Too often, the advice we hear about networking is tailored for meeting new people at networking events and having the perfect “elevator pitch”. Sure, that’s important, but what if you already have a robust network that you’ve developed over a successful career? What steps should you take if you want to leverage that network to continue to grow and re-imagine your career?
Done right, successful networking for career veterans looks very different than it does for those just entering the workforce. Instead of focusing on building new connections en masse, they need to look at ways to uncover the power of existing relationships and strategically add new ones. When you dig into your current networking relationships you’ll be able to find exciting opportunities right under your nose.
1. Create your 21st Century Rolodex…Online
To maximize your reach, you first need to understand what your network “looks” like. Do you understand its depth and breadth? In the past, the Rolodex was a valuable tool because professionals could flip through it and find whatever they needed. These days experts talk about how we are outsourcing our memory to Google and you can do the same thing with your network.
Use technology to collect and collate your contacts digitally. For example, use your LinkedIn account, not to meet new people, but to bring all of your existing contacts into one place. Then you will have an easy way to access their contact information, as well as their professional experiences, skills, and even goals.
2. Reach Out and Rekindle Dormant Relationships
If you’ve had a career that has spanned decades, there’s a good chance that you have hundreds or even thousands of contacts that you haven’t spoken to in years. One of the challenges in the 2oth century was that we didn’t have the tools to maintain relationships with people we saw only occasionally.
Now with social media and email, it’s much easier to stay in touch. There’s nothing wrong with reaching out and saying, “It’s been a long time, but I’m rebooting my network and you were an important part of it in the past – and I wanted to see how you were doing. How are things?” You don’t have to be best friends, but you do want to keep the lines of communication open.
3. Find Ways to Support Your Existing Contacts
We go to our network to find opportunities. However, many of us feel awkward asking for help (even if we have a close relationship with our networking partners). One of the easiest ways for us to receive is to give first; so if you want a comfortable way to reconnect with people, look for ways to support them.
Do you have a contact or some information that would be valuable? Share it! Even if you aren’t in a position to directly contribute, the willingness to grab a conversation over coffee or lunch can be very powerful. It’s not about making them feel obligated; rather it’s about creating positive networking karma.
4. Fill the Gaps in Your Roster
When you are already an industry veteran, your existing network will be relatively robust. That doesn’t mean that it will be perfect. Your network developed as your career progressed, so it’s gotten you to here…but it won’t necessarily get you any farther. If you want to continue to grow and move into uncharted career territories, there are holes in your network that you will want to fill.
These are the individuals who can help as you move into the next chapter. There are two easy steps that will help you move past these gaps. The first is to identify who exactly you need to connect with. What industries are they in? What positions do they hold? Next, when you are meeting with your existing contacts, simply ask, “I’m trying to meet people in ______, who can you think of that I should talk to.”
5. Ask For Help
The biggest networking challenge that experienced professionals face isn’t a lack of access to the right contacts, but that those contacts don’t have the chance to help. Your network can only assist you if you ask first. It’s easy to become a wallflower in your career and wait for the right opportunities to drop in your lap. Don’t assume that your network is filled with psychics!
Most people are more than willing to help and are usually happy to do so. But you have to let them know you need that help, and what you need. You can provide an “out” when you ask, in case your contact isn’t in a position to be able to help. But don’t just wait for people to offer, let them know what you are looking for.
Your network of professional connections is your most valuable career resource. No matter where you go, you can take it with you (especially in this digital age). It holds job opportunities, industry information, and even possibilities to give back to those just coming up in their careers. But it can only provide value if you give it attention and love. You can’t sit in front of a fireplace and think, “When this gives me some light and heat, I’ll throw in some wood.” In the same way, you can’t expect your network to give back without you putting in the effort first. And when you do put in the effort, the return will blow you away!
This article orginially appeared at NextAvenue.org and Forbes.com. Find more great information on career-building for the over 50 set here!