Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

How to network while being beneficial to oneself professionally?

There's a great question in workplace.stackexchange.com about networking from Dec 2022 (I'm quoting the original question here, not the edited-by-another-user version):

First thing first, I'm a engineer/scientist in industry.

While the way of professional networking has been portraited as  'helping others', for example by supporting them professionally/make them look good etc., and have wishful thinking that someday in some point of time, the goodwill would be returned back to me. (I'm thinking it similar to consciously aware of being used but sincerely follow suit).

However, I do dreams of my own (e.g. build up my expertise in the field, for example). And by doing what I just mentioned (to be available as a tool for other, perhaps those up the hierarchy), I sacrifice my energy and time that I could have otherwise invested in building up my profession.

On risk analysis, the latter option always seem to be the one with  lowest risk as I can never guarantine the goodwill would ever be returned. And it's not rare to see bosses would just use juniors to achieve what they want without bothering about their career growth/prospects etc.

In addition, as a specialist, I can't adopt the ordinary way how generalist network: they are willing to do whatever work to climb up, but I am not willing to go outside of my area of expertise (but can be a manager in the field). Thus, networking could bring more harm than good to me if I don't do it right, as I would run the risk of deviating from building expertise A LOT.

But I do believe the power of networking. But I'm a bit confused: are there ways that get the good of both world? How can I network and at the same time advancing my professional capability?

There are already some answers in that thread but the question intrigued me since I think it shows some very common ideas about networking that I wanted to address as well so I wanted to write a reply in form of a blog post for the larger audience.

I think the person asking the question has picked up many of the good bits and pieces about networking but connected them in a bit wrong order.

Here are the highlights that I agree with:

  • Help people learn new things, connect with new people and achieve their goals
  • The "pay forward" mentality: don't expect a direct return of favor if you help someone
  • Building their own expertise and professional connections

However, what I think they got wrong is that these things would be separate from each other.

Help others learn & connect them to others

I've found the best way to network is to build relationships and work with people who share your interests. It's even better, if you find people from different "stages" of career in it: some just beginning, some at your peer level and some seasoned experts with more experience than you.

You can learn from each group:

  • with the more experienced people you can learn from the experience they have that you still lack and learn about the unknowns.
  • with people earlier in their career you'll often learn about the new things and where the world and the industry is moving – and you can improve your core skills by helping them learn those.
  • with your peers, you can often find a lot of very practical tips and as well as mental support as they are going through the same as you.

Your network also isn't just the first degree connections (the people you know directly). It's also the 2nd and even 3rd degree connections (who the people you know, know). One of the most powerful methods of growing your network is introducing people you know to other people you know or meet. When those people end up doing new things or meeting new people, they are very likely to bring you in and introduce you further because you are a common connection.

Pay forward

The mentality of paying forward isn't so much about "wishful thinking that someday in some point of time, the goodwill would be returned back to me" as the original question put it. I'd rephrase it as "don't help others by expecting (and keeping tally of) immediate direct return".

The key reason for that is that it limits you too much. If you go to every interaction thinking "what can they do for me in return", it's very hard to find cases where you would find a perfect win-win return.

Build your own expertise

The gist is to do both of the above within your expertise. As the original question was asked by an engineer in the industry, I use that as an example:

If you connect with people who work in the same industry as you, share with them what you know, help them find jobs or interesting projects, let them know of interesting opportunities and maybe even mentor juniors and be mentored by seniors, you'll build a lot of social capital: relationships where people know you, trust you and know very well what your expertise and skills are.

People who know you and what you're interested in, are the people who can let you know of the opportunities and those are the people who'll mention your name when some 3rd party is wondering who'd be a great fit for a new project or case.

In the software industry for example, a lot of networking happens in meetups and conferences and online communities where the core part is people sharing their expertise. Let's say you give a talk in a 2-day conference. That's broadcasting your expertise to a few hundred people while helping them learn. For the rest of the conference, you can learn from dozen other speakers' talks, deepen your knowledge in your own topic by discussing it with other participants after your talk and so on.

You don't need to separate your own learning from helping others – the best is when both happen at the same time. Helping others also positions you as the expert in their eyes, which in turn opens up a lot of opportunities in your career.

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