You’ve enjoyed your job. And you’re really darn good at it. But you’re starting to feel the itch.
It may not be a full-blown burn (yet), but you’re wondering what it might be like to go do something else—in another department, city, or entirely different organization. And you know people who might be supremely helpful.
There’s just one small problem: You work with them. They’re a client, or a business partner, or a company your team works closely with. Or, they’re sitting just a table or office away and you have your eye on making an internal transfer.
Basically, the people best-equipped to help you explore your next career opportunity are kind of (or, completely) the last people who can know that you’re thinking about making a change.
If this is your challenge, fear not—you can still make progress without jeopardizing your job. You just need to proceed with care and a good strategy. Here are five tips that will help guide you in how to network at work:
1. Volunteer for Special Projects
Are there opportunities available at your company to volunteer for stretch assignments, special projects, or cross-functional committees? If you have designs on shifting to another group within your current organization, raise your hand for any and all of these assignments.
By working on something with a new set of people, you’ll not only have the chance to learn about other departments and network with co-workers on those teams, you’ll gain exposure well beyond your current scope that may help in padding your resume, should you decide to make the switch.
Be sure to capitalize on that exposure, too. Ask your teammates questions about what they’re working on, the challenges they face, the skills they’ve built, the people they’ve worked with, or the best parts of their jobs. You can certainly show interest and gain some helpful knowledge or connections without appearing suspicious—after all, you’re just making small talk!—and these types of projects provide a great opportunity to do so.
2. Knock Their Socks Off
Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “Hmmmm…my top customer sure would be a great point person if I’m thinking about shifting into [field/company].” Before I go further, I’ll say flat-out that this is one of those moments when you should proceed with extreme caution. You don’t want to screw up a customer relationship and your current employment by overstepping your boundaries.
If you’re feeling like a client or colleague could be a great person to network with, make sure you’re consistently knocking it out of the park and excelling at the work you do for them. Show that person what a valuable and irreplaceable asset you are, day in and day out. Folks who see how great you are at your job will be that much more inclined to hire you or recommend you to someone else in the future.
Also, express interest in that person’s work, their goals, and their life outside the office (just don’t get too personal). People love it when they feel valued and noticed, and they’ll often be more than willing to return the goodwill if you’ve been an ally and someone who has helped make their job easier.
3. Make it a Long Game
If you’re not pants-on-fire dying to make a move, view this as a long-game versus a rush. Focus on building relationships and trust with the people you think (or know) may be beneficial to your career path.
There’s plenty of truth to the saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” But the real benefit of networking goes beyond simply knowing someone. It’s also about how they feel about you and your capabilities, your personality, and your work ethic.
So, say you’re working at your company’s Chicago office and hoping to transfer to the Seattle location within the next year or so. Now would be the time to get to know your counterparts in Seattle. Certainly, you don’t want to be disingenuous about it (people can smell that a mile away), but if your job gives you plausible reason to communicate with, demonstrate your talents to, and win over those colleagues, start the process well before your itch becomes an inferno. When the time comes for you to apply for that transfer, you’ll feel confident your co-workers are eager to have you hop on board their team—and will advocate willingly for you.
4. Keep a Lid on Complaining
No matter who you’re trying to connect with, resist the temptation to say anything negative about your current job. Nothing turns off a key client not only from doing business with you, but also from being your career guide like badmouthing your current company—even if it has nothing to do with them and everything to do with your specific role, team, or manager.
The same goes for current colleagues, whether they’re down the hall or across the country. Focus your energies on expanding your network and expertise and maintaining a positive professional image instead.
5. Don’t Count on People to Keep the Secret
This is an important final thought: As close as you might feel to your colleagues and clients, you can’t always count on them not to spread the word if you divulge that you’re kind of sort of looking for something new. It’s not that they’re purposefully trying to ruin your plans—it’s just that sometimes people really like feeling “in the know” when in water cooler (or happy hour) conversations, and as a result tend to spill the beans.
If you’re not flat-out ready for others (a.k.a, your boss) to know you’re sniffing around, it’s probably best to keep your ideas or intentions on the down-low.
Again, do some positioning. Ask curious questions. Get exposure beyond your current department, office location, or company. As highlighted above, you can do all these things without revealing your true motives—networking is ultimately about more than just saying “help me find a job”. Just don’t count on anyone but your besties to keep a lid on it.
There’s nothing wrong with networking on the job as long as you’re keeping on top of your tasks, being genuine, and continuing to show loyalty and respect for your current employer. By having a strong work ethic and eagerness to learn, you’ll immediately attract the right kind of attention from the right kinds of people who can set you on a path to success.