Networking tips every professional should learn early in their career

How to take that first step.
How to take that first step.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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High school and college are intended to give students the academic building blocks for their future professional development. But they don’t typically prepare students for the role that relationships play in a career. In-person and virtual networking isn’t just about meeting people; it’s about cultivating relationships over the long term, and knowing when and how to take advantage of them.

And doing this well is a learned skill.

The concept of career communities, and how to use them to successfully craft your career and crack particularly insular industries, was the center of a recent discussion hosted by Quartz in a series aiming to make business journalism more inclusive and representative. The panel included digital strategist Emma Carew Grovum, founder of Kimbap Media; as well as Stephen Wisnefski, an assistant managing editor, talent, at the Wall Street Journal; and Josèe Rose, an executive editor at Insider. Although the discussion centered on the field of journalism, many of the lessons have broader application.

“It’s about finding…your best friend in the office, your work spouse, that peer person who supports you. It’s about finding someone you admire, who’s at a higher level than you, who is going to mentor and coach you. In your early career, those are the two big buckets you want to fill,” Carew Grovum said. Whether you’re working at your college paper, doing your first internship, or attending a professional event, “try to take at least one of those people you meet with you into the future.”

What does this look like in practice? After you meet someone, whether in person or virtually, be intentional and consistent in your followup. Start by asking for permission to stay in touch, then send them your work, ask for their feedback on your resume or LinkedIn, or invite them to a coffee or virtual meetup to get their thoughts on specific questions.

Avoid last minute requests for a reference or career coaching session—these relationships are not intended to be overly transactional, Carew Grovum advised. Rather, it’s about understanding a person’s availability and what they can offer; expressing a genuine, sustained interest in that person’s career, and sharing what you’re learning as well.

“If you get shot down, it’s not the end of the world,” she said. Instead of fixating on what one person can offer you, fixate on your goals, and where you want to go next.

Virtual networking 

Rose started her job at Insider during the height of the pandemic, and has had to navigate getting to know a company, and being a boss, remotely. The pandemic pulled down barriers in many ways, as everyone had to figure out working from and connecting in a virtual space.

From her perspective it’s become easier to reach out to someone on LinkedIn, or by email after reading some of their work or seeing them present on a panel. “I get several messages like that a week, and…I do reply to a majority of them,” she said.

Even if networking is virtual, the starting point should be the same: genuine interest and consistent followup.

“Through each job I’ve had, I’ve always tried to keep in touch with a previous boss, to check in every now and again and say hello,” Rose advised. “It’s about always making sure the bridge is there because you’re never sure how you’re going to connect and cross later on.”

How mentors can help in your early career

Advisors come in different shapes and forms, from supportive friends, to short or long-term mentors and coaches, to sponsors who can help you identify opportunities within companies.

Early in your career, this community can help you consider the universe of potential pathways you can take, and which skill sets, qualifications, and jobs you should pursue.

In many cases, if you’re “smart, capable, and agreeable,”—the three traits Wisnefskil will typically hire for—”you can do all sorts of things, and you need someone to help you see the world that way,” he said. Your network can help you “understand what the opportunity is and say, ‘Here’s how we can take your skill set, your ambition, where you want to be five years from now, and get you going in that direction.”