It’s no secret that “networking” is often hailed as the elusive key to a successful career.  

But how can you actually get started? And once you begin building, how do you maintain a network that actually provides value?

When approached the right way, networking shouldn’t be all construction and maintenance—and it doesn’t have to feel like a chore. Instead, a network is better viewed as a community you build to support your growth and the growth of others. 

Natasha Irani of HashiCorp, Anjali Surapaneni of Applied Materials, and Carter Busse of Workato held a roundtable at Biz Systems Magic 2021 to explain the value of networking-as-community-building, and also gave some advice on how to get started.

The value of a network

During a six month stretch of job hunting, Carter Busse experienced the power of his network firsthand. In order to illustrate just how valuable his community proved to be, he broke the process down into numbers. What he found is pretty illuminating. 

Busse was in contact with 56 total companies, 33 of which invited him to interview. Of those 33 interviews, 21 were reached through a network referral. Of the 13 companies who offered multiple interviews, 10 were from Busse’s existing network, and by the time he had three different offers in the same week, all three were from companies reached through a network referral.

The numbers speak for themselves: Not only are a majority of connections with businesses made through a network referral, but those referrals also tend to get you further in the interviewing and hiring process. To ensure you have a wide and fruitful network of connections, Busse recommends you begin building that community as early as possible, which is advice that was echoed by both Anjali Surapaneni and Natasha Irani. 

Surapaneni highlighted the importance of trust in advancing your career, stating that in order to be brought into higher levels of responsibility, your business partners have to trust that you will be both an efficient worker and a positive presence in team situations. Networks are a great way to illustrate trustworthiness, but it takes time to build trust, so Surapaneni also recommends reaching out and building communities as soon as possible. 

Irani echoed this point, highlighting that your skills won’t always be the sole reason you move up the ladder. Irani gave one of her first leadership roles as an example, where she was asked after a presentation what the company’s peers were doing with a similar problem. Higher-level roles require not just work proficiency but wide-level industry knowledge that can only come from a well-developed community of people both within and outside of your immediate team. “You can come up with great ideas, but you won’t always be the first person to come up with those ideas,” Irani said.

What makes a quality network?

While networking early and often is an essential aspect of community-building, of equal importance is understanding what a quality network entails and how different types of networks can help you. 

“At every stage of your career, a different kind of network will be important,” Irani said. She broadly laid out three types of networks. The first is what Irani calls your “personal board of directors,” and is made up of people you trust closely, who give you advice often, and who can advocate for you strongly. Outside of that group, there is a wider network of people you have worked with who can speak to your strengths as a worker, if not necessarily your personal qualities. The third group is a network that you share social or non-work related interests with—in Irani’s case, fellow mothers who worked at her company—which can add an important dimension to your community-building and allow people to see more aspects of your personality, further building trust in you as a person. 

For Surapaneni, a quality network is made up of a wide array of people both in and outside of the company. Connecting with people across a range of teams, applications, and leadership roles is paramount, as is ensuring that the people you are building relationships with share your values, drive, and inclination to help and be helped in turn. Surapaneni also recommends keeping old ties active and helping those connections out whenever possible. For his part, Busse reaffirmed the importance of having both social networking groups and more formal, scheduled ones that are focused on business and professional development. 

How to build and maintain a rich community of helpers

With the qualities of a good network laid out, the roundtable went on to lay out some strategies for the most difficult aspect of networking: actually doing it. 

Most important here, according to Irani, is remembering that most everyone else feels just as unsure and unprepared as you do. “Take a deep breath and be courageous,” Irani said. “Everyone’s afraid!” 

Irani recommended starting with people you already know and making new connections through them. “If 90 percent of your network is directly related to you, then you haven’t indulged in the full power of networking,” she explained. She also recommended offering help as often as you can, as helping people is a surefire way to exhibit both your skills and your trustworthiness. 

Surapaneni, meanwhile, recommended approaching networking in a regimented manner, blocking out time in your calendar for conferences and networking events and also setting weekly goals to connect with people on LinkedIn or in-person. Both she and Busse emphasized the importance of eating lunch with others as often as possible, which is an easy and reliable way to build relationships. 

Maintaining relationships requires a similar level of strategy and thoughtfulness. Surapaneni applies the same level of cadence to maintenance as she does to her building of networks, scheduling meetings, lunches, follow-ups, and even simple check-ins as consistently as possible. 

Continued assistance is a vital part of holding on to your network—Busse affirmed the importance of giving out advice and professional help as often as possible, because you never know when you might be in a similar position. On the other side of things, Irani highlighted the importance of following up on help you might receive from your network. She recommended sending not just a thank you note, but letting people know how much their advice helped you and illustrating the impact that having them as a connection has had upon your professional life.

With these pieces of advice, networking can go from dreaded personal hurdle to a valuable process built on consistency, personal relationships, and mutual trust. To hear more about the intricacies and dividends of network-building, watch the full keynote here.

Justin Kamp
About Justin Kamp

Justin is a freelance writer who primarily covers the intersection of art and technology.