We all know how important a professional network is to our careers. But how often do we analyze our networks to see if we’re reaching the right people in the right disciplines and professions? And how do ensure that our networks are diverse—which is so important since the business case for diversity and inclusion is proven to result in more innovation and a competitive advantage for organizations with high degrees of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
If we’re honest, most of us will admit that we’re not too strategic when it comes to building our networks. For most of us, they just happen rather organically. As a result, we’re potentially missing out on some powerful connections that may be helpful throughout our career lifecycles. We also each have a responsibility to help the next generation of leaders, and the next generation of leaders aren’t going to look as homogenous as they have in the past. Knowing that – having a diverse and inclusive professional network is more important than ever.
Intention is Key
Many people begin building their professional networks before even landing their first professional job. It’s easier to simply let our networks evolve based on people we already know from school or previous jobs. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of just allowing it to happen organically rather than strategically. Avoid this approach. To be strategic we have to be intentional in who we invite into our network and who we make new connections with as our careers develop. If we take the ad hoc approach, we too often end up with networks that consist of people just like us in terms of our socio-economic status, gender, race, culture, and education. If we’re intentional we seek out people who have valuable skills, insights, or accomplishments that would prove beneficial regardless of their backgrounds. This is made so much easier today with the Web as a virtual bridge that allows us to seek out and make new connections that extend beyond our comfortable bubbles of like-minded and similar peers and colleagues.
Audit Your Network
Many people that have been working for a while will have established networks. But how often do we do a deep audit of our network maps? How many of us actually sit down and really examine our networks objectively to identify how many people look like us, think like us, or live where we live? Auditing our networks don’t have to take a lot of time at all, and many of us are surprised by the results. Once we have a definitive idea of who is included in our networks, we can then strategically enhance it by seeking out diverse people whose knowledge or skills align with our career objectives.
Swim in Different Waters
For some of us, especially introverts, networking can be a painful exercise, but we know we have to do it to keep abreast and on top of things in our primary career sectors. But we don’t have to necessarily stay within our narrow sectors; we’re free to “swim in different waters,” so to speak, as means of broadening our networks significantly. Let’s say we’re in manufacturing sales and regularly attend events and conferences related to that industry. Great! However, why not seek out people with expertise in other sectors that we can learn from as well? For instance, in this scenario, we might seek out people with expertise in retail, blockchain technology, or marketing to include in our network. As we explore potential new connections, we should think strategically and be intentional in diversifying our networks as much as possible. We don’t need to establish any quotas, we simply need to seek out people we don’t have an opportunity to interact with on a regular basis.
Consider Employee Resource Groups
Today many mid-to-large scale organizations have employee resource groups (ERGs). Wikipedia describes ERGS as “groups of employees who join together in their workplace based on shared characteristics or life experiences. ERGs are generally based on providing support, enhancing career development, and contributing to personal development in the work environment.”
If your organization provides this option to you take advantage of the opportunity to meet people outside of your specific discipline who you’d be unlikely to otherwise meet or interact with in your day-to-day work. Also, we all have the option to join more than one ERG, but it’s important that we don’t take on more than we can commit to in terms of time management as we still have our core responsibilities to fulfill. Many companies have ERGS for women, military veterans, minority groups, LEBTQ+ employees, people with disabilities, and others. Be strategic as you explore your options. Is there another area of business that you’d like to learn? ERGs are an excellent way to do just that.
Attend Alumni Events
When we’re in college or technical school it’s natural to surround ourselves with fellow students in our specific discipline. We find our “tribe” and stick with them; not taking advantage of the rich diversity at most schools today—at least in higher education. Many schools have alumni chapters in major cities that we can tap into as means of connecting with new people. We already have a shared experience with them so why not exploit that to make powerful new connections? Of course, it’s only natural to gravitate toward people we already know or who are similar to us in some way. However, our time is better spent meeting people from other “tribes” as well.
Design Based on Career Goals
As you build your network consider your career goals because your network should be designed to get you where you eventually want to be. There are many other ways to enhance and enrich our professional networks, but these tips will help you get started. One other tip is to schedule time for networking to make it part of your career plan and map. You might consider spending an hour each week or even once a month. You’ll soon notice that you’ve successfully grown your network while at the same time diversifying it for a more powerful tool in your career toolbox.