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Build Your Professional Network - How To Find the Best Opportunities

Develop your HR career with a CIPD qualification. 

‘No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.’

John Donne

Obviously, legendary Elizabethan poet John Donne didn’t write those lines back in the 16th century whilst he was thinking about developing a career in Human Resources.

That doesn’t stop them having some surprisingly modern wisdom that can be applied to our own professional development though. So, what can we learn from John Donne, 600 years on?

This. Whilst we may all be individual professionals, with individual career plans, dreams and fears, we are never completely alone in our struggle. We are part of a wider community. Our relationships with others – from people working in our industry, through to friends and family – play an important role in helping our career development move forward. A survey by LinkedIn, for instance, found that 80% of professionals felt that networking played an important role in their career development.

Taking some time to develop these professional networks can help boost your overall career development in the long-term.

In this blog, we’ll be exploring everything you need to know about building a professional network – from the principles underlying them through to techniques to help you develop sustainable professional relationships with others.A smiling male worker drinking a coffee at a desk

What is networking?

A network is essentially a series of relationships.

You might not be consciously aware of them, but most of us will have a variety of different networks in our lives. Think of the huge range of relationships that you have at home – like family and friends, for instance – and you’ll start to see how networks play an important role in your life, without you even necessarily realising. 

The term that’s used to describe a series of relationships like this is a ‘social network’ (does that sound familiar at all?)

When it comes to the context of career development, a network is generally taken to mean a series of working relationships that you have with other professionals in your career field. Networking is the act of building, nurturing and developing these relationships in order to benefit from guidance, find career opportunities or

Oxford Languages defines it as ‘the action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.’

In the past, networking was predominantly a physical affair (although, people did do it through mail too!). If you were wanting to build a professional network, you’d usually attend physical meetups, like events, talks and conferences, or specific networking events, where you would get talking to other people who had a shared interest. If you liked something about the other person, you’d swap business cards and exchange contact information. You’d likely bump into each other again at similar events in the future which would help you to develop a friendly relationship with each other. Or maybe you kept up conversation over phone or by letter.

The invention of the internet revolutionised networking, allowing us to do it faster and more immediately than ever before. Enter the age of the social network.

Nowadays though, digital networking is something most of us do on a day to day basis – sometimes without even realising that we’re doing it. If you use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – even if just for sending cute videos of unlikely animal friend pairings to your friends – then you’re networking.

Why network?

So, now you know what networking is, you’re probably wondering what the point of it is.

To put it simply, a network is a support system. By networking, we can build a support system of other professionals that can help guide our development, introduce us to new opportunities and share information, all in a mutually beneficial context.

Networking can seem like an old-fashioned hang-up from a far distant past where people wore ties to work and wrote things on typewriters and there’s some truth to that statement. Networking is old. In fact, it’s probably millions of years old and it could actually be intrinsic to why our species isn’t extinct yet.

Scientists and researchers are increasingly concluding that, rather than being characterised solely by a brutal and individual, dog-eat-dog struggle for survival, human evolution has been dependent on cooperation as well as competition for its development over the millennia.

In ‘Why We Help: The Evolution of Cooperation’, an article in Scientific American, Martin A. Nowak explores how cooperation might have developed in our early evolutionary history and the reasons as to why. Ultimately, he concludes that there are a range of reasons why we might choose to cooperate from a survival perspective, from mutual protection against hardship through to wanting to climb the social ladder.

It doesn’t take much to apply the same psychology to the world of work, where building a fulfilling career can take some grafting as you compete against other ambitious professionals.

Here are some of the key benefits that networking can provide for your career development.

A female worker with her arms folded looking confidently and happily at the camera.

Benefits of networking

1.    It can introduce you to new opportunities

One of the beauties of networking is that it maximises your exposure to potential opportunities. Without networking, you’d be relying on your own initiative and social circle to find new vacancies, training opportunities or to hear essential industry information. Whilst you can definitely find opportunities for career development this way, it can be a slow, hard process.

