For most people, building your network begins while you're still in college and looking to find a job related to your field of study. But what happens when you realize you want to take your career in an entirely new direction?
Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea to have a tiny network, or a network filled with people you’ve worked with in your current line of work.
If you want to grow your professional network and connections in a particular industry, you need to look outside the circle of people you’ve met at work and in your program at school. You need to actually get out there — online or off — and meet new people. So whether you’ve moved to a new area and need as much help as you can get, or you simply want to expand your professional circle for a potential career change, here are five ways to grow your network from scratch.
1. Get Out and Learn Something New
The first step in building a network from scratch is to get outside of your comfort zone and physically leave your house to do something new. Because as valuable as virtual relationships can be, interacting with a group of people in person is the quickest way to develop a strong sense of camaraderie — especially when you’re looking to meet people who aren’t already in your line of work.
As you evaluate your interests and compare them to your potential new field, don’t make the mistake of assuming that only a professional group can help you grow your professional network. Any hobby that attracts a wide variety of people will help you expand your circle and potentially help you network in a new industry. Just start by thinking of a hobby or interest you’ve had for years (or perhaps used to have before you got busy with your career!). Are there any adult groups you can join that would help you pursue that interest? From joining a Toastmasters International group to volunteering at your local ASPCA or pet shelter, these kinds of hobby interests are fertile grounds for forming new relationships with people of all different kinds of professional backgrounds.
2. Join an Online Organization
If you can’t make time to attend a regular group meeting (or you simply want to take more than one step toward building your network), being active in a virtual community is the next best thing. Most professional industries have active online communities on all the major social media platforms, from regular Twitter threads on industry topics to more general Facebook and LinkedIn groups. Get online, request access and go learn about your field of interest. Consider starting by asking members what they wish they’d known when they were first becoming active in their industry (but be prepared to receive a score of responses!).
If you’d rather invest your time in a more formal setting than free online communities, consider joining a professional community in your industry, such as SHRM for human resources management, AWAI for professional writing or NSPE for licensed professional engineers. These memberships often come with a yearly fee, but it can be a worthwhile investment if it encourages you to take your participation more seriously.
3. Support a Niche Professional Cause
Another way to build your network is to get in on the conversation around a specific cause within the industry. For example, if you’re looking to become an educator, you don’t need to focus only on education. You can also look for niche communities within the field such as educational technology, curriculum or International Student Exchange programs. The same could be said for any other field, from project management for a specific cause to lawyers who work for specific clients — every industry features niche topics that offer leads for both online and offline communities to engage with.
4. Reconnect With Your Alma Mater
You’re probably still paying off your student loans for the degree you earned… Why not let your alma mater help you expand your network, too? Particularly if you attended a large school, there are no doubt a number of opportunities for expanding your network and meeting new people based on your shared educational background. Here are just a few suggestions for how to put your school to work for you:
- Connect with your local networking groups, which may host dinners and weekend events to help you meet other alumni in your city
- Look up the contact information for professors in different industries and reach out with a quick question or two (even if you were never directly a student of theirs)
- Reach out to your alma mater’s career center to see if they can introduce you to anyone in a particular industry or at a particular company to ask questions
5. Ask Friends for Referrals
People love to help people they love. So while tapping your existing network might not be the first thing you think of when you’re trying to create a whole new network, you might be surprised to find out just how well-connected your friends are. The trick is to ask for help in a way that makes it clear you won’t do any damage to their relationships should they choose to introduce you.
To make sure you frame this request in a way that will get a response, write a short, personal email to 5-7 friends you think might be able to help you, and ask them if they happen to know anyone in the industry you’re looking to network in. Make it clear that you’d like to connect with this person to ask one or two specific questions — not to ask for a job or any other excessive favors. Then sit back and see if you can benefit from your friend’s uncle-in-law’s business associate who can help you learn more about a given topic.
The best time to build your network is long before you'll need to draw on it. Use these tips to meet new people now, and they just might help you find your dream job in the future.