Business Networking
Who should I target when I’m looking to build my network? I mean, who should I actually go out and try to meet? Who should be on my radar? I don’t even know where to start!!”

This stream of questions came from a recent college graduate after I had spoken at an alumni networking event. She was running into a common problem that many young (and not-so-young) professionals face when starting their network: creating a connection strategy. It used to be that you would network with whomever was in your general physical location. With the arrival of LinkedIn, Twitter, and email, though, it’s possible to research and reach out to professionals both near and far. Then we have the growing fluidity of the work world which actually makes building a diverse network necessary. Making a plan that outlines who you want to bring into your network, and how you are going to do it, is a valuable use of time.

There are a number of ways to detail this connection strategy, but one distinction I shared with this new networker was between her focused network and her diffuse network. She would need both of these for career success, and one of the common mistakes professionals make when building their network is that they neglect one or their other. Looking at the structure of these two networks shows why they are both important.

The first is one is crystallized around your industry or job. These focused networks are filled with individuals who share your background, experience, and education. These people “swim” in the same pool of information and have similar areas of interest. Most of us are familiar with a focused network, because it’s the one that we started building in school (if you think about it, you and your classmates were pretty similar). Engineers spend time with engineers, accountants with accountants, actors with actors.

Focused networks are important to your career because they have access to the information, news, and yes, gossip that you need. These contacts will point you towards jobs, resources, and mentors. When you have a challenge or question, it makes sense to go to someone who is knowledgeable about your field. Even if you already have a robust network, it’s always a great idea to cultivate more industry relationships.

These networks are often natural outgrowths of your workplace, but as more and more of us work independently it can be harder to meet others in your field. It’s challenging to connect with your industry peers when you do most of your work from a home office or coffee shop. That’s why there is value in visiting the home office, reaching out to professional organizations, and attending conferences in your field to stay in the loop.

But there is a problem for those who limit their networking to their field. Because a focused network concentrates around a single perspective, it’s easy to have career “blinders” on. You can fall into a parochial perspective when you only spend time with people that think like you; and that can grow stale. You miss out on different contexts and ideas. For example, if you are an attorney your colleagues are going to think in a specific way (like attorneys), and that’s going to be a lot different than the mindset of a computer programmer. The lens of your focused network isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that it’s limited.

Diffuse networks are the opposite of focused ones. Instead of building a web of connections in the same industry, you branch out and create relationships with people in a variety of roles and industries. If you are that attorney, you could cultivate relationships with marketers, writers, and small business owners. Many diffuse networks coalesce when professionals have a shared locus, like serving a similar customer demographic. But even if there is no direct connection between their professional interests, diffuse networks can provide a lot of value.

Different perspectives create “lateral thinking” which introduces new ways to solve problems. And you never know who your diffuse network is connected to. They spend their time in very different social circles and might have access to just the contact you need. What’s the downside to spending all of your time creating this diffuse network? Even though it’s valuable to get fresh ideas from people unfamiliar with your field, they also don’t have insider knowledge. They don’t know what has been tried before and the nuances that are relevant to your industry.

Most of us do our diffuse networking when we don’t even think we are working. We tend to create these relationships in our social life with our family, friends, and others that we run into.. For example, professionals with kids tend to find that their children’s friends’ parents are sources of professional information from other fields. It’s also possible to intentionally grow this part of you network by putting yourself in environments where there will be a mix of professionals; for example, events that are organized by geographic area instead of industry.

Both of these networks feed different aspects of your career. To find success, balance your attention and time between the two of them. A valuable connection strategy will weave your focused and diffuse network into a unified whole, one that provides a wealth of resources to help you grow your career. Where are the gaps in your network? Take steps to fill those gaps in the next few months!