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It used to be that the only way to climb a career ladder was to pick up more skills. Learn how to do X, get paid more for it, and earn job-title Y. Up you went. Each new capability you mastered got you to that “next level,” either inside your current company or at a different one. Today, many of those ladders have fallen and shattered, with just a few left standing. Lately there have been efforts to hammer together some new ones, with new skills–usually tech-based–like cybersecurity or coding expertise held up as the new keys to staying competitive in the future job market.
That isn’t exactly wrong. Some skill sets really are in higher demand than others, so it makes sense to counsel undergrads and entry-level workers to brush up in certain subject areas in order to gain an edge. But this kind of advice still reflects a “ladder-climbing” mind-set in a world that’s looking a lot more like a lattice, where talent–and people’s entire careers–are much more fluid.
In order to move up, over, side to side, and double back when you need to, all while making your way upward, the trait you need most is adaptability, not this or that tech skill. And there’s no way to adapt if you don’t have a great network you can tap from the get-go.
Your Network Is a Job Skill
Unemployment and underemployment are still hitting millennials the hardest these days. For many, that means you now have to look for ways to advance your career outside the traditional corporate hierarchy. But that can sometimes be an advantage. With fewer ladder-like jobs inside big companies, younger workers no longer have to wait as long for someone ahead of them to move on or retire in order to advance.
The gig economy is also a factor here. More employees are ditching traditional nine-to-five models (both by choice and circumstance) for project-based work. And as freelancing becomes more common, especially among cash-strapped millennials, your ability to source new options for work is at least as important as your ability to execute it.
In other words, your skills matter, but they’ll only get you so far. In the modern workforce, networked knowledge and experience–when the a team’s collective expertise exceeds than the sum of its parts–are becoming as important as individual skills. If you’re less than a decade into your career, it’s probably time to prioritize building your network the same way the generation ahead of you was told to develop their skills.
Focus on What You Can Actually Control
The ability to understand, interpret, and make informed decisions based on what you know comes with time and experience. So sure, you can brush up on a coding language on your own, but that won’t necessarily help you make a strategic choice about an e-commerce site. The internet can’t help you there, but your network can.
The fact is that people in the early stages of their careers often have little control over how they develop their skills; their projects, and the skills and experience they gain from there, are dictated by an employer. Finding ways (and the time) to deepen your skill set isn’t always easy. But one thing you can work on pretty effectively all on your own is network building.
In fact, there’s probably no more crucial task early in your career. Whether you work in a service industry, administration, academia, nonprofits, or the business world, your network can extend your access to knowledge. If you know the right people, you can tap into their skills rather than having to acquire them all yourself. This lets you find better solutions faster–which then becomes your competitive edge.
Show a prospective client or employer how great your network-supported problem-solving chops make you more valuable, and you’ll likely find more opportunities more quickly than somebody slogging through a coding bootcamp.
How do you build a network right out the gates, when your limited time in the workforce limits the range of people you’ve come into contact with? Here are a few tips.
Hit Up Alumni
You already know this one, but it bears repeating. When you’re new to the workforce, you haven’t had many opportunities to build your professional network. So it’s crucial to tap your university resources and LinkedIn to connect with alumni.
But there are a couple of twists to this common advice to bear in mind. First, focus on connecting with grads who are only a few years ahead of you. Their contacts–that is, people they can introduce you to–will still be fresh. Plus, their experiences and pointers won’t be outdated. And second, start networking with alumni before you’re an alum yourself. Keep in touch with friends who graduate before you do. Use that alumni database to find internships so you won’t have to start from scratch when it’s time to hunt for a full-time job.
Once you’ve covered alums from your professional field, broaden to other fields of interest. Alumni are a great starting point because you already have common ground to build on, so those contacts are more likely to convert to network connections.
Twitter isn’t just another social network, it’s a powerful networking and education platform. Start compiling some Twitter lists of professionals in your field or in fields that intrigue you. See what they tweet about and who they engage with. Chances are they’ll help you discover more potential prospects.
Let hashtags be your guide, sending you down rabbit holes of interest areas you don’t know much about yet. Join Twitter chats. Engage with others and share your views. Many exchanges that begin on social evolve into full-on network connections. (And while you’re at it, take the same approach to Facebook.)
Map it All Out
If networking is a job skill you can develop like any other, it helps to give yourself some structure. As you accumulate connections, it’ll get harder to remember where you met and who has what background and skills. So consider using a lightweight contact management tool to add tags to your network so you can easily search and find contacts based on their location, skills, and so on.
Find a Person for Every Passion
Great networks don’t happen by chance. They’re consciously crafted over time. Think of the areas within and outside the field you’re curious about, and look for individuals with experience in that area that you can add to your network. This is often where you can find some great ideas that you can bring back to your own field. And if you find yourself getting drawn in one direction or another, let that be your cue to track down a new connection who can tell you more about it.
Never Stop Giving
The key to a great network is generosity. You have to be willing to give freely of your own experience. This may be hard early in your career, when your experience is limited. But just giving what you can (time, insights, even a couple of shares on social media) help you show your network that you’ll be there for them when they need you.
More than any technical skill, one of the best ways to advance your career from the very beginning is to start thinking of networking as part of your day job–even before you land one.