How to Network in a Digital Environment

(U.S. Navy photo)

Question: If networking is important to a successful transition -- and in 2020, most of us are working remotely and not gathering for events -- how am I supposed to build and grow a network?

Answer: Great question! Networking is a critical tool to use when exiting the military, finding employment or growing your career. Your network will serve you as you consider career decisions, refine your positioning and increase your circle of influence with others. Networking is the relationship tool we tap into for support, information, access and influence.

Traditionally, to build a network, we'd focus on rapport building, sharing things of value -- including leads, insights and ideas -- and in-person experiences to build, reinforce and grow the relationship. Today, with most professionals working remotely because of pandemic protocols, we've learned to network differently to achieve the same result.

My favorite tips for networking in a virtual (or remote) environment are:

1. Remember It's a Relationship

Professionally, you'll want to cultivate relationships with colleagues, industry partners, associates and others who can offer you input, opportunities, support or advancement in your career. Seeing these people as relationship partners ensures you don't make conversations one-sided, will be watching for ways you can help them (as much as they help you) and will be able to extract value in the relationship.

Since we're not meeting in person, you might need to become more creative in ensuring your networking contacts remember you and what you can offer and will keep you in mind for key opportunities they might come across.

2. Use Video as Much as Possible

Sure, it's fun to get an email from someone in our network with an update, idea or invitation, but a phone call is more interactive and experiential. Even better, setting up a "catch-up meeting" via video enhances the experience.

While we might have video fatigue from our jobs, networking on video is still a better alternative to phone or email if we can't be in person. Consider inviting your contact to join you for a coffee meeting via video -- and each of you provides your own favorite brew for the conversation.

3. Listen. Learn. Leverage

As you engage with new and existing networking contacts, avoid being the only one talking. Ask open-ended questions (the kind that don't solicit a yes/no response) and listen to what's shared with you. We often reveal a lot more than we intend when someone asks good questions, and if you're paying attention, your contact might share ideas on how they can help you that weren't discussed previously.

Since you might be having this conversation on the phone, take good notes on what was said so you can follow up afterward.

4. Reciprocate

Be sure to always return the favor when offered help. Whether the person helps you prepare for an interview, introduces you to a colleague or client, reviews your online profiles or something else of professional benefit, be sure to reciprocate with something of value.

It might be challenging to thank them by taking them to a steak dinner today, but you could send them a gift card to a nearby restaurant, volunteer to introduce them to someone in your network, provide insight or feedback on a topic of interest to them or send a handwritten note of appreciation. Just because we might not be face to face now, the need to reciprocate and show appreciation remains.

5. Plan for In-Person Interactions Later

Most professionals are looking forward to the time when we can all be in person, socializing, sharing and networking. Why not make preliminary plans now? If your state is close to reopening with fewer restrictions, set a date when you might visit with your networking contact in person over lunch or coffee.

If your state is offering limited in-person meetings, and your contacts are comfortable donning a mask and talking face to face, set a date and time to get together. You could always reschedule if things change, but it's something nice to look forward to.

Networking is an important part of your career progress and growth. Even though most of us are grounded at home, behind the computer screen, we can still build, cultivate and develop our professional contacts and relationships.

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