The driving idea behind networking has changed a lot over the year. Networking is about far more than the people you know. Of course, part of networking is about cultivating relationships, but for advancing your career, networking is more about building your influence than knowing a lot of people. It’s not necessarily who you know — but what they say about you that makes all the difference.
EWF International supports women at all stages of their careers; a core part of that support is helping women grow their network and build their professional influence. To help, we have some advice on building your professional influence, from networking basics to more advanced influence-building strategies.
Networking Fundamentals: 3 Types of Influential Contacts
Before we talk more about the specifics of networking to help build your influence, it’s important to refresh our networking basics to ensure we’re following best practices and using time effectively. One of the essential fundamentals is to make sure you build connections with people who can support your growth in varying ways. People like mentors, sponsors, and advocates in your network that can help strengthen your influence.
Take a few moments to think about your core network and what role(s) they assume. Mentors help you develop specific skills or strategies to be a better business person and leader. These could be hard skills, soft skills, or even networking. Think about who in your network you turn to when you have specific questions or challenges in an area of expertise. In addition to mentors, your network should be comprised of advocates and sponsors. Advocates are the people in your network that help you change minds, get things approved, and in general, get things done. Traditionally, advocates are closer to your professional peers and function along a quid pro quo relationship. Each of you supporting the other to strengthen your influence.
Sponsors are those people who have a direct influence over your career path. They are the members of your network who bring up your name, push your initiatives, and promote you. Sponsor relationships provide support in areas where you don’t yet have authority, visibility, or access. That might be working on your behalf with members that are higher up in your organization, industry groups you do not belong to, or people in their network that could benefit from a relationship with you. Research shows that women, as a whole, are “over-mentored and under-sponsored.” Having good sponsors in your network is key to improving your influence, your visibility, and creating new opportunities for your career.
Managing Your Network to Build Influence
As you reflected on your existing network, you likely came up with people who fill – or could fill – each of those roles. Now consider: what circles and networks do you need to connect with to build more meaningful relationships with them? Most professionals start by networking within their organization. It is often the most accessible place to find mentors, advocates, and sponsors who can give you an immediate boost in influence within your organization. But don’t stop there. You’ll need broader relationships to truly build influence.
Expanding your network to include other people in your industry helps you gain a more holistic view of your industry, which is needed to provide informed, strategic decision-making for your company. However, this is where many business people stop. They make connections through industry groups, trade shows, conferences, but most if not all their contacts are in the same sandbox, which limits their perspective and their influence.
Often, you only need to have one thing in common to spark a potential connection. Start by extending your network through links you already have in place. Explore relationships with your business clients and vendors. Look at other commonalities such as geographic location through general business groups for your city, the chamber of commerce, or local charity events like auctions and galas. Diversifying your network is a great way to build your influence that your peers may overlook.
Create Network Opportunities Through Influence
One of the most common pitfalls in networking stems from the three types: mentors, advocates, and sponsors. You may have noticed that each of those roles is dictated by the benefit you receive from them. So, it is common for professionals to think of their network solely as a resource for their career improvement. However, the secret to networking and building your leadership influence is to build high-quality, reciprocal relationships with other people. That means you need to provide value for others, too.
The easiest and fastest way to open doors with new, potential contacts is by making them want to talk to you. Focus on what value you can provide a new connection — is it introductions to others? A perspective they might be lacking? A sounding board for something they’re struggling with? An opportunity to develop others – and sharpen their own leadership? Younger and or less experienced professionals can stumble here, unsure what of value they can provide to a more experienced professional with their network. Everyone has something of value to offer.
Influential Benefits You Can Offer Potential Network Connections
- Your professional or personal time
- Support for non-work initiatives near and dear to them such as charities, foundations, or volunteer organizations
- Connection with someone in your network that can benefit them
Great networking is built by paying forward the benefits you receive. Visibly paying forward the benefits you receive from networking helps to develop your goodwill and your influence. Ground your network by being generous and reciprocating the benefits you receive from your network, even if it’s by providing that value to someone else by paying it forward.
Opportunities and Connections to Build Influence
If you’re just starting out to build your network, approach opportunities with an open mind and enthusiasm. In the beginning stages of building your professional network, volume is important. This helps you practice making good connections, and gives you many chances to make important connections. Don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish, however. Remember that networking is building relationships toward strategic outcomes, not just blindly making connections. Think about what your ultimate goals are – are you looking for a new role? To sharpen additional skills? To raise your industry profile? Make connections according to those goals, and build value-based reciprocal relationships along the way.