A network produces a kind of compounding effect when it comes to the opportunities that present themselves to you. A bit like a chain reaction. By building networks with other people, you’ll be able to find out about opportunities that they have heard about from their own networks. This reduces a lot of the labour of finding new opportunities on your own. If you maintain a good professional network, you can find that more opportunities will end up presenting themselves to you. Essentially, the logic behind this is a simple one – the more people you know, the more chances you will potentially have to find out about opportunities.

2. It can build your skills and knowledge

Your network will be built of professionals who work in similar roles in your field and they will all bring their own unique skills, experience and expertise to their jobs. Usually, a network will be pretty diverse – you’ll have contacts who’ve been working in the HR or L&D field for many years and people, like you, who have just started their careers. You might even have some professionals in your network who’ve spent their entire lives working in the field and who’ve retired.

Basically, a good professional network will be a reflection of the diversity of the workplace and of the world more generally. Think of the huge range of people that you come across on a daily basis – all with their different experiences and ways of working. A professional network will reflect this and be built of a diverse range of people, from across a diverse range of backgrounds. This diversity is one of its greatest strengths, presenting you with valuable opportunities to learn from the wealth of different perspectives at your disposal.

Sometimes, building a network can help you find a professional mentor too – a significant asset in your career development journey that we’ll explore in more detail in further sections of this blog series.

3. It can build your confidence

Networking calls for a range of skills, from listening and communication skills through to interpersonal, persuasion and strategic thinking, in order to build relationships with others.

These skills are similar to the ones that you’ll use in your own HR career on a regular basis. In effect, networking will give you an opportunity to practice these skills and to build your confidence in applying them professionally before you’re necessarily in a HR role.

If you’re coming into the field for the first time – perhaps if this is your first job since leaving school or university, for instance – cultivating HR skills and traits like this can seem particularly daunting. Building a professional network allows you to practice these important skills, honing them for when you’ll need them in your professional practice.

Ultimately, networking can build your confidence in your own skills as a professional – something that isn’t to be underestimated when it comes to HR practice.

4. It can keep you updated with industry trends

As we alluded to earlier, networks allow you to gather information passively, rather than actively. In other words, a network allows information to come to you rather than you having to actively seek it out. This can help you save time and energy in a whole range of areas, including staying updated with industry news.

Keeping up to date with the latest developments, news and thinking in your field will be essential to your effectiveness as a HR professional. That’s because staying updated with current concerns and trends in the industry will enable you to better plan your own practice, adapt to situations ahead of time and use your initiative to respond to situations.

Two professionals having an informal meeting

How to build your professional network

That’s the ‘why’ of networking. Here’s the ‘how’. In this section, we’ll be exploring some of the basic steps that you’ll need to take to build a strong professional network. These tips aren’t set in stone but more often than not, they’ll play a key part in helping you gather – and maintain – a supportive network.

1.    Decide what medium/s you’ll use to network

Networking has evolved quite significantly over the last 20 years, with digital technology making it so that there are more ways than ever before to network with like-minded professionals.

The first step you’ll need to take is to decide what format you’ll use to network with others. There are generally three options you could choose when it comes to network formats:

Physical networking

Networking where you meet up in person with other professionals to chat about your work and role.

  • Good for building long-term professional relationships with people
  • Can be time-consuming and energy-draining
  • Not suited to everyone

Digital networking

Networking carried out online, normally on a social network for professionals, like LinkedIn.

  • Often convenient and can save time, money and energy
  • Can be carried out anywhere with an internet connection, anytime
  • It can be hard to build long-term sustainable relationships

Hybrid networking

 Networking that combines physical meetups with digital interaction

  • Combines the durability of physical networking with the flexibility of digital networking

Most professionals find that hybrid networking provides an ideal balance between the benefits of the two types of networking. People generally combine physical and digital networking these days when it comes to building their base of professional contacts.

