take note of what types of people make up your network to determine if there are certain types of professionals that you want to add. Also look at the size of your network, along with how old and relevant the existing connections are. If you haven't spoken with certain individuals from your network in years, you may need to evaluate those connections. There’s a chance that they may not even work in your industry anymore or do not have jobs that are not relevant to your present-day company.

Decide Who You Want To Target And What The Goal Is

Once you have reviewed your existing professional network, determine what your goal is. Do you need to expand your existing network? If so, decide what types of connections you want to add to your network and how you plan to find and reach out to them. Or maybe you already have an expansive professional network, but it’s full of older connections. In this case, you may need to re-establish and strengthen existing relationships. Depending on your primary goal, the following are a few effective professional networking tactics:

Strengthening Existing Relationships

There are so many ways that you can strengthen the relationships you already have within your professional network. Providing advice, making introductions, recommending connections, sending relevant articles, informing them about new trends, and simply checking in to see how they are doing are just a few ways that you can engage with the people in your network. Doing any of these shows that you care about your existing relationships and will thereby help strengthen them.

Giving Back / Paying It Forward

Let your connections know that you are willing to help them out when called upon, whether it’s making an introduction to another professional on behalf of one of your contacts or providing professional advice. Always try to find a way to give back, especially to connections who have done favors for you or who have provided you with useful guidance. Of course, it’s not just about repaying those who have helped you. Put yourself out there first and pay it forward. The more helpful you are, the more likely those who you help will look for ways to pay you back.

Business Development & New Introductions

If you’ve been maintaining your connections, you can lean on them to make introductions to other professionals who could help further your company’s development. For example, maybe you’re facing a particular challenge scaling your software systems as your company expands. Throughout several conversations with an established connection, you may reveal this to them. By chance, they may know an expert in that field and can provide you with an introduction. You can lean on your network to request introductions to new professionals. You may discover new business opportunities through your network as well.

Find Ways To Meet New People

There are many ways in which you can expand your professional network. For example, reach out to already established connections and ask them for help getting into touch with other professionals. For this to work, you will need to know what types of professionals you’re looking to add to your network, or the request will be too difficult to fulfill. If you’ve already done some research and know who you want to connect with, it will be easier to ask existing connections with an established relationship with that person to make an introduction. 

Other ways to meet more people to network with include attending industry conferences and events as well as by doing research online, such as by leveraging social media platforms like LinkedIn to find the types of professionals you want to reach out to. How ever you choose to reach out to new people, make sure you’re prepared: have a business card to hand out if you’re meeting in person and have a few questions to ask. To ensure that your questions aren’t too general, do your research about the person and their profession before engaging with them.

Add Value

When you meet someone new, begin by demonstrating value to this person to add them to your network successfully. Just because you’ve connected with someone doesn’t mean you get to assume they are a part of your professional network automatically. Again, relationships are two-way streets. It helps to treat any meeting you have with someone new as an interview. Showcase your genuine interest in what they have to offer and give them plenty of information about yourself and your company as well.

Be Sincere

The goal isn’t to just collect names for your Rolodex. When you engage with new people, you need to be sincere. Don’t engage under false pretenses and make sure that your interest is genuine. Doing so will help show them that you are interested in a professional connection. Once you trade business cards or request contact information (or ask if you can continue to interact, whether through email or social), be sure to thank them.

Stay In Touch 

Once you’ve met a person and you’ve established a connection, stay in touch. If you don’t, you’ll lose that connection. You can’t reach out to someone you met five years ago at a tradeshow and that you never spoke with again. The odds are that they’ll either be somewhat insulted that you’ve only contacted them when you needed something from them, or they will have forgotten who you are. Stay in touch, even if it’s just sending a short email once or twice a year to see how they’re doing.

Find A Mentor

When establishing new relationships, the connection should be mutually beneficial. Don’t add anyone that you don’t think will add value to your organization. You should also be able to (and be willing to) provide value to them, or they will not be motivated to maintain a connection with you.

Then aim to have people who can act as a mentor in your network. A mentor can be especially useful for small business owners who are still working on establishing and growing their businesses. In such cases, mentors (such as more experienced decision-makers or business owners) will be able to provide you with invaluable advice from their own experiences.

Don't Forget To Invest In Your Professional Network

Although your professional network can grow organically as a result of all of the professionals you'll interact with over the years, invest time into building and maintaining your network to ensure that you get the most out of it. A valuable professional network is one that you consistently work to expand. The connections you make may not be beneficial to your company until years down the line. Keep nurturing those connections by staying in touch with them, even if you do so sporadically. If you don’t maintain your contacts, you won’t be able to develop authentic relationships. Not only will those connections be less reliable, but they may even forget who you are and how you connected in the first place.

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