Take Five: How to nurture your network

Written by
Sarah Trounce
Illustration by
Travis Constantine

Few people working in the creative industries respond enthusiastically when they hear the term ‘networking’. Maybe because it feels like a buzzword — not very conducive to natural conversation, or to creativity for that matter. Maybe you think it sounds corporate and expensive, or simply irrelevant to your own working practice. Maybe you’ve had experiences where you felt excluded from certain groups of people, or certain places. But what if we put aside the verb ‘to network’ and focus on the noun instead. Let’s think about what a network actually is. Who is it? And why have one?

In this month’s Guide we get to grips with how to identify and understand the network you already have, how to nurture it, how to grow it, and how to contribute to other people’s working lives in the process. In this sense, we might reimagine our individual networks as one big community. Many of us in the creative industries want the same things: to earn a decent living, to do great work we can feel proud of, to meet and connect with interesting and inspiring people, to feel a sense of belonging and purpose. And yet we’re all different — we have different backgrounds, skills and ideas. When a network or community is successful, we all learn from each other, share our resources, and grow together. Let’s find out how.

Get clear on who you know

Grab a piece of paper. Think of all the groups you belong to and write them down. Family. Friends. Neighbours. People you exercise with, go to the pub with, do crafts with. People who live or work in your local area. Parents at your child’s nursery or school. People you grew up with. People you went to school, college or university with. People who taught or hired you in the past. Colleagues and clients you work with now. People you follow or interact with online — LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Slack, Substack.

This is your network. It’s made from the people in your life — all the people in your life, not just the people you work with. While every person in every group on your list may not have a direct relationship to your job or career ambitions, you have a starting point. Someone knows someone who knows someone. People change jobs, move, meet new people. You never know who will come into your life. You are not alone.

Decide where to focus

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of growing your network, then you are thinking too big. It’s not about how many people you know, but who you know. Not as in: I’ve met this one very important person and now I have access to their very exclusive inner circle. More like: I want to get to know this person because their values and interests align with my own. So instead of worrying about tallying up connections, spend your time researching and learning about who and what you really care about. When you reach out to someone new, you want to be able to show them that you admire the work they’re doing and that you empathise with the way they see the world. Empty connections do not usually lead to opportunities you actually want. But connections built around a shared passion have a far greater chance of turning into meaningful relationships.

Identify what you have to offer

Building a network isn’t just about what you can get — but what you’re able to give. A network can only thrive when everyone is contributing their skills and ideas and sharing their resources with the wider group. Even when you’re only just starting out in your career, you still have something to bring to the table. To start with, you have fresh eyes — a different perspective from your more established colleagues. What are your interests and hobbies outside of work? Do they translate into useful insights in your working world? What books are you reading? What podcasts are you listening to? Share the things you find fascinating and useful and you’ll always find other people who will feel the same. As you grow in experience and confidence, you might consider mentoring newcomers to your workplace or industry. This is a great way of contributing to your network. In return, you’ll gain new contacts and have conversations that will inform your own professional experiences.

Be true to yourself

Trying to be someone you’re not in order to grow your network will never result in genuine relationships. So be authentic about who you are and what you believe in. Being part of a network isn’t just about celebrating success — patting yourself on the back and demanding, Look at me! Look what I did! While it’s necessary to show future employers what you’re capable of, what’s more interesting and useful is opening up and deepening the conversation. So, ask your network what they think, and be willing to admit when things are tough. Sharing professional challenges or disappointments shows that you’re willing to be vulnerable, learn from past experiences, and move forward. And it sends a signal to other people in your network that it’s OK to fail. Everyone does.

Grow your confidence as you go

Don’t feel bad if you rely heavily on online connections at first. The internet is brilliant at democratising networking by allowing us all to follow – and even reach out to – the people in our industry that we admire and respect. It’s also a much more accessible way to connect with people than travelling to industry conferences and festivals which can be expensive and predominantly located in major cities. But at some point you might feel ready to step out of your LinkedIn feed and have a real conversation. Ask someone out for a coffee and offer to go to where they’re based. They will likely be flattered. When you reach out, clearly state the reason you’d like to meet. If they say yes, prepare for the conversation by thinking of the questions you’re going to ask them.

Is there a weekly or monthly Zoom group you could join? Or have you thought about starting your own event or gathering? However small or intermittent, getting together with a group of supportive peers to discuss working life, or inspiration, or the barriers we face in our careers, is time well spent. And sometimes it’s the most casual conversations – the ones where you’re relaxed and just being yourself – that turn into something fruitful.

Take Five

If You Could's Journal hosts a range of useful Guides to help you navigate key decisions at every stage of your career journey. Each Guide consists of 5 simple steps, alongside advice from professionals working across the creative industry. Read more from our Take Five collection here.

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