Recent grads with shiny new degrees. Mid-career professionals vying for new (or better) jobs. Retirees looking for a supplemental income. The value of professional networking is rarely outgrown — or overstated. Sure, everyone is on LinkedIn these days, but there’s a big difference between knowing the perks of networking and knowing how to network effectively. Hint: Setting up an online profile and halfheartedly touching base with connections now and again probably won’t cut it. Here’s a look at what will.

Seven ways to grow (and leverage) your professional network

  1. Cast a wide net. Connecting with former college classmates and colleagues is a solid way to begin building your network, but it may not be enough. You don’t have to hand your business card to every stranger you exchange pleasantries with on the subway, but why not think bigger than the alumni finder on your favorite networking website? CollegeFeed recommends touching base with a wide breadth of people, including former high school teachers, community and religious leaders, and even your friends’ parents. Networking functions are another great way to meet new contacts (more on this next).
  2. Be a yes man (or woman). In a column she penned for Harvard Business Review, Kathryn Minshew, CEO and co-founder of The Muse, offers a helpful piece of advice to young professionals: NYFO, or Network Your Face Off (figuratively speaking). That means saying yes to as many networking opportunities as possible. That Toastmasters meeting all the way across town on a Tuesday night? Make it happen. Out-of-the-blue coffee invite from an old coworker or classmate? Be there. The networking gig sure to be a waste of time is the one not taken.
  3. Be likeable. It goes without saying that prospective employers and clients are probably more likely to hire someone they like, but how can you be sure that someone is you? Being polite and on time is a start, but there are a few other tips that can hedge the bet in your favor. For example, Salesforce recommends asking contacts plenty of questions about themselves. This creates a comfortable environment for them — and an air of friendliness around you.
  4. Be proactive. You’ve handed out your body weight in business cards. You’ve made every networking event and touched base with every semi-relatable contact you could think of. Time to sit back and wait for the calls to start rolling in, right? Wrong. The only way you can be sure opportunity knocks is to go calling — literally. Instead of waiting for the phone to ring, Forbes recommends calling new contacts and putting the ball in their court. You need not pester them, but even a brief voicemail is a welcome mat for potential contacts.
  5. Be a follower. No, really. Remember when we suggested being likeable? Another way to do this — and create a positive impression — is to follow experts in your field. Follow them on Twitter. Follow their publication. Follow their careers on LinkedIn or in the news. Follow them in every professional capacity you can think of, and then let them know about it. LinkedIn career expert and author Nicole Williams told Forbes that there is no greater compliment than to acknowledge someone else’s accomplishments. Flattery works, and may even put you ahead of the pack when a new opportunity arises. Follow to lead.
  6. Be polished. That snazzy new blazer may help cement the right first impression at your next networking event or interview, but being polished extends far beyond your wardrobe. It means proofreading every email you send, being polite even three hours into a painfully boring conference, and not drinking too much at that business mixer. It also means not making bad decisions elsewhere, especially on social media (a tool human resources pros and recruiters love to leverage).
  7. Recalibrate now and again. Your current network may not always be the right one: As you grow and achieve more, so should your professional circle. Forbes recommends periodically asking yourself what you aim to accomplish, who can help you do it, and why they should care to at all. This results-oriented thinking is what separates successful people from career coasters.

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