The first few years after college can be exciting: The freedom, the friends, the fun.
It’s also stressful. You have to find your place in the world, figure out how you’re going to pay the rent, and what you want to do with your career.
Building a strong professional network around you is important for your short-term career success. More importantly, though, it’s how you can plant seeds that you can harvest the rest of your life.
This is especially true because the work world continues to become more and more mobile. If you’re a recent grad, you’ve probably seen statistics quoted with the average number of jobs you will have in your career (between five and eight) and how long the average tenure will be at those positions (somewhere between two and seven years). And that doesn’t even take into effect the jobs you might have as you look around for a career track or transition between industries.
Nobody is Going to Help You Improve Your Networking
So a strong network to support you and provide opportunities is important. And you are poised to build yours.
When we look at improving your network, though, there are two pieces to consider. First, you need to build the number of relationships you have. Yes, you want to focus on meeting new people and building your network. But too often, most young professionals stop there, and that’s why they flounder. They reach out to new connections, but they don’t know what to do with them beyond the initial outreach.
The second consideration, and more important when you are starting out, is improving your ability to cultivate, leverage, and grow these relationships. If professional networking is a skill, how good are you? Developing the skills to reach out to new connections and engage with them is critical. Luckily, you can build these abilities, but you have to be intentional about it. You won’t just get better by accident.
And here’s the deal: No one is going to make you get better. You have to do it yourself.
Your employer won’t. Why would a company improve an asset that will eventually leave? It sounds harsh, but one of the consequences of expanded worker mobility is a decrease in employer-sponsored training. No one is going to care about your personal and professional development more than you. Your destiny is in your hands. Think about your self-education as investing in “You, Incorporated”.
And looking back on your college career, it probably did little to help. Formal schooling rarely focuses on the soft-skills that actually lead to career success. So the average graduate has gotten little dedicated training in the skills that are needed to effectively create a network.
Build a Plan for Self-Education
I regularly work with students and recent graduates from some of the top universities in the United States, and I see the same scenario play out over and over.
There are many intellectually-gifted and highly-trained individuals who are novices in the world of business interaction. And it shows. They struggle because they’re prepared to be incredibly competent in their fields, but they lack the basic social skills to help them get things done in the workplace.
So it’s on your shoulders to improve.
One of the biggest mistakes young professionals make is putting off skill development. It’s easy to think, “I’ll work on these things when I get settled in a position. But right now I should work hard at the job I have and learn whatever technical skills I need to be successful.” Unfortunately, it’s common for the urgent demands of finding, keeping, and excelling at a job to fill our time.
Prepare Yourself for Change
This is also why many professionals find the rug pulled out from under them when there is change in their industry, field, or company. If you just put your head down and do your work, you are not planting the seeds that will lead to bigger and better things down the line. You don’t want the years to fly by with little to no improvement in the soft skills that lead to a powerful network (and more opportunities in your future).
That’s why you need to create a plan to improve. Make it intentional. A little time and a little attention can go a long way. It starts with being specific about what you want to learn. If you feel like you have too many areas to work on, it can seem overwhelming and create paralysis. It’s better to start small and take action – pick one place to work on and get started with that.
It might be working on your professional introduction, your follow-up program, or your listening skills. You have your entire career ahead of you, so you don’t have to figure it out all at once. Just start somewhere.
Improve Your Networking with Technology
There are number of different avenues for self-education that I explore in Networking in the 21st Century, and the most important guideline that I would give is to learn in a way that works for you.
Create a focused plan about what, how, and when you are going to work on the skills you need. Set aside time for your professional development by attending conferences, listening to audiobooks, or watching online courses.
Use your comfort with technology to make your life easier. There are a host of online options and smartphone apps that can help. Build a list of your favorite professional development podcasts. There are online courses you can take from sites such as Udemy and Coursera. In fact, many public libraries give free access to professional-grade online courses that you can access from a home computer or tablet. Change your commute time to learning time by listening to an audiobook or reading industry articles (but only if you are on public transportation).
Consider the time spent on developing your professional skills to be the same as a chef practicing her chopping skills or a basketball player practicing free throw shots. It’s an investment that will pay off consistently in the long-term because it makes all of your networking and relationship-building activities more effective.
And by reading this article, you’ve already taken the first step!