While in active military service, relationships and contacts are established primarily by proximity (geography), rank and role. There is not as much "networking" in the same sense that we network on the civilian side.
Whether you are looking for a job, clients or more interesting projects, a network is a critical part of your professional toolkit. As a civilian in a professional career, I use intentional networking strategies to gain introductions, leads, referrals, insights and relationships with stakeholders whom I deem important to my success. My intentional network is a vital part of my professional development and my circles of influence to grow my business and my career.
A network of viable contacts is critical in today's competitive business climate. Your network serves not only as lead sources for new business but also as a sounding board, support system and news source. Your network is the "circle of influence" that will guide you through your career, if carefully planned and managed.
You already have a network
Each of us has family, friends, and people we associate with – personally and professionally (during service and after). Your intentional network is that group of contacts you specifically recruit, maintain and nurture to benefit from and with whom you will reciprocate. Intentional networks are win-win relationships based on rapport, trust and mutual benefit.
Who should be in your network?
Most people look to meet and network with decision makers – those are the hiring managers, senior leaders and people who can transact with us. They can hire us, contract with us and buy from us. The problem is, often they are the most sought after individuals and can get overwhelmed with inquiries.
Instead, I'd like to offer you two additional categories of contacts to consider having in your intentional network: Information Sources and Cheerleaders. Information sources may or may not have the power to hire you, promote you and buy from you – but they might bring some unique industry information or insight that makes you more competitive, relevant and better at your job. For this reason, when you meet someone who is potentially a valuable information source, you network with him or her as if they are a decision maker.
Similarly, a cheerleader is a vital part of any networking strategy. These are your fans – they cheer you on when things get rough, give you support and references when you need them. Positive, supportive people are very valuable in an intentional business network.
Decision makers: Contacts who can provide you direct leads, direct work or bridge you to contacts who can. For example, these might be hiring managers, procurement personnel, clients, customers, and agents who can transact with and buy from you.
Information sources: Contacts who can provide valuable insight into companies, industries, trends and people about whom you need to know. For example, someone with a deep knowledge of marketing can be helpful as you position yourself for a new job, or a promotion.
Cheerleaders: Contacts who will provide references, testimonials, and will vouch for you. These contacts will give you support and encouragement. This might be a friend from your past or a colleague at your current job who is upbeat and optimistic in times of stress.
Organize and nurture your network
As you begin to outline and organize your network, start listing out the people you already know. Consider: the men and women with whom you served; alumni from high school, college, grad school; colleagues and co-workers from current and past employment; people you met at events, functions and gatherings for whom you have contact information (business phone number, email). Start putting these names into a database, such as Excel or Outlook, so you can refer to them.
Then, keep track of meetings, phone calls, notes sent and other ways you have to contact with your network. Be sure no one gets left out. If you haven't spoken to someone in awhile, send them a handwritten note saying "hello" with an update about your work. If you meet someone new, enter him or her into your database and begin to keep them in mind when you cross an article that might be interesting to them.
Networking success tips
As you build or enhance your network of contacts, consider that everyone you meet will potentially enter your network in one of many possible ways.
In every case, for every category of contact, certain success tips ring true:
Connect in person, online (on LinkedIn, for instance) and stay in touch. Even when you don't have an "ask," stay in touch and let your network know how you're doing, what you're up to and what you might have to offer. Typically, we only hear from people when they need something (a job, advice, a place to stay). Be the person who stays in touch to let your network know the good things happening in your life, too.