Table of Contents
Table of Contents
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What Is Networking?
In simple terms, networking is the process of building professional relationships. It is getting to know others with whom you believe you may be able to exchange value.
That value can be uncovered in a variety of ways and come in many different forms and timeframes. Many inaccurate, negative beliefs and feelings about networking originate from people who don’t understand that variety.
For example, if someone believes networking is only for people who are selfish and always using others, they are not likely to feel comfortable doing it. If someone believes it’s only for people who are trying to “cheat the system” and unfairly get around processes like hiring, they will probably not be excited to do it themselves and may feel that anyone else who does is unethical. If someone thinks networking is only worth the time if it will result in a sale, new job, or another direct financial benefit in the immediate future, they won’t be very effective in building relationships and will not enjoy the process.
If, on the other hand, a person recognizes networking as an opportunity to build long-term, genuine, symbiotic relationships, it can become an important, valuable, and enjoyable part of professional life. And if they go into it with a goal to add as much value to others as they are given (or more), they will get great fulfillment out of the process in addition to building a network that will be a huge benefit to them when it is most needed.
As an HR professional or business leader, you need to know and understand the value of networking for yourself and other business professionals. However, we also want you to embrace the potential value of networking to your organization and help you empower your employees to build relationships that will benefit both them and your company.
External vs Internal Networking
Many professionals make the mistake of only networking when they are actively searching for a new role. This is shortsighted for multiple reasons, but a critical one is the fact that some of the most important relationship-building occurs within the walls (physical or virtual) of your own organization.
External networking is the type most people naturally think of getting to know people at different companies, potentially in different industries or roles. This variety of networking can have multiple goals, often based on your own role with your company. For example, a lot of external networking focuses on personal career development and acquiring new information and knowledge, but someone in sales may have an additional goal of developing strong leads.
Because many professionals only actively network externally when they are looking for a new job, some companies are wary of their employees doing it. For example, supervisors may be worried about possible turnover when they see employees becoming highly active on LinkedIn. There is evidence to support this concern, including one study that showed employees who network externally more often may be 114% more likely to leave the company than those who network externally less often. However, we would warn against discouraging external networking by your employees for two main reasons.
- External networking builds talent. An excellent organization and employer should be confident in its ability to keep great talent, even if that talent is building relationships externally. In fact, if you can create a culture that encourages building relationships and learning from as many sources as possible, combined with other HR best practices, your organization may get to a point where external networking actually has a net positive effect on your talent development.
- External networking encourages growth. Discouraging external networking is not likely to help you build a positive company culture and could drive away talented people who want to learn and grow through talking with everyone they can.
Internal networking focuses on the other people already in your organization. Companies that have a strong culture of employees communicating, helping, training, and building relationships with one another have an enormous leg up in many aspects of the business.
If your people know who inside the organization they need to talk with to accomplish their work in the most effective and efficient ways possible, they will perform better as a whole than if they are siloed and don’t understand how their efforts interact. And building that kind of a culture is far easier and more likely to succeed than trying to tell your best employees that they shouldn’t network with people outside of the company!
You are likely to have more of a positive impact on (and relationship with) your employees if, instead of discouraging external networking, you put policies, practices, and resources in place that will help encourage internal networking.
Why Is Networking Important?
We’ll approach this question from both an individual employee and a company perspective. Networking by employees can lead to a variety of great outcomes that can’t be overstated.
- Knowledge sharing, development, and application. This is the primary benefit of networking, and it has the potential to add value for both individual professionals and their companies. Employees who make an effort to regularly talk with others (both inside and outside of your company) learn the connections between their work and that of others as well as best practices in their field, which has the potential to be a gamechanger for both their individual careers and their organizations.
- Increased productivity. Internal networking can help make employees more effective and confident in their work as they build relationships with partners across the company who have a connection with and insight on the projects they are responsible for. From an HR and cultural perspective, the company has a responsibility to ensure that no employee has a second thought about introducing themselves to someone new when needed to best perform their work.
- Identifying and stepping into new opportunities. Again, this can be helpful for both individuals and companies. Of course, the clearer of the two is the single professional’s viewpoint—networking can often lead directly to a new job, freelance gig, or volunteer opportunities, among other things. But the same principle can apply for companies. When their employees are intentionally talking with external partners and others in industry, they can learn about best practices and potential new areas for their company to invest in.
- Long-term power of relationships. From an individual’s perspective, building a relationship today can lead to extremely powerful outcomes down the road. There are many examples of someone having a positive initial phone call with a new connection, not interacting again for a while, and then reconnecting over a specific professional opportunity that was possible only because of the original conversation, potentially years earlier.
