There’s a cart. And there’s a horse. One of the most important things you can do in any professional endeavor is to put those two in the proper order. That’s certainly true when you build a network of professional relationships.
Too often, professionals start “networking” without asking a few important questions. Before you dive into building and maintaining your network, you want to put a plan in place. Think of this as a marketing plan for “You, Inc.” A good networking plan acts as a map, so you know the best direction to focus your efforts. Instead of making it up as you go along (and getting haphazard results), you’ll outline a clear path forward.
Create a Networking Plan
Once you create clarity around your networking efforts, it’s much easier to make decisions about how to build your network. You will also find that opportunities pop up with more regularity because you know what to look for and recognize them when they appear. Creating a networking plan doesn’t have to be a formal and tedious event. It can as simple as jotting notes on the back of an envelope or an involved as creating a mind map. Putting your thoughts on paper or pixel will help you clarify your thinking and gives you a reference point to come back to.
1. What are you trying to accomplish in your business life?
Start your plan by defining the overarching goals you are looking to accomplish by building stronger business relationships. The more specific you are here, the better. It’s one thing to say that you want to “build your career” or “find clients”. It’s much more valuable to say, “I want to become a manager for a company in my field in two years” or “I want to find 5 top-tier clients”.
This is the foundation of your networking plan, because your end goals direct your other activities. A clear focus lets you realize when a potential connection opportunity is right in front of you.
2. Who do you need in your network?
Based on your clearly defined networking goals, you should be able to identify the gaps in your current network. These are the people that you need to actively search out and cultivate relationships with. Identify general demographic or industry groups where you need to find connections. Even better, if you can identify people by name that you would like to add to your network, you can create a “wish list” of specific contacts to reach out to.
You can look internally at your current employer as well as beyond. Don’t limit yourself to only circles you’ve run in before. Consider additional centers of influence that you aspire to move into.
3. Where can you meet them?
Once you know who you want to connect with, you have to actually connect with them. More often than not, this means identifying the environments where your ideal connections spend their time and attention. Approach this the same way an advertising executive would and connect the venue to the audience. There is a reason that beer and trucks are advertised during football games, and not diapers.
Look for networking opportunities both online and off-line. Find online communities where your ideal connections spend time. That might mean Twitter chats, LinkedIn groups, or active blog communities. Pick two or three places where you can put your attention for 6 months, because it will take time to build up momentum.
4. How will you maintain and develop your relationships?
Follow-up is critical to your networking success, and it is easier to have good follow-up when you have a plan. Create a simple flowchart describing what will happen when you meet someone. Create templates for follow-up emails or messages that you will send. Decide who you are going to reach out to for one-on-one meetings and the questions you can ask in those meeting.
Map out ways to re-engage with the people you meet. It’s not hard, and relatively inexpensive, to send a quick email to your network every few months. The trick is to decide how you are going to follow up before you even start the relationship.
The answers that you develop to these questions provide a blueprint for success, but there is one final ingredient. Action is the special sauce that separates the mediocre from the massively connected.
Don’t use your networking plan as a stall tactic. Don’t think, “I’ll get to my networking after I’ve done my plan.” Instead, use your plan to propel you forward. Once you’ve mapped out your goals, choose one step and take action on that step. Reach out to someone that you don’t know, or research an organization to join. In the end, your plan will only be as good as the amount of effort you put into it.