For a number of years I kept bees. I’ve spent happy times watching the comings and going of the hive. Bees flying in ladened with pollen and full of news. Their complex waggle dance alerting others to the locations of the richest sources of pollen and nectar. A complex community whose existence is reliant on individual bees going out, exploring new places and returning to share information to ensure the growth of the community and honey reserves to see the colony through winter.

I know, from the workshops I have facilitated, that networking is a topic which evokes a range of views and emotions. It comes ladened with preconceptions about what is involved and has all kinds of connotations attached to it. Some people love it, others hate it. For some it is a core skill to develop whilst others don’t give it much thought. Some people thrive on networking via social media whilst others prefer to network face to face.

What about you? How do you feel about networking? How much time do you give to developing your professional networks? Is it something you have thought about and built some intention around or is it something you leave to chance? Do you go into networking situations feeling like a sales person, uncomfortable in the knowledge that the ‘product’ you are trying to ‘sell’ is yourself?

How about your team? Have you, as a group, ever done a network analysis to see how and where you are connected? Seriously thought about the networks that would be helpful in developing, supporting and promoting your work? Thinking about the analogy with the colony of bees at the start of this post, the community thrives when individuals go out and explore and bring back news of what they have discovered. If that information isn’t shared the community struggles to thrive and survive.

I had a bit of a lightbulb moment just before Christmas about the state of my networks. I did a check in and realised that, having transitioned into working in independent practice as a personal coach, I had neglected to think seriously about the new networks I needed to develop to support this change.

It was easy to continue to nurture the networks I had already developed. They are safe places to be, whether in person or in the virtual world. I know how they work, the language of the community is familiar and I know how to contribute to them.

The networks I need to develop as a coach are far less familiar. To some extent I know the language of the community but it is a big community with lots of different groups and organisations.

The networks relevant to life as an independent practitioner are totally unknown. Am I an entrepreneur, a solopreneur, a business woman or all three?  Even knowing where to start in this world is an unknown. Hence it is so easy to find other things to do. This kind of networking involves me introducing myself in a whole new way. Going into a room and not knowing anyone. Yes, even the thought of it has made my heart beat faster.

Anytime we make a transition in our professional life, whether it is from university into practice, from team member to team leader or embarking upon research it’s necessary to think about our networks. Which of our existing networks do we need to continue to contribute to? Which news ones do we need to develop?

An important distinction.

One thing it might be helpful to think about for a moment is the difference between networking and strategic networking. So let’s pause for a moment.

Networking is defined as:

interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts

Strategic networking is defined as:

networking with a defined goal.  

In a professional capacity to network strategically means to think carefully about the kinds of networks you need to develop to support your progression as an individual or as a team. Strategic networking requires you to sit down and think about the shape of your networks at the moment and whether they are appropriate for where you are heading.

Doing a network check.

If you were to draw a network map which included all the different networks you are part of at the moment what would it look like? It’s an interesting exercise to do. Include everything e.g. special interest groups, professional bodies, social media communities……..

Now have a long hard look at them. How do they look?

If you were to score them in terms of the strength of the connection and the importance of the connection to your professional development what does it look like?

  • Are there connections you feel you need to strengthen?
  • Are you putting a lot of time and energy into a network that you are connected to strongly but, in terms of your career progression, isn’t so important?
  • What is missing? This is a really important question to think about.

If for example you want to get more involved in research how do research related networks figure on your map? Is this an area you need to make more connections?

If you are wanting to become a leading researcher in your clinical specialty how strong is your network here? Do you have really strong links within your own profession but very few links in your clinical speciality?

Perhaps you are considering starting a doctorate, do you have links with academia or research networks?

This is what we mean when we talk about strategic networking. Ensuring that you are developing the networks you need support your career goals and aspirations. This doesn’t happen by chance. Maybe the start of a new year is a good opportunity to check in on the state of your networks?