Building a Dependable Network of Career Relationships

“It’s not what you know” some wise observer said, “it’s who you know that counts.”

In truth, whom you know has a great deal to do with what you know and when you know it. Your network of colleagues, friends, mentors and advisors can provide information, advice, and feedback essential to maximum career advancement. You just can’t progress as far or fast on your own.

Successful people tend to know more key associates than do their less accomplished peers. They remember and maintain contacts from their past while continually seeking out new, beneficial relationships. They keep these relationships in good repair, so when they need a favor or need an edge over less well connected competitors, it’s theirs for the asking. Scattered throughout every company, is a network of informed individuals: the company grapevine. People in this network stay tuned into what’s happening to the company, its employees, and its competitors. Members may include well-read executives, knowledgeable secretaries, sociable managers, talkative peers, – anyone who stays well informed.

The grapevine can pinpoint company and industry movers and shakers, identify who is well respected and who is not, alert you to job openings, warn you of pending mergers and layoffs, and provide other information relevant to advancing your career. Folks on the grapevine know about a developing personality clash, personal success or failure.

Your company grapevine also tracks changes at the top, changing business directions and conditions, and virtually every other factor, which affects your job. Keeping abreast of the grapevine can help you ride the wave of change and save you many hours of personal research time.

As with any institution, formal or otherwise, getting the most from the grapevine requires proper etiquette and protocol. Most importantly, you must give to the grapevine if you hope to receive. Be careful, though. Giving should be in the positive form of promoting others who deserve recognition and attention. It should not include information considered confidential or strategically sensitive. When you deserve recognition, relate your accomplishments with modesty.

Receiving information from the grapevine involves asking probing questions about who gets things done, where the real power lies within the company, what the climate is regarding changes of organization or policy, etc. Maintain gentle control of the conversation and avoid gossip and hearsay. You are only interested in useful, non-tawdry information. In important matters, consult multiple sources to confirm the accuracy of your information.

To avoid becoming known as a gossip or busybody, make your use of the grapevine moderate. You’ll be surprised and pleased to discover how effective the company grapevine can be when used to communicate positive attitudes and to dispel false rumors. The best way to begin identifying informants within the grapevine is by getting to know the people in your own organization. Take some cake back from lunch to your secretaries. Bring in some baked goods or produce from your home garden. Do favors for people, and listen to their problems and aspirations. The more interested and open you are, the more you’ll learn from others.

Don’t let your Rolodex gather dust.
Many people use business card catalogs, or Rolodex files, to build a handy reference on their business contacts. You should do the same. Enter personal and business information on each entry as you learn it – employment history, birthdays, family members, hobbies and interests, and so on. You’ll discover that a few pertinent comments will convey the impression that you’re genuinely interested in your contacts, and have a steel-trap memory, too!

Information is power. Cultivate contacts with colleagues who have information of value to you. Every trade or industry has its experts – people who know the right answers and do an excellent job regardless of circumstances. They become the best at what they do because they personally enjoy doing jobs right. Like you, these experts are committed and ambitious. Winning their friendship and enlisting their aid will increase your chances of success because you can count on a job well done if they assist you. If they’re not on your side, their clout can often turn them into formidable roadblocks.

Focus your efforts on those experts who fully match your commitment of excellence. Some are already recognized leaders. Others are “sleepers” – people who quietly do outstanding work. Discover some sleepers. Encourage them in their job, give them support and concern, and generally do for them as you would have a mentor do for you.

Likewise, identify the people in your industry who have clout. Make time and find reasons to meet and communicate with them. Their influence will give you direction and help you make things happen more quickly.

Don’t wait for a crisis before beginning to build mutually dependable relationships. Join a country club, do political or social-action volunteer work, get involved in your trade or professional association. Make sure to seek out those participants who can help you and vice versa. Get to know people on a first name basis. Invite someone to lunch; send a thank-you note, or a birthday or holiday card; attend business-related social functions. Bring something wonderful from home to share: home-baked goods, a favorite book, recording or video. Take care of those you depend on.

Variety is as important as visibility. Vary the facets you expose to others so they don’t pigeonhole you as merely a club member, sports fan, or a do-gooder. If your genuine enthusiasm is varied, your business associates will tend to view you as well rounded.

Of course, you won’t spend equal amounts of time with each member of your network. But, it is essential to treat everyone in your portfolio as equal, regardless of his/her position. Be neither overly deferential to your superiors nor overbearing with subordinates. You never know who may be in a position to help or thwart you in the future.

There’s no better time to rely on your industry contacts than when you need a job. In today’s climate of buyouts and mergers, good employees are sometimes left out in the cold without a job. I know two Project Directors who met with such a fate. One had developed a solid network of industry contacts and relationships. Within three weeks, he had an offer from a major competitor with greater earnings potential. The other Project Director, a selfish loner, may still be looking through the classified ads.

