Who’s in Your Crew? - A Guide to Career Networking
I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on the notion of networks and support crew from a careers perspective. There’s a lot to think about. Who’s in your crew, how do you meet people and build sustainable relationships? Do you have to go to “networking” events? And what roles in your career might people play. Essentially, how does networking in business work, and is learning how to network worth it career-wise?
The basics of career networking
Let’s start with the different roles you might want to fill in your crew. These are the people on your “team” who help you to grow and develop or people who you trust to challenge your thinking or give you advice. And finally, the people who will advocate on your behalf.
The first role is a reasonably obvious one. Is your current boss on your team when it comes to your career? Do they know what your aspirations are, and how they can support your growth and development through work assignments and learning experiences? Building a relationship with your boss can open doors inside your organisation that you might not be able to alone. They are often aware of broader opportunities, and may have a more cross-business network.
Many people also have a mentor on their crew. A mentor is a professional relationship, often with someone more experienced than you. A mentor can support you, offer guidance, and act as a sounding board for you. A great mentor may offer you advice and a degree of sponsorship. Usually a mentor is not your direct manager, but is potentially someone more senior within your organisation or industry. You may also wish to have other trusted advisors – people who value you and have your best interests at heart.
One role that people often don’t fill on their crew is that of a sponsor. This is the person who will advocate for you when you’re not there – in talent conversations when your potential and performance are being discussed and when promotions are being decided. The role of a sponsor is a transactional one that you may need to explicitly ask a person to fulfil. Because there’s an element of risk and commitment required from them, you may want to consider how you will approach them, and what you might need to be demonstrating for them to be willing to expend their social and political capital on your behalf.
The importance of networking in the workplace
Now let’s come back to the broader notion of networking. Many people I work with dread the very notion of networking. Somewhere in their minds, they equate it with a room full of people introducing themselves, having superficial conversations and handing out business cards. If that’s your worst nightmare, can you still find ways to network effectively in service of your career? The simple answer is yes. The trick is to do it in a way that works for you and suits your approach. For me, that generally means one-on-one, and building deeper lasting relationships. It also means being alert to opportunities to create new relationships.
I’ve had a few examples recently of how networks have helped me or created potential opportunities for me. A few months ago, I caught up with a former colleague to have a coffee, and to chat about what we were doing. A few weeks later, that colleague called out of the blue to let me know of an opportunity that was coming up. Another example is a recent plane ride. After a day of flight cancellations and frustration, I found myself on a late night flight to another city. Instead of putting headphones on and ignoring my fellow passengers, I found myself chatting with the people on either side. We found some common ground and ended up connecting on LinkedIn. The third example is the relationships and network I developed through undertaking formal studies. A friend who was setting up his own business established the goal of having 100 coffees in 100 days
It's so easy to reject the notion of networking as superficial and cheesy. However choosing to go about your networking in a way that’s aligned with your values and preferences can be both rich and rewarding, leading to unanticipated positives, and possibly even to filling some of the roles in your “crew”. So next time you find yourself saying you hate networking, think creatively about how else you might go about it in a way that best reflects you and how you want to show up in the world.