How to Skip the Sleaze and Build a Real Professional Network

You've heard it before: "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Of course it helps to know things, but it also helps to know people who can get you in the position to show off what you know. Those people are your professional network. Here's the lowdown: a "professional network" is just code for "friends who are willing to help each other professionally." Building yours doesn't have to be hard, and it shouldn't feel sleazy. Here's how to do it.

The Basics: What Is a "Professional Network?"
Simply, a "professional network" is really a group of friends who like each other and are willing to help each other out when times get tough professionally. Nothing more, nothing less. We've touched on this idea in the past, but the way that career gurus and experts talk about it, you might think it's some monolithic task that will net you a kind of secret club that does nothing but schmooze with important people and throw around buzzwords. Building your network isn't actually a big deal, though, and it's not that hard to do. All you're really doing is making new friends and staying in touch with old ones, both at and around work. That's the core here: If you think that "professional network" has to be some sleazy business, you're either doing it wrong or you're taking examples from the wrong people.

We'll explore this in detail later, but it's extremely important to be genuine. Your network shouldn't be full of "people in high places you hate but can hook you up," it should be full of people who are willing to really, genuinely lend you a hand or take a risk for you. In this post, we'll offer up some practical, down-to-earth tips to build your professional network and stay in touch with the people in it.

Make Friends At Work and With People Who Do What You Do
At my last job, I used to roll my eyes at our company's constant attempts to get people to hang out together after work. I already spent over 40 hours a week with these people! I liked them, but just wanted to get away once in awhile. Work-sponsored team building is one thing, but my feelings worked in reverse, too: If you're going to spend so much time at work, shouldn't it be with people you actually like, or at least can tolerate?

After all, most of you spend between 40-50 hours at work. Don't be cynical, make friends with the people you work with. Doing so makes your day-to-day a little easier, and it'll expose you to different skills and the work that other people in your office do. There's a lot to be said for knowing a little about everyone's job and being willing to pitch in and help. Don't stop with the people you work with either. Seek out people who do what you do for a living at other companies. You'll be exposed to people who have the kind of experience you want, work in the positions you aspire to, and introduce you to people you can learn from.

With a little effort, you'll have people at work you're actually happy to see when you walk in every morning, or people you wouldn't mind hanging out with after you shut your computer down for the day. Plus, if those friendships are strong, they'll persist when you get a new job, get promoted, or leave the company. Remember, every job is temporary, but good, strong friendships don't have to be.

How to Make Friends, Professionally
Most workplace friendships happen organically, so there's no reason to go out of your way to "try" to make friends with people. After all, you spend a ton of time with them, so it makes sense you'll get to know each other. You may need to unlearn the desire to seclude yourself at your desk all day, though. Go out for lunch with your coworkers when asked, or ask them to go grab a coffee. Don't be that overly distracting coworker, but do offer from time to time. If they ask you, go for it, at least as much as you're comfortable with.

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