Build yourself a reputation of excellence.
“I will always cherish the initial misconception I had about you.” -Unknown
Your reputation is the aggregate of all the things that people think and say about you. For maximum career advancement, it’s not enough to have an excellent reputation. You must develop an excellent reputation among those in a position to help and reward you. Have you ever considered how far your reputation extends? Are you only known by a small group of fellow employees, or do you have a reputation throughout the industry? There are practical ways to expand your reputation, yet few people bother. If you do, you’ll enjoy a distinct edge over your peers.

Maintain high visibility.
It’s not enough to be good at what you do. You must be seen as being good at what you do! Seek high-visibility projects. Write articles for publication. Give an occasional speech. Join respected professional associations. Be where the action is. Try staying late several nights a week to affiliate with top achievers and gain management recognition. If you become recognizable – even memorable – you’ll be called to mind when important projects or jobs come up.

Become active in your trade or professional association.
Perhaps the easiest way to gain recognition beyond company walls is to join a trade or professional association in your field. This will expose you, regionally and nationally, to those who matter in your industry. To make the best use of this exposure, become more than just a member. Become highly involved. Head up a committee. Give a seminar. Bring in a guest speaker. Represent your association politically. Do whatever it takes to become known in your industry as a knowledgeable, hard-working person. The most active members in trade associations are people who make their work their hobby. When you take up this hobby, you’ll find it wonderfully profitable.

A good way to gain recognition is to volunteer as the Publicity Director for your local trade or professional association. By acting as spokesperson, you gain natural opportunities for media exposure. You’ll find yourself making live appearances, speaking to civic groups and serving as a panel member on topics related to your industry. Expect to submit articles and announcements as well. Don’t worry if writing isn’t your long suit. The main point is to be a fertile idea person and good information-gatherer. Others can help write the articles for you.

The advantages of your involvement in an association go far beyond reputation alone. It helps you stay on top of industry innovations, market conditions, and the moves of your competitors! Your contact with other highly motivated individuals will inspire and energize you. You’ll gain the chance to watch and learn from successful executives in other companies. Most importantly, when you’re researching jobs, these contacts can help you.

If you’re unsure which trade associations serve your industry, consult the Encyclopedia of Associations; Gale Research Company, Book Tower; Detroit, MI 48226; (800-877-GALE).

Introduce yourself to the media.
You don’t need to be a public figure in order to introduce yourself to the media. Contact local newspaper, radio, and television reporters – particularly those who cover business topics – and describe your professional expertise. Offer to comment on topics and questions in your field of work through interviews or writing articles. Be friendly, not pushy. If you keep in contact with reporters, chances are good that they’ll call you when a story breaks.

Do the “write” thing.
“If you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you copy from two, it’s research.” – Wilson Mizner
Getting published gives you an important, added credential. Writing articles for trade, professional, business, or specialty magazines is a good way to get exposure and leads. It’s easier than you think. Most editors are hungry for writers with a good technical grasp of their field. If you demonstrate expertise, an editor will often polish your writing for you. You can also hire ghostwriters if necessary. Their fee will be worthwhile in light of your enhanced professional stature. A good book on writing for publication is Writing Nonfiction That Sells by Sam Sinclair Baker, Writer’s Digest Books.

Plan and produce a seminar.
Plan and organize a seminar for the employees of your company. Often the best way to assure your knowledge in a field is to teach it. You can use speakers other than yourself, but be sure you are seen as the primary idea person. If your topic is of general interest, present a version of your seminar to the public, perhaps under the sponsorship of a civic or business organization. Your employer may allow you to run the seminar during working hours in recognition of its public relations value for the firm. The company may assist you in other ways, such as providing audio-visual equipment or printing extra handout materials. The sooner you discreetly publicize your efforts, the more likely you are to get help.

Inform superiors of accomplishments outside the firm. Once you’ve completed a project outside of your company, make sure that the right people hear about it. Submit all pertinent articles, seminar brochures and newspaper clippings to your boss or to anyone else who may help to advance your career. Do so in a way that indicates that you’re supporting the firm and not just tooting your own horn!

When you write professionally and speak in public, associate yourself with your employer. This will reflect well on you as an ambassador and diplomat when reports come back to your superiors.

Promote yourself – don’t push yourself.
In calling attention to your deeds and achievements, take care not to become obnoxious or a braggart. The secret to effective self-promotion lies in getting others to do the talking for you. Inform others and make sure they see what you are doing. Let them do the bragging. People who see your successes will want your assistance in their own projects. When asked how they can thank you for a job well done, ask the officers or leaders of the organization to send letters to your boss or your firm’s President.

The article above was written by construction recruiter Frederick Hornberger, CPC, president of Hornberger Management Company in Wilmington, Delaware (, a construction recruiter specializing in senior level, executive search.