How to Build a Professional Network

  • By Bryan Lapidus, FPAC
  • Published: 12/21/2022
Networking Article Header

Building a network is important for your career for numerous reasons: excellence in your current role, identifying future roles, attaining those opportunities, and identifying talent. It can help you to be visible in multiple places while simultaneously receiving inputs from many sources.

“The biggest mistake people make in thinking about their careers is they fail to cultivate their relationship garden, cultivate their network. This is like eating right and exercising; you know you should do it, but people get drawn inside their own four walls and stop reaching out,” said Eric Herrenkohl, Executive Coach and Managing Director at AchieveNEXT.

What Is Networking and Why Is It Important

Some people get stuck on the idea of networking as “working a room” — a series of shallow conversations to collect business cards and find your next role. That sounds distasteful and, for some finance professionals, a difficult fit for their personality. Instead, we can redefine networking in a way that shows why it’s valuable: creating meaningful relationships by finding people with whom you can share ideas, add value and gain value (including satisfaction in the relationship) for mutual benefit.

Networking requires a thoughtful approach. “We call it ‘Making Connections That Count,’” explained Herrenkohl. “It is about meeting the right people — the senior decision makers or connectors who know those people and are involved with companies/organizations that are of interest to you. Quality matters more than quantity. The most valuable networking happens at senior levels. We work with executives to identify the right people to meet and to convey a message that frames up the potential mutual value of connecting.”

Tips for Effective Networking

Successful networking comes down to understanding yourself — your goals and (desired) abilities, as well as emotional intelligence to understand others. Networking requires a tactical approach: What message to send at what time, and to whom?

One way to build meaningful relationships is to offer to help a colleague with a problem or to ask for help or advice from someone whom you want to get to know better. The colleague can be in any part of any business — from operations to sales to finance. Understanding your reason for networking will help you choose the right person and the right question to ask.

Here are some more tips for building and maintaining your network:

  • Set aside a certain amount of time each day/week for this by blocking it on your calendar.
  • Ask for advice from former colleagues or industry experts. If they are local, consider inviting them for a cup of coffee. If they live further away, consider a virtual coffee chat.
  • Attend professional events, whether online or in person. If you’re attending virtually, follow up with webinar speakers afterward or join roundtables, which are designed to be more interactive than webinars. If you’re looking to connect in person, conferences, such as the AFP Annual Conference, are a great way to meet other leading professionals in your field.
  • Join a mastermind group or form your own. “A mastermind is a group of smart people that connect on a regular basis to tackle challenges and problems together. They lean on each other, give advice, share connections and do business with each other when appropriate. It’s very much peer-to-peer mentoring,” wrote Stephanie Burns in Forbes.
  • Post interesting articles and questions on LinkedIn or Twitter; seek out a few people you would like to hear from to help gain traction.
  • Look for or create special projects internally. These can be related to learning new types of roles that may grow your skill set, or they may be other learning opportunities, such as brown bags lunches, book clubs, etc.
  • Take part in chat room discussions. If you’re an AFP member, you can contribute to the conversation on AFP Collaborate or volunteer on working task forces.

How to Be a Good Mentor or Mentee

In a survey of attendees at the AFP Annual Conference, 98% said having a mentor, and 89% said having a mentee had a positive influence on their career. With such overwhelming evidence in favor of mentorships, it is important to get the process right with good mentor/mentee practices.

Remember that not all employees want to be mentored and not all experts know how to teach others. For those looking to pursue this type of relationship, here are tips for being a good mentor or mentee, based on the AFP survey and ensuing practitioner discussion on how to do mentorship well.

Setting up the mentor relationship:

  • Be engaged in the partnership; meet regularly.
  • Mentor to be genuinely interested in the mentee’s development.
  • Know your boundaries. Don’t let the relationship interfere with job responsibilities. Don’t play favorites. Don’t become a crutch for inadequate work.
  • Have similar work ethics; it will not work if one person is a workaholic and the other is more laid back.
  • Include all levels of the organization as part of the mentor/mentee pool.
  • Be willing to change if the relationship is not the right fit.
  • Recognize the value of the mentor’s time if you’re the one being mentored.

Have good conversations with your mentor/mentee:

  • Have a specific goal/objective identified for what you are trying to accomplish.
  • Present questions/items for discussion in advance, if you’re the mentee, and prepare for the discussion based on those questions/items if you’re the mentor.
  • Be honest and open in your conversation.
  • Discuss topics around the mentee’s career development and be open to the topic of the possibility of venturing outside of the current company.
  • Develop the relationship in a way that is organic, natural and voluntary.
  • Foster bi-directional learning and support.
  • Be open to cross-departmental conversations.
  • Be gentle at times as a mentor but also know when to provide “tough love” when the situation and personalities involved call for it. In other words, “know your mentee.”

Not all mentorships are beneficial, even with the best of intentions. Some people do not make good mentors, even if they are brilliant at their craft. Some people do not make good mentees at particular times in their careers. And sometimes, the fit is simply not right.

Characteristics of an ineffective mentorship:

  • Glossing over failures, excessive cheerleading, or promotion to a level of incompetence.
  • Ego.
  • Taking advantage of the power dynamics between participants.
  • Demeaning the mentee when asking questions.
  • Institutionalized brown-nosing.
  • Too much structure that creates a forced or contrived relationship.
  • The actions of one party reflect poorly on the other.
  • Confusing the expectations of “mentorship” versus “sponsorship,” which is advocating on behalf of someone for promotions or peak assignments. “Anyone can be mentored, but only the top 10% would be sponsored,” said an executive at AFP 2019.
  • Political maneuvering or favoritism.
  • The opposite of good practices identified in the earlier two lists.

Learn more about networking and mentoring effectively and building a career plan. Check out The AFP Guide to Career Pathing.

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