2.    Leverage existing contacts

If you’re trying to build a brand new network, why not start by using one of your existing networks as a base to build on? There’s no point trying to reinvent the wheel after all. There’s a strong possibility that you’ll know at least one person who has some connection to the HR field in your circle of friends and family. If not, perhaps someone you know knows someone who has a connection to HR. Either way, use the people that you know, or who you already have an existing connection to, to find other people in the field that you can network with.

Of course, you don’t want to slide, unsolicited, into someone’s DMs saying ‘Hi, I want to start an HR network. Do you want to join?’ That’s slightly abrasive, not to mention very spammy. The right approach is one that prioritises respect and long-term relationship building. It’s also one that doesn’t force anything. If you meet up and find that you don’t have anything in common with the person you had planned to network with – or if you just find that you don’t really gel – that’s completely fine. You don’t need to tie yourself to someone if you really don’t get on well.

If you’re approaching people on a one-to-one basis, it’s best to take it slow and follow a process like this one:

  • Send an initial introductory email or message highlighting your reason for contacting that person (ie. to chat about HR etc.)
  • If they are up to meet you, arrange a physical meet-up in a public space to meet one another and chat informally
  • If it goes well, set another date to meet and continue talking!

You’ll often find that your existing networks can provide some great initial contacts that could help you get started.

Two people shaking hands

3.    Build meaningful relationships

A lot of people can fall into the trap of viewing networking as something that is done solely for their own individual benefit. This can cloud their approach, causing more harm than good when it comes to trying to build those important professional relationships with others.

In a fascinating blog on the phenomenon of modern networking in The Guardian, Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha describe this as an old-fashioned approach to networking that’s purely transactional. You aren’t interested in building a long-term professional relationship with someone or in the niceties of social interaction – you just want something that someone else has and you’ll negotiate in some way to get it (whether it’s news, opportunities or contacts).

Dare we say it, networking in this way is likely to rub people the wrong way. It can come across as selfish, making you appear like you’re taking advantage of the kindness of others.

It’s not hard to see why we can often take this approach. After all, we’re constantly told that everything in life is a struggle – particularly the jobs market. We’re consciously and unconsciously encouraged to view other professionals as sworn competitors in the fierce fight for jobs and opportunities. That means that we can often view them as threats, potentially muscling in on ‘our’ territory, rather than as friends on the same journey as us. It sounds a bit like an episode of My Little Pony, but when it comes to careers, we stand to gain much more when we work together and help lift each other up the ladder, rather than when we clash and bring each other down.

When we’re networking, it’s essential that we try and unlearn some of these behaviours. That means building meaningful social relationships with others – getting to know others and treating them with respect.

Sustainable networking – the kind that can serve as a powerful strength for your career development over time – is focused on building mutually beneficial relationships between professionals. In other words, relationships that benefit each party equally – if you take something, give something back.

4.    Develop your listening skills

We often take it for granted, but listening is a skill. In fact, it’s one of the most important skills that you’ll need when it comes to networking and building relationships with others. It’s also one of the most challenging to master. Whilst everyone has the capacity to passively receive information from others by not talking and by using their ears, only a few people will be able to truly listen to what another person is saying. By that we mean using empathy, non-verbal communication and other listening skills to advance the conversation and move it forwards, supporting the person that you’re speaking to.

This skill is called active listening, and it takes real practice to develop. First described in the 1950s by psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson, active listening is the term given to a type of conversation where you, as the listener, are fully active in the conversation. You play a key part in helping communication flow by doing things like:

  • Asking for clarification on particular points to reinforce understanding
  • Repeating information that you have just heard to retain information
  • Paying attention to non-verbal communication cues you receive, like body language
  • Providing non-verbal communication to support the other person talking to you

These techniques form a few examples of active listening skills, but this tiny list is by no means exhaustive.

This article by Sara Viezzer in Simply Psychology explores active listening in comprehensive detail and we’d recommend reading it if you’re curious about active listening and want to find out more about what’s involved in it (besides the short introduction that we’ve given you here)

Three female professionals walking in an office

5.    Attend industry events

Making the effort to go to relevant industry events is probably one of the most essential elements of networking.

