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Advice / Job Search / Networking

5 Strategies That’ll Turn Your Motley Band of Connections Into a Real, Useful Network

So, you have a lot of connections on LinkedIn. And you know a few former colleagues who you could reach out to if you needed a reference. Oh, and you also hear from your former intern every once in a while. This is all good—but it’s not a network. At least not one you can count on to help you move along in your career.

That’s why one of your goals this year should be to create that network and make sure it’s rock-solid. One day you’ll need it, and you’ll be happy it’s there waiting for you. And before you stress out about the time that’ll take, know that you don’t need to go to a million events or coffee dates. In fact, it’s all about building on the foundation you already have.

Here are some ways to do that:

1. Get to Know Your Co-workers (Seriously)

It’s easy to automatically include colleagues in your mental network—after all, you work with them. But not so fast! Just because someone spends eight hours next to you every day doesn’t mean she’s a meaningful connection—and it also doesn’t mean she’s going to do you favors long after you leave your current company.

Take the time now to get to know these people, and not just because it’s the right thing to do. Look at it this way: Every person at work could be actually doubling or tripling your network reach. As Muse writer Abby Wolfe says, “When you open the door to that guy from the IT department, you also open the door to people he knows.”

Not sure how to go about socializing with your colleagues and building those relationships? This pain-free guide to getting to know your co-workers is probably right up your alley.

2. Get Personal With the People You Know

When you’re trying to strengthen your network quickly, it’s easy to copy, paste, and send vague “Hey, we should catch up sometime!” emails. However, many of your contacts may view these as disingenuous, especially if they suspect you’re mass-emailing everyone you’ve ever met.

Instead, focus on making each message personal. Throw in specific information or facts, like a congratulations on a recent promotion. Or, if you’re not sure what to include, try my favorite trick (which got me responses from 85% of recipients): Add a relevant news article to each of your emails.

3. Use the 80-20 Rule

One of the most important parts of building a strong network is making sure all of your connections feel valued. Don’t have anything huge (like a big referral) to show how much you value them? Focus on giving them your time and attention, instead.

When you’re talking with anyone, be it a new connection or an old friend, make sure to use the 80-20 rule. At its simplest, this principle says that you should spend 80% of any conversation talking about the other person—and only 20% talking about yourself. It keeps your self-promotion to a minimum and ensures that you’re giving the other person the attention he or she deserves.

Sounds like a full-proof plan to stronger relationships, right?

4. Get One (Just One!) New Networking Method Under Your Belt

When you’re trying to strengthen your network, looking at all the options out there can be really overwhelming. So instead, pick just one new strategy and commit to it. For example, if you’ve never attended an industry conference before, make plans to go to one this quarter. Or, are you the type of person who networks exclusively in-person? Try logging onto a Twitter chat once a week for the month or conversing on a LinkedIn group discussion regularly.

The bottom line is, you’ll be meeting new people you wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to—and this will make your network way stronger (without using every spare second sending cold emails).

5. Get Excited to Burn Some Bridges

OK, when I say to burn bridges, I don’t mean telling a professional contact that you hate her—and dropping the mic as you walk out the door. What I do mean is taking Muse Managing Editor Jenni Maier’s awesome advice to stop making so much of an effort with certain professional connections who aren’t beneficial at all. Simply put: It’s a waste of your time and not doing you or your network any favors.

For example, instead of constantly answering questions from that one annoying connection who gets you nowhere, you can spend that same time investing in new contacts who are a lot more promising. It’s OK to drift apart from some people to make room for others.

Building and maintaining a stellar network doesn’t have to take forever—you just have to have a game plan before you dive in.

Photo of coffee meeting courtesy of Shutterstock.