The more seasoned you become, the better you’ll be at zeroing in on the right kinds of networking relationships to meet your goals. If you’re a senior leader, be intentional about the kinds of connections you make and build meaningful relationships while protecting your time.
Experienced professionals should also remember to prune their network using similar criteria to analyzing opportunities. As your career matures and changes, review your network for dead-end connections. Look for points in your network who cannot or will not offer that reciprocal relationship that provides benefit not only to them but to you as well. These are the connections you will want to sever because they drain resources from your network without returning any value. Unchecked, a dead-end connection can begin to negatively influence your position with others in your network through association.
Improving Your Company Network Influence
One of the most impactful ways to build influence inside your company is to develop what we call “cross-functional alliances”. Cross-functional alliances are meaningful, reciprocal relationships across different teams and levels. They provide a blanket of support by helping you sell ideas, get initiatives completed, and help protect your reputation in your absence. Spend time building relationships across your organization’s structure — both up and down the chain of command and across teams. These relationships provide you with a broader perspective of the company and how you can better impact company success. They can also provide you with mentors and sponsors who can help improve your influence in the organization. For them, you can provide subject matter expert knowledge and help them build influence down the organization through your advocates, peers, and direct reports.
Company leaders are not the only ones who should look for opportunities to build their network down the organization. Traditionally, you might look for peers or more veteran professionals to add to your network, but junior connections are also worthwhile. Remember, the foundation to successful networking and building your influence is by giving value. Mentoring and contributing to the success of junior professionals inside and outside your company sets you apart as someone who cares and actively develops their team — someone people want to work for. This perception is crucial to building your influence as a professional, and more importantly, as a leader.
You can maximize your influence within your company by cultivating a core team of achievers around you. These high-power mentors, advocates, and sponsors should be from different areas and levels of your company, allowing you to connect and influence with members throughout your organization. Together, you and your core team can tackle even the most difficult challenges and help push your organization forward into new waters.
Advanced Strategies for Building Networking Influence
If you are looking to refine and improve an already solid network that builds your influence, we have a few more strategies you can explore. The first is to put pen to paper and be intentional about your networking. Making a concerted and deliberate plan to improve your network and influence can put you far ahead of others. Take some time to create an outline for your networking goals. Define specific outcomes you want to see, build a plan to manifest those outcomes, and create a way to measure the results of your efforts. Dutifully planning and examining progress on building your influence will pay significant dividends.
Try getting outside your comfort zone when it comes to networking. Networking with others with whom you have a lot in common will work for a while, but it limits your network growth. It also reinforces bias – when your network looks like you, that simply reinforces your own perspective rather than broadens it. Intentionally diversify your network by seeking out people with different backgrounds, expertise, and experiences. Create opportunities by seeking out groups and industry networking events that are outside your current network. For many of these events, it is the same people mixing and mingling. Being a new face can immediately provide a reason for people to talk to you. Test the waters with these new groups to see if they are a good place to pursue networking and build your influence.
Be intentional about creating regular interactions with potential connections. Especially look for opportunities to connect with “super connectors” (we call these “nodal points”) that can add significant breadth to your network. Nodal points are people who have very large, high-quality networks – and can grant you access to them.
To maximize your influence, create one-on-one, face-to-face interactions with potential givers and influencers for your network. Avoid one-off interactions, always interacting through group events, or relying on email or phone communication. This keeps connections superficial. Instead, focus on building high-quality relationships through dedicated, reoccurring, in-person, one-on-one interactions.
Continue Building Your Network Influence
Building your professional network and your influence is a career-long endeavor. The earlier and more earnest you are in building your network and influence, the greater the return on your efforts. EWF International is here to help you master networking and build your influence, regardless of your career stage. For a deeper dive, see our Four-Part Series on Networking or How to Build Influence Virtually.
Women involved in EWF International’s programs and forums create network connections with other high-achieving, like-minded women from different industries. Together, they help each other to grow their influence and advance their careers.
Building your network and influence is just one key component to advancing your career. EWF International supports early- to mid-career women through our Emerging Leaders Program that helps women build the strategic, financial, and business acumen necessary to gain advanced leadership positions and move their careers forward.
EWF International also provides opportunities for senior leaders to refine their strengths and hone their skills with the help of other executive leaders through EWF International’s Peer Advisory Forums for Executive Women. The confidential non-compete forum provides authentic support to solve executive leadership problems and drive results.