Events like these form the foundation of physical and hybrid forms of networking. They give you a powerful opportunity to meet other professionals in your industry and to build those all-important connections and relationships that will eventually form your professional network. 

Every professional field will host events for those working in it to advance their knowledge and build connections. Think of things like conferences, workshops and seminars.

The CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), one of the most influential professional development membership organisations in the UK, hosts a variety of conferences, events and workshops dedicated to Human Resources. Two particular highlights that the CIPD hosts each year includes the CIPD Festival of Work and the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition, that bring together HR professionals from across the country to chat about the latest trends, developments and thinking in the field.

The CIPD Festival of Work is probably one of the most hotly anticipated HR events in the working year for professionals. It’s essentially the ‘Glastonbury’ of Human Resources but with less mud and more inspirational keynote addresses. With a range of inspirational sessions spread over two days, the festival explores the current state of HR in the UK and is made up of everything from keynote addresses, fireside chats, workshops and activities like Tai Chi and Yoga. With a range of activities like this, there are loads of opportunities to mingle with others in professional and non-professional contexts and build connections – good if you don’t feel comfortable talking shop 24/7.

You can find industry networking events by doing some desktop research. Generally, you’ll find that the biggest HR events, like conferences and workshops, are ticketed and are mostly based around big cities like London or Manchester, so arranging how you’ll get to one can take some work. The potential benefits in terms of the professional contacts it can help you make is well worth the initial effort though.

6.    Build your online network

Digital networking is playing an increasingly influential role in the world of networking – thanks in small part to the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the widespread move to online forms of working that it caused.

You can create a digital presence and build an online network in a number of different ways:

  • Use professional social media networks to create an online profile
  • Build a website to establish your personal, professional brand
  • Engage in forums related to your professional field

LinkedIn is probably the most recognisable professional social network, boasting that it has more than 1 billion members in other 200 countries and regions. It’s a combination of an online CV, jobs board and a social network where you can interact with other professionals. Thanks to the fact that it’s so widely known – and used – LinkedIn is a great place to find professionals in similar roles to you.

That said, whilst it might be relatively easy to find these professionals, reaching out to them to build your network is another matter. As with most platforms that are behemoths in their field, they host a bewilderingly large number of users, making it harder for you to stand out. Social networks can often suffer from their fair share of spammers too – drawn to the platform by the huge number of users. This makes genuinely reaching out to other professionals a lot harder. That said, LinkedIn is still an incredibly effective tool to help you build your brand and start reaching to likeminded professionals.

7.    Pay opportunities forward

One of the hardest things to balance about networking is the desire to pursue your own professional opportunities and to support the development of other professionals in your network.

When it comes to trying to develop your career in competitive industries like HR, it’s easy to fall into the habit of seeing every other HR professional as a potential rival - another one of the competition when it comes to landing your dream job. That can cloud your judgment, potentially leading to you not sharing opportunities that you find with others, or not sharing news.

Whilst an attitude like this might help you in the short-term, in the long-term, you could garner a reputation as someone who’s only really out for themselves and isn’t interested in supporting others in their own career journey. That could result in people not sharing opportunities with you.

Networking shouldn’t be just about you trying to squeeze as much support, guidance and opportunities from others as you can without giving anything back. Make sure that you treat others in your network how you yourself would like to be treated. Pay success forward and share relevant opportunities as and when you find them. You never know when the person that you help out might be able to return the favour!

Network your way to success

Remember that our brains are hard-wired to form networks with others. If you’re finding the process difficult (and you probably will at some point), try not to overthink it. Building a network is all about building a connection and professional rapport with another person. That’s something that most of us do all the time without even thinking about it. Focus on being friendly and above all, yourself, and you’ll improve your chances of success.

Enhance your HR career with an online professional HR qualification that you can study anywhere. Download your free CIPD course guide today.