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How to turn contacts into valued connections

Three career experts share their tips on how to build and nurture a strong and thriving community.

Online networking has made it easy to make connections but how many are trusted, valued contacts? Here three career experts share their tips on how to build and nurture a strong and thriving community.

Networking isn't about getting a job

Many people start networking when they are looking for a job, but networking works best when you put time and effort in before you ask for something back.

John Lees, career coach and author of author of How To Get A Job You Love explains: 'Networking isn't just about finding a job. It's about expanding your range, creating new possibilities, learning about other careers and identifying key people and decision-makers.

'The process was once described in the 1950s by US careers writer Bernard Haldane as a "chain of helpfulness". It begins not with the question "who do I know that I can exploit?" but "who do I know that can tell me something interesting?" or "who do I know that I can help?"'

Calculated generosity doesn't work

Anna Jonas-Gibson, Managing Consultant, Cordant Recruitment Sales & Marketing agrees: 'With the advent of LinkedIn, we all have dozens of online connections but the ones that really count are the people you can call upon and know they'll have time for you.

'It takes time to build supportive relationships with people who become our personal ambassadors. Rushed, frenzied networkers who seek a return on their investment from every interaction have the opposite effect.'

The quickest way to build trust and real connections? Give without expecting something back.

'This might sound counter-intuitive to people who network to get something in return,' says career coach Ruth Winden of Careers Enhanced. 'Reciprocity is a strong motivator and people often do things for others because they received support in the past – but only if it comes from the right place.

'Anyone can spot whether we do something for other people because they matter to us, or because we do it so they must return favours. Calculated generosity just doesn't work. People can tell.'

Behave online as you would in real life

No one would dream of approaching strangers at a conference, stick their business card into someone's face and ask to connect, but this is exactly what people do on LinkedIn, says Ruth.

'Strangers use the canned, impersonal "I'd like to add you to my professional network" message, expect to connect and never return to build the relationship. If you want to build connections online, make the same effort as in person and communicate. Otherwise, what's the point?'

You can be known for the right reasons such as having the right knowledge and skills, but if you are not liked enough it can be very difficult to develop any depth from contacts. 'Remember, be trustworthy and dependable – if you tell someone you're going to do something, do it!' adds Anna.

Likewise, it pays to be sociable and meet up in person now and then.

'If you find yourself near a contacts' home town or office invite them for a quick coffee,' suggests Anna. 'Time spent informally one-on-one develops relationships the most and can give a great insight into shared interests, connections and future plans.'

Give the personal touch

Imagine you open your letter box or email inbox and see the message: "I saw this and thought of you".

'Receiving a personal book recommendation, a useful article, an unexpected LinkedIn recommendation or an invitation to an event – these are small but important gestures that say: you matter, and I have your interests at heart. Who wouldn't value this?' asks Ruth.

Showing a personal touch could be as simple as putting two of your connections in touch with one another because you identify a mutually beneficial opportunity, adds Anna. 'It shows an awareness of what your connections are involved in but also results in other people taking more of an interest in you.'

Careful what you ask for

When you do approach people for a favour, think carefully about what you are asking for.

'Often people ask for too much, like instant access to everyone in someone's little black book. Alternatively, they ask for something high value or complicated. Even saying "can you look at my CV?" is a big ask, and so is the apparently simple question "will you let me know if a job comes up?"' says John.

'Ask for things that people can and will deliver. Ask for ideas, not a comprehensive game plan. Ask for suggestions for people you could talk to, not a full list. Ask for information rather than explicit guidance.'

Find the 'super' connectors

Networking isn't about the total number of people you know, but the connections between them.

John explains: 'If four people are connected, that's 12 relationships. If you simply add one more person to the group, you get 20 relationships. As your personal web goes beyond 10, the number of possible interactions explodes.'

Within any network, there are always people who know everyone and who love putting people in touch – irrespective of whether they benefit from the connection themselves or not,' says Ruth.

'These connectors enjoy creating win/wins for others. If you want to develop deeper connections with your networks, seek out the information brokers or 'super' connectors and learn from them – they can teach you how to build strong connections within your own networks.'

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