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6 Steps to Building a Stronger Professional Network

By Richard Davis

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When you think of network security, thoughts of operating systems, firewalls, and intrusion detection are likely to spring to mind. As we navigate through one of the most challenging economies in history, however, securing your professional network is just as important.

Few IT professionals actually enjoy the process of professional networking outside of their core peer group. Indeed, you might have felt that the last business-networking event you attended was filled with sales people looking to sell you something, rather than serving as a sounding board for your ideas.

Regardless of past networking experiences, developing and maintaining a good professional network offers you many advantages such as access to critical information that may exist outside of traditional sources, and just as important, connections to a variety of professionals with skill sets outside your own.

Obtaining good information is the key to gaining an advantage in almost any endeavor. The Internet, of course, can provide valuable information if you know how to properly mine it. But some of the most valuable information for you, your organization and clients can come from someone you talk to regularly over a cup of coffee.

Here are six relatively easy ways to help you build, expand and secure your professional network:

1. Make networking part of your lifestyle - Consider this: The average professional works about 2080 hours per year, approximately 65% to 75% of that time is probably spent at work, actively plying your trade for your company or your clients. That leaves precious little time for training and development, personal time, vacation, holidays, and personal time away from work.

So where does developing a strong B2B network fit in? Often times, it doesn’t. Networking is like exercising: If you only do it for a little while, you will not see the fruits of your labor. Do it inconsistently, and it takes a while to get back into shape. But keep a steady pace, and over time you’ll begin to feel the benefits, and each workout will not be as difficult to manage. One meeting per week with the right person can set your professional world on the right trajectory. But unlike exercising, it’s more about quality rather than quantity.

2. Be strategic: target the people you want to meet and include in your network - Everyday encounters can lead to trusted business relationships. You never know where or when you will find a true business confidant. But what do you do if you are at the very beginning of your career or have never spent much time networking? If you are in professional services, you should ideally have a banker, lawyer and accountant in your initial networking circle for starters. A key reason is that every client has a banker, lawyer and an accountant -- all of who advise their clients on managing risk. Adding yourself to their networks helps them introduce qualified IT professionals such as you to their clients.

If you are employed by a company as an internal IT professional, then you will want to develop strong relationships with bankers, attorneys, accountants and all types of professionals who work in a similar industry to yours. These professionals can help you to understand how IT can provide strategic advantages from an industry perspective that you can share with your internal management teams.

3. Get out and meet people, but use your time efficiently - A number of traditional avenues exist such as professional associations in your industry, local chamber of commerce, special interest groups on the Internet, seminars and business referral groups. These are a good way to start obtaining business cards. The challenge, however, is finding a good match for you professionally. Additionally, attending the average networking event can take considerable time when you consider transportation and time at the event.

Here are three websites that can help you meet the right people more efficiently:

Wyrkplace (www.wyrkplace.com) is a free tool where the mission is simple: Reduce the amount of time that it takes to build a network of trusted relationships and help professionals establish an on-going process for meeting new qualified business professionals. Think of Wyrkplace as a dating engine for business professionals, matching you on ideal qualities. By signing up, you are automatically matched with professionals who share common qualities with you. The higher the match score, the better the chance that you’re going to have something in common to discuss from a business perspective.

Business Networking International (www.bni.com) is one of the longest standing professional networking associations. BNI’s chapters include professionals and service providers of all shapes and sizes catering to a wide variety of clients and organizations. BNI is an excellent source of business relationships, and you likely have a chapter in your town just waiting for you to join and add value.

Jigsaw (www.jigsaw.com) is another tool designed for helping professionals find new business relationships. While it is more focused on generating sales leads than pure professional networking, it offers powerful information on companies, people and industries -- critical information that can serve as the basis for developing targeted strategies on where to network and who to meet when you get there.

4. Manage it, and work it - An article on professional networking would be lacking without discussing LinkedIn (http://www.Linkedin.com), the largest, most intuitive business-networking site in the world. It is by far the most robust tool in an IT professional’s network management arsenal.

Let’s say that you meet someone through Wyrkplace, BNI, or Jigsaw, or you happen to obtain a few business cards at a recent chamber of commerce event. There is no better place to begin learning more about that person, and how they can benefit your company and your clients than LinkedIn.

LinkedIn serves many uses. For example, it can help you find new contacts by recommending people who may have something in common with you, whether through a common acquaintance or shared personal interest. In addition, you can choose from a limitless number of special interest groups to join. No matter the use, LinkedIn is the single best place (outside of your MS Outlook Contacts list) to manage your professional network. But keep in mind that to make the most of LinkedIn, you need to spend time maintaining your connections. The more connections you have, the more likely you are to be a phone call or two away from a new relationship with someone that you would like to meet. LinkedIn has set the standard for managing a professional network, and it requires a commitment, so get on, sign up, and spend a few minutes a week getting closer to Kevin Bacon.

5. Analyze emerging issues and share your ideas - In the IT industry, one of the most effective means of bringing a network to you is to share your knowledge in print. Never fancied yourself an author? That’s okay, think about it more like sharing your opinion with the world. Pick a topic that you are passionate about, explain your point of view, and offer advice.

By developing thought leadership persona, you might find that people will seek you out to chat. Writing can take a little time, but it can payoff big. When people conducting research find you, they will find your content, and that can have a positive effect on building your credibility in the marketplace. Blogs are a good way to create and publish content. Once you have subscribers, you have effectively established a network.

6. Help someone else develop their network - A very seasoned colleague of mine at another firm always begins our discussions with a simple question: “How may I help you?” Many people are surprised at how many professionals they actually know; people that can form the basis for a network.

Once you get out into the mix, people are invariably going to want to get to know you. If you do meet someone, ask them that simple question and they are likely to share a piece of themselves with you. In return, the best way to help yourself develop your network is to help someone else develop their network -- the concept that “Givers Gain,” which is the motto of BNI. It is a transcendent idea which does, in fact, work.

Much like a network diagram, designing a professional network begins with a theoretical architecture that can actually decrease inherent risks for your career and extend your capabilities and professional reach benefiting not only you and your team, but also your employer and future clients.

By spending a modest amount of time creating the proper network design and utilizing some of the tools above, you will be well on your way to creating circles of influence. Even if you are already a technically savvy executive, having a strong professional network and being recognized as a thought leader in your arena can be just as powerful for you and your organization.

Richard Davis is a partner in Grant Thornton's Business Advisory Services practice where he specializes in enterprise risk management and information technology strategy and alignment. For nearly a decade, Rich has been delivering business consulting services to C-Level executives in the Information Technology, Finance and Operations functions for a variety of organizations in the consumer products, manufacturing, technology and financial services industries. For more information on this and other topics important to CIO's, you can contact Rich directly at 617.543.9647.