- Employee retention. From the perspective of an employer, when employees are actively engaged in talking with and learning from each other, they are more likely to feel like an important part of a team. They are also more likely to feel that they are learning and growing and developing, which has become a huge factor in many employees’ decisions to remain with their companies or go elsewhere. More specifically, according to the same article mentioned above, employees who participated in internal networking activities more often than others were 140% more likely to stay with their company. That’s an incredible number that should convince most employers of the value of creating a culture that supports and encourages at least internal networking.
Examples of Internal Networking
Networking inside the walls of your workplace can take many forms. The following examples demonstrate ways that an employee might go about building relationships internally. We’ll focus on specific actions you can take in another section.
Individual Networking to Support Company Initiatives
Much internal networking occurs in a straightforward way: employees or leaders recognize a communication or collaboration gap and proactively reach out to individuals in other areas of the company to fill those gaps. This is a relatively tactical example of internal networking, but it is a critical one.
An employee might identify someone in a different team or business function who has a connection to the work they are doing, then reach out to talk with them about it.
Employees’ willingness to take this kind of action depends to a large extent on the culture of the company. Does the organization make it easy for people to talk with one another? Or does the culture add friction to those interactions by discouraging cross-functional conversations or making them overly difficult to facilitate?
For instance, say a project team is working on something that they realize may have legal ramifications, but none of them have ever run anything by or interacted with the legal team before. Do they ignore or unnecessarily delay that piece because they don’t feel comfortable going across functional lines and breaking silos to make the connection, or do they step out of their area and connect with someone in Legal?
Perhaps a team member has a great idea for a new product or process enhancement for other areas of the company or their own. Do they feel comfortable informally engaging relevant stakeholders across the company to share the idea, get feedback, and learn whether it is a viable option, or does the idea never go further than their own head or their immediate team?
This feels obvious, but the ability and willingness to make those connections is crucial—and as mentioned above, the company has to purposefully ensure that it is as painless as possible for their employees to reach out to each other to have these types of conversations. If you are too restrictive on the ways that employees are allowed to use their time, or discourage them from going outside the traditional chain of command to resolve issues and build relationships, you will receive a fraction of the potential benefit of employee collaboration.
Individual Networking for Personal Development and Mentorship
Many employees who hope to develop additional skills and move their careers forward look to identify leaders or more experienced peers who can help mentor them on their path to success. These relationships often begin informally; perhaps the employee hears positive things about the potential mentor and eventually introduces themself, asking for a quick meeting, Zoom call, or lunch to learn more about their career. If that first conversation goes well, they may continue to keep in touch and ultimately either ask for mentorship or continue in a mentoring-esque relationship without ever formalizing it.
This example of internal networking is very similar to external networking. The only real differences are that in internal networking, both parties are in the same company, and the relationships made through mentoring are often for the purpose of learning, growth, development, and navigation through that company rather than to open new opportunities outside. Of course, it also feels easier for many employees to network internally than externally because of the obvious common ground in having the same employer.
But again, it is critical for an employer to create an environment where these types of relationships can easily come about. In fact, while creating a culture that enables those relationships to occur is important, there can also be a great benefit in going further and directly facilitating mentorship across your company.
Company-Facilitated Mentorship and Development
Management and the HR team can directly facilitate these types of relationships with mentoring or “buddy” programs or even holding networking activities or other events and programs to proactively help your employees get to know one another better. In addition to the business benefits that come from your employees knowing each other well and understanding how their work interacts with the work of others in the company, these types of opportunities can be critical in demonstrating that the company is invested in their growth and development.
With so many employees today focused on development as a reason to remain with or leave an organization, this can be an important differentiating factor in the quality of your employment brand and save significant costs in replacing effective employees and training new ones. Check out Eddy’s article on workplace mentoring if you need a place to start.
Examples of External Networking
Building relationships with professionals outside of your current company can be life-changing in a variety of ways, and not limited to finding a new job. There is so much learning that can come from reaching out and having conversations with others, and this type of networking can lead to many other helpful outcomes.
Finding New Connections Online
In today’s connected world, it’s easy to find people whom you can learn from, serve, and exchange professional opportunities with. There are a variety of resources and platforms available online to help you make and maintain connections. Each of the following is relatively easy to try and to learn about. This is not a comprehensive list, but it gives you a few examples of sites you and your employees can use to support your external networking.
LinkedIn. This professional social media site is the most ubiquitous and critical connection platform. It is used as a foundational tool for almost all external networking today. Using LinkedIn, anyone can find all kinds of people to interact with who can help them learn or accomplish goals. If you choose to get involved with or improve your presence on one platform, we recommend it be LinkedIn. There are many great resources online to help you learn the ins and outs of the site, including how to find people to connect with and how to start a conversation with them. One last detail on this platform: proactively look for ways to extend the conversation into the “real world.” If your “networking” on LinkedIn consists solely of sending online messages to people, you will be sorely underutilizing the site. Make initial connections online, then look for ways to extend them via a phone/Zoom call or in-person meeting.
Clubhouse. This audio-only social app has “rooms” with professionals discussing various topics. They are often headlined by a specific host or two who may do the majority of the talking or facilitate a panel, but in many of these rooms, anyone can choose to listen and learn passively or jump into the conversation.
Lunchclub. This site asks upfront for information about you and your preferences, then uses an artificial intelligence to pair you with other professionals for video calls based on those preferences. This can be an exciting, out-of-the-box way to make new connections that could expand your network in unique ways.
Networking Organizations and Events
With the advent of LinkedIn and other social media tools, large networking events that bring many professionals together and provide an opportunity to “work the room” and build new connections seem slightly less in-vogue than they used to be (especially in a COVID-19 world). However, they can still be great opportunities to kick off new relationships and are often facilitated by professional organizations. For example, as an HR professional, joining a local Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) chapter can often be a great way to get to know people in your area through chapter meetings and other events.
While those local organizations are often the best way to build relationships in your area that you might be able to maintain in-person over time, national and other large professional organizations can also be highly beneficial. Again, SHRM is one example of a popular HR organization that offers conferences and events where you can network with people in your function.
From a company perspective, sponsoring your employees to join these professional organizations can also be helpful. Employees appreciate the opportunities and learning that come from engagement in these professional organizations, and they often come back to work with new ideas and insights to try out at your company.
How to Encourage Networking in the Workplace
As an HR professional invested in building a positive workplace culture and retaining and developing employees, encouraging networking (particularly the internal variety) is critical. Here are a few ways to empower and enable your employees to do it. Use these to spark your own ideas based on your company culture and resources.
Start During Onboarding
Let your employees know from day one that they are encouraged, and perhaps even expected, to build relationships and make connections across the company. There are many ways you can plug internal networking into the initial onboarding and training process. You can share examples of employees who have talked with each other across functional areas and sparked new ideas, or who have had mentoring relationships that led directly to someone taking a job in a new role or function that aligned with their career goals. Inviting current employees to tell their stories can be a very powerful way to drive home the emphasis your company places on internal networking and the fact that you will encourage them to do it rather than putting up barriers.
Depending on the size of your organization, onboarding could also include some kind of introduction to employees or leaders from each different function that can make it easier for new employees to reach out to them. This could be in a short presentation format, or you could even set up true networking events to get professionals from different teams and functional areas into a room together to welcome new employees and get to know one another.
However you do it, the goal is to start off the experience of new employees at your company with the knowledge that you encourage and facilitate building relationships across the company.
Provide Training and a Tracking Template
Once you have communicated the importance of internal networking on day one, you have to demonstrate that you are serious about it. Employees should see actual evidence that the company is invested in supporting them to build connections that can help support the business and their careers. One way to do this is to provide periodic training or workshops on how best to go about building relationships across the company, and perhaps on the various functional areas that they might be interested in talking with.
Those types of informational events could also include practical resources that employees can use to manage their networking and keep track of their strong relationships across the company—for instance, an Excel sheet that helps them keep tabs on who they have spoken with and how strong their relationships are with various teams and functions. A tool like this records what they have learned and helps them identify areas they might want to more intentionally build relationships with.
Host Programs and Events
Mentorship programs were already mentioned above, and these and similar programs and events can be fantastic ways to demonstrate to your employees that you take internal networking and employee development seriously. You might want to create other programs, such as grouping employees into cohorts for leadership or technical development. Even diversity, equity, and inclusion groups (often called employee resource groups) can include great opportunities for employees to get to know like-minded people across the company. You can also schedule periodic events outside of these smaller organizations and programs to encourage employees to get out of their day-to-day work and interact with others.
Engage Leaders and Influential Employees
If you really want your employees to understand and adopt internal networking practices and to recognize your support for those efforts, make sure your leaders and other influential, well-known employees are both talking about it and setting the standard through their actions. Ensure that they are having frequent conversations with other leaders and employees across the organization, invite them to share their stories at company meetings and events, and get them on board with talking regularly to their direct reports and peers about internal networking. If employees see their leaders with their heads down in their work 100% of the time or do not hear them actively encouraging networking, they are unlikely to feel that the company is serious about empowering them to take time to build relationships outside of their immediate teams.
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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Networking
Tyler is an HR professional-turned-career advisor. After earning a master’s in HR and an MBA, he completed several development rotations while working for a Fortune 100 financial services and insurance company. After gaining experience in HR project management, data and analytics, and as an HR business partner, he decided the right next move was a transition into higher ed and career services. He now provides career support for students in a top-ranked supply chain management program at a large Tier 1 university, but maintains a love for the field of HR and an interest in seeing HR professionals succeed and push the envelope!
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