We all know how important networking is. For job search and career advancement, networking enables you to hear about the unadvertised jobs or the plum projects that could propel your career forward. But a strong network is beneficial for day-to-day personal needs as well – finding a good doctor, checking on a contractor, discovering a good place for Mexican food.
How do you know if your network is strong enough to support you professionally and personally? Every few months, you should test the strength of your network:
If you had to contact someone for professional reasons – e.g., “do you know anyone at Pfizer? They posted a job that may be right for me and I want to learn more about that group” – how many people would you feel comfortable calling right now?
If you have fewer than 25 strong professional contacts you could reach out to now, your network is too small. You might have deep connections with a small number, and this is a good start.
But you also need quantity in your network. You should prioritize meeting new professional contacts. If you have the quality and the quantity but you don’t feel like you could reach out today, then you have an issue with maintaining your network. You should prioritize following up with people you already know. A bonus test is how many people you could contact for personal needs. Look at the quantity, but also the variety in your personal network.
When was the last time you had lunch or a Starbucks with a contact outside your day-to-day colleagues or closest friends?
If it is more than a month or you can’t remember, this is a danger sign that your networking is too insular. You are not exposing yourself to diverse perspectives. Remember the above point about how important it is to maintain your network. Setting aside some lunch hours is a great way to follow up with your network.
Do you have mentors and supporters?
When you need some off-the-record advice or candid feedback, do you have people that you can go to who understand your role, your company and your industry? If not, then you’re not taking advantage of mentorship in your career. Mentors are not just very senior people who can move you to the next level by sheer influence.
There is a place for that type of powerful mentor. But mentors can also be at your peer-level. They can be colleagues who have an insight you don’t have and are willing to share it with you – maybe they’ve been at the company longer and have a great sense of the politics, maybe they are super strong presenters and can be your practice audience before you have a big meeting.
Networking is not something that you can cram last-minute. A strong network is built over time and with deliberate attention to both quantity and quality of the contacts. Ask yourself the above three simple questions on a regular basis (set your Outlook to remind you quarterly!), so that you consciously tend to your network before it becomes a crisis situation.
No one likes the person who only reaches out when they need something. No one wants to be the person who needs something but feels all alone. Build a strong network so that you can make requests without imposing. Build a network that is strong enough so you don’t have to go it alone.
This post also appeared at my Work In Progress blog on Forbes.com: