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Why You Need a Professional Community and Not Just a Network

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When I was 22, I had somehow gotten myself a job as a policy analyst in a government office in a town much smaller than New York City. Every day, my role was to act as a liaison between several departments in the county and work with them to identify ways the departments could leverage policy options from other places throughout the country to get better outcomes for their work. I was so proud to have that kind of role at such a young age and felt ready to take on the world. It was my first “real” job after college and nothing could have felt better than having a job that my graduate program had prepared me for.

That was, until I realized that while school and previous professional experience could dramatically increase your capacity to succeed in a job, the third part of the work-success trifecta was office politics. I was woefully unprepared. After eight months of respectable policy analysis and some instances of true process innovation, I sat down with my supervisor at the time who after a long pause leans back in his chair, hands folded behind his head and says “You know, you don’t really fit in here, have you thought about throwing in the towel?”

I know, rough right? But despite the legitimacy of my concerns that this conversation was entirely inappropriate, I knew that he was right. I didn’t fit in with the office culture and I also realized over my time there that if I was to really get this work thing down, I needed a professional community, not just a loose network of people who could help me get a better job.

A professional network is a group of individuals who may come from your sector, a completely different arena, but what they have in common is a dedication to your professional success. They may be your age or older or maybe even young, but ultimately they are people you can call when you have a hard conversation with a co-worker, when a project is on unsteady ground, or when you simply need to discuss a strategy to get executive buy-in on a new idea. Don’t worry, you most likely don’t need to start from scratch, so here are some easy ways that you can get started today on building a professional community, not just a network.

Hire for integrity

That is one of my favorite Warren Buffetisms. It’s simple and useful. When you are building your professional community, look for individuals who you believe have a high level of integrity. Someone who has integrity can be trusted both at work and in the world. In a time of crisis, having someone you can turn to and immediately trust the quality of their word and the accuracy of their moral compass means you have one less quality to assess.

Choose a peer or two

While I am a proponent of mentorship and sponsorship, and have benefited from both, having a few peers that I respect, appreciate, and connect with have been extraordinarily valuable to me. I once had the opportunity to work with a woman who was about five years older than I was at the time. Although she never had a formal role as a mentor, over time I realized that she was modeling all the behaviors that I needed to adopt to succeed in that particular work environment. It took me a while to build up the courage to let her know how much I appreciated her modeling. And she responded in a humble and appreciative manner. Do you have a friend who you know is rocking out in the work place? Ask her about it! See what you can learn from one another. Sometimes, the best treasures have been with us all along.

Who’s an expert?

Do you know what your friends and colleagues are great at? Recently, I was working on a project and needed to know more about start-ups and legal issues. After racking my brain and searching the Internet, I found an event I could attend that would answer all of my questions. I was saved! As I read down the Eventbrite details, I realized that a good friend of mine was the main presenter. I was shocked and delighted. It reminded me that it was important to take the time to assess my network and understand who to go to for what. In fact, taking 10 minutes to make a list of contacts and their expertise would be time well spent.

But I already have 500+ contacts

If you’re reading this and you know you’re a master networker, collecting business cards like real women should, then you’re ready for this. When you need a new job, your 500+ lukewarm contacts may be helpful, but five close and engaged professional connections will truly be more valuable. It comes down to cultivation. This week, choose the top five relationships you want to deepen professionally and take the time to reach out, share an interesting article, a work update or ask for their advice on a challenge you’re currently working your way through. Be prepared to be amazed when you realize how much more connected you can become.

Nearly a decade after my first job out of college, I am honored to know the professionals who I can call a part of my community. It can take some time, dedication, and a different level of vulnerability, but I can personally say that a professional family is the best thing you can do to ensure your success and your growth. Knowing that I am part of a dedicated community of brilliant individuals who are all doing their best to create a better world through their roles in a diverse array of sectors is one of the aspects of my life that make me feel truly rich.

Want to find out more about how you can foster a meaningful professional community?

Watch Office Hours with Porter Gale to find out!

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