If your business network is comprised of people who are just like you, you’re missing out. It’s important to build a diverse network to help ensure that you’ll make the types of connections that can really boost your career. Being proactive here can pay off big dividends.
“The best idea is to build your network and networking capital before you need it,” recommends Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed., career expert and director of student success at Touro College. “Fortunately, that is easier to do now than ever before,” he says.
Why? Because the internet and social media channels mean that you connect with people from around the world—people that you might likely have ever encountered in the old analog environment.
Why You Need to Build a Diverse Network
“The biggest benefit to a diverse network is the exposure to new ideas,” says Chris Gibson, founder, and CEO of Wavelength, a company that helps schools, camps, and membership associations network with their alumni. “People with different backgrounds have novel ways to approach problems that you and your industry may never have considered. These new approaches often lead to industry-changing insights that would never have formed within a uniform network.”
Nick H. Kamboj is CEO of Aston & James, LLC, a company that advises prospective MBA students seeking admission to top-tier business programs globally. “By not socializing in a wide variety of professional or personal networks, your intelligence and awareness of other advances become deeply limited,” says Kamboj. “I saw this limitation when I was faculty at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, I saw it when I was studying at Harvard with some of the professors who were limited in their networks, and I saw this limitation of awareness often in the nearly 75 corporations that I have consulted for.”
If you have limited social and professional spheres, says Kamboj, you will “receive very limited advice and conventional wisdom.”
“A diverse and expanded network gives individuals access to opportunities and people that they may not find on their own,” says Anne Landon, senior director, marketing and communications, with Lycoming College. “It is a networking mistake to build a network with only people that have similar interests and occupations.” Unfortunately, that’s what many of us do!
But, how can you most effectively build a diverse network?
How to Build a Diverse Network
Those who are adept at networking recommend a variety of ways to identify potential contacts, reach out and engage them and nurture your community of connections. But, first, it pays to think strategically.
Assessing Your Network and Understanding Potential Biases
If you’re active on LinkedIn, one quick way to assess the diversity of your existing network is to evaluate your current connections. Through LinkedIn you can do a download of these connections (click the “Me” icon at the top of your homepage, select “Settings & Privacy” from the dropdown menu, click the “Privacy” tab at the top of the page, under the “How LinkedIn uses your data” section, click “Change” next to “Download your data”). What you’ll get is an Excel spreadsheet that will give you names, company names, position, and dates the connections were initially made. You’ll be able to assess male/female, types of companies/industry and level of positions. It’s a relatively quick way to get some sense of how diverse your professional network might be, and how much work it might take for you to build a diverse network.
You may also want to visually examine your network on LinkedIn to help you evaluate other types of diversity—e.g., age, ethnicity. Just click “My Network” at the top of your homepage and then scroll through to visually evaluate the diversity of your network.
Recognizing Your Potential Biases
Amy C. Waninger is founder and CEO with Lead at Any Level, LLC, and the author of Network Beyond Bias: How to Make Diversity a Competitive Advantage for Your Career. For successful networking across difference, Waninger says, one must:
- Understand the role unconscious bias plays in everyday decision-making
- Recognize how you may be engaging in and affected by affinity bias
- Identify inclusive behaviors and effective networking strategies
- Assess the breadth and depth of your professional network
We all have biases. Recognizing what yours may be and then taking steps to connect with those who aren’t currently part of your sphere can open your world up to new insights and opportunities.
Thinking Creatively About Expanding Your Network
Gibson suggests considering how joining some personal interest or hobby-based communities might help you connect with more diverse individuals. “People in these communities tend to work in different industries and have different backgrounds,” he says.
Don’t overlook friends, relatives, and neighbors as sources of valuable information—and contacts—that could help you extend your network in strategic, and diverse, ways. “If you casually mention to Mrs. Smith next door that you’re looking for an internship, she might refer you to her sister-in-law who is the human resources managers at a law firm that’s dying to take on a law clerk for the summer,” Landon says. The more expansive your network is, the more likely you are to find these opportunities.
Kamboj offers some creative ideas to build a diverse network:
- Seek opportunities to speak at various conferences in industries different than your own. “For example, if you are a CEO of tech, get involved to a non-profit organization’s conference to speak on leadership or running an effective company.”
- Join social clubs outside of your professional sphere or interests to meet “non-like-minded individuals.”
“Time and time again, I go to a lecture on a topic that is not even in my industry or familiarity base, such as astronomy, and I end up learning not only more about that topic than I have ever known but also meeting world experts in a field I am not familiar with,” says Kamboj. “The network then continues to expand organically from there.”
Leverage Social Media
Today’s digital communication environment makes networking easier than ever before.
For instance, LinkedIn, says Shapiro, has “changed the face of professional networking. By definition, social media is social. LinkedIn can identify your ‘hidden ’connections; the people you already know who can make warm introductions to the decision makers you are targeting.”
Shapiro recommends: “Once you have a winning LinkedIn profile, you are ready to build a professional network that is by definition diverse and that can help you and others. Reach out to people and connect, because you never know which one of your connections holds the key to unlimited opportunity for one of your friends or acquaintances or vice versa.”
But Don’t Ignore the Benefits of Face-to-Face Networking
While social media opens up new audiences and new opportunities in networking, don’t rely solely on the electronic communication channels to connect with others.
The bottom line: make a concerted effort to connect with those who are not like you. Don’t look for like-minded individuals, as Kamboj suggests—actively seek out, and make, connections with those who are non-like-minded.
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