Enhance your professional network

19 September 2020

Following a sell-out UCL Connect event, Nicole Brigandi, UCL alumna and leadership coach, talks us through her top 10 tips for enhancing your professional network.

Photo of Nicole Brigandi, UCL alumna and leadership coach

The saying “it’s a small world” has become more significant with our increasing reliance on the internet and platforms, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and others. While the tradition of building relationships is still a cornerstone of business and professional development, the means for making those connections are evolving. 
It’s also not just who you know, but how you attract the kind of networks that can help you personally and professional grow and contribute in a meaningful way to an inspiring global community. 

At the heart of the small world phenomenon is networking. 

For some, the term ‘networking’ can generate anxious images of intimidating social situations and awkward introductions. Not to mention the dread of superficial small talk. For others, it’s an opportunity to unleash your social butterfly and engage with new people. 

At its worst, networking can be made into a superficial task of racking up contacts on LinkedIn or collecting the most business cards at an event. The real value of networking is in building relationships and developing a community (or communities) of people willing to help each other. A healthy network is a living organism that thrives on meaningful engagement and the abundant exchange of ideas, opportunities, and information. Super network connectors have a mindset of building communities around them and take the opportunity to integrate those communities to enhance the richness and diversity of their network. 

The quality of your network will reflect what you put into it. You can choose to be active or passive, giving or taking, implicit or explicit. Whether you’re new to networking or adept at building relationships, dread the thought of meeting new people or thrive on making connections, the tips below will help you make the most of your professional network.

First, get clear on your personal brand.

Seth Godin, marketing expert and branding guru, describes a brand as “the promise you make implicitly or explicitly”. This is about how you present yourself to the external world. 

Tip 1: Tell your story 

Your story is built on where you’ve been, where you are, and where you are going. The way you articulate your story is more than just a timeline. It can provide important implicit information and cues about how you make decisions, your level of ambition and, most importantly, what makes you unique. Consider your journey, your goals, and the direction you’re moving in. What are the key themes that arise, and what are the key messages you want to share with your network? Get clear on your strengths, values, and the contribution you make to the world. This will help to tell a clear and succinct story about who you are and what you are asking from your network. Don’t feel you have to have everything figured out, but do aim to have a starting point for how you introduce yourself. 

Not sure where to start on this? You can sign up here for some free videos to help you master your personal brand

Tip 2: Be aware of your online footprint

With so much of our lives captured in newsfeeds and online profiles, there’s a whole lot more information for potential employers to access. Consider what people are going to find when they search your name. Choose to take an active role in your online brand. Take the time to update your LinkedIn profile, reset your privacy settings on social media accounts, and make sure the content you are putting out into the virtual world tells a consistent story with the brand you’re trying to demonstrate to potential employers and clients.

The next step is to engage and expand your network 

There are several ways to do this. Whether you approach networking in a strategic, deliberate way, or through curiosity and exploration, exciting opportunities can arise when you put yourself out there. 

Tip 3: Share and connect

Networking can be helpful to gain new information, take advantage of job opportunities, create new clients, and generating new ideas. Whatever your intention, practice sharing your story with others and making new connections. Online or in person, there are several ways to build your network. 

  • Share content – Write a LinkedIn article or blog. Tweet about the work you are doing or questions you’re thinking about. Sound scary? Start by sharing interesting articles by authors you admire or on topics that excite you. Get in the habit of sharing. 
  • Reach out to interesting people – Don’t connect with people for the sake of it. Use your online resources (Google, LinkedIn, Facebook) to identify potential people who you find inspiring or have mutual interests. These might be friends, friends of friends, or a new connection. Reach out and ask to connect. 
  • Keep it casual – Catch up with friends or reconnect with former colleagues. Talk about what you are doing, your ideas and what types of opportunities you’re looking for. Informal conversations can be as, if not more, effective than formal meetings for generating strong network contacts. 
  • Don’t limit yourself to online – Sign up for conferences, meetups and events. Make the most of alumni associations, interest groups and personal networks. Focus on the things you enjoy rather than what you think you “should” be doing.

Tip 4: Step out of your comfort zone

There may be someone in your extended network with a useful connection, so it’s important to go beyond the people you know well. And you’re more likely to find opportunities based on your weak connections. Weak connections are more likely to refer you as there is a lower cost than with your primary ties, and they are not as well acquainted with your flaws. Primary ties can also be helpful – the key is to exercise your whole network alongside actively pursuing new connections. Remain open-minded as you never know what a connection may lead to.

Another important point here is overcoming the fear of asking. Asking to connect with someone you’ve never met or offering your services to a new contact can be intimidating. Not only is it ok to make a (reasonable) request, it’s also part of the exchange process. Start by making a small but specific request – advice on a particular question, time for a brief chat, willingness to share ideas or contacts. This may include asking someone you know to make an introduction to someone in their network. This approach increases your chances of a new opportunity and it also improves your credibility to have someone who is willing to vouch for you.

Tip 5: Help me help you

Make it easy for others to help you. When reaching out to your network, making a new contact, or following up with someone you met in person, it can be helpful to provide them with some background about yourself.

Try these principles:

  • familiarity (mention how you know them or a shared interest around why you are getting in touch)
  • context (provide a few brief sentences for why you are getting in touch and your desired outcome) 
  • convenience (suggest options for following up which makes it easy for the person to respond)
  • appreciation (thank the person in advance for any help they are able to offer)

Tip 6: Be OK with rejection

Accept that not everyone will be responsive to your request. People are busy. Get over it. In fact, make it a point to generate as many no’s as possible. As Prosperous Coach gurus, Rich Litvin and Steve Chandler, say, “yes lives in the land of no”.

The last and most important part of developing a healthy network is building lasting relationships.

This part is about being authentic and taking the time to get to know people who have mutual interests and those with whom you can learn and grow from. 

Tip 7: Be human

It’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing networking in the transactional sense. This can come off as being mechanical and inauthentic and can make others feel like they are being used. Be yourself, and remember to treat others with courtesy, kindness, and humanity.

Tip 8: Play the long game

Focus on the quality of the relationships you develop and make an effort to keep in touch with people over time. Your network will continue to mature as you move through your career. Those who were once classmates may be business owners and world leaders one day. Don’t underestimate the value and richness of building meaningful relationships with people of all levels and disciplines. 

Tip 9: Show appreciation

If someone is willing to give you their time or introduce you to their network, make sure to thank them. Send a personalised follow-up note or email. Share something of interest to them. Ask if there is anything you can do to return the favour. Follow up after a referral to let the person who referred you know how it went and what you found most helpful. This is a simple practice that too often gets overlooked, yet can go a long way.

Tip 10: Pay it forward

You don’t need to wait for someone to do something for you. Be generous. Networking is an ongoing process of sharing. Offer to help others to make connections in your network. Share your time and information with others. Giving is a powerful tool. It helps improve the strength of your network and generate reciprocity. 

What will your small world look like?  Be brave enough to adapt these tips to your authentic style, and contribute to a community of people who challenge and inspire you to be your best. 

Discover more

Begin building your professional network through our mentoring opportunities available via the UCL Alumni Online Community

Nicole Brigandi is a Leadership Coach, Business Psychologist, and Organisational Development Specialist. For more on this topic check out her article on How to authentically fake it ‘til you make it, or contact Nicole via her website: www.nicolebrigandicoaching.com.