Two Principles for Building Your Networks

Wasserstein_Ron2Ron Wasserstein is the executive director of the American Statistical Association. Previously, he was vice president for academic affairs at Washburn University (2000–2007). Wasserstein earned his PhD and master’s in statistics from Kansas State University and his BA in mathematics from Washburn University.

During my lifetime, “network” became a verb, but the concept no doubt has been around from the earliest days of human history. The ways to form personal and professional networks have changed over time, and like everything else in our lives, the pace of change has accelerated greatly in the Internet era. LinkedIn, BranchOut, Meetup, and other online networking services provide unique ways to connect with others. In my view, developing one’s networks—professional and personal—is important to not only career advancement, but also to feelings of fulfillment and happiness in life.

However you choose to make connections, there are at least two networking principles that preceded social media. I’ll discuss these principles in terms of professional networks, but they also can be applied to personal ones.

To begin, you should build your network with others in mind. That is, as you consider ways to connect with specific people, ask yourself what you can bring to the relationship. This is easy enough when you are networking with peers—you have the ability to provide advice and support for them, and they for you. They can let you know when good opportunities that fit you become available, and you can do the same.

However, what about networking upward? What do you have to offer to someone more experienced and/or farther up the ladder? This upward networking requires a bit more thought on your part, but there are aspects that can make such a relationship a win for both parties. For instance, your more-experienced colleague may be looking for people to nurture for the next career level, or he or she may value hearing your perspective. Meanwhile, you may be trying to find that next job, or simply to learn from people with more experience. Through this two-way exchange, you both win.

And that is principle #1: People are people, not network nodes. You must always view the individuals you are trying to connect with from the perspective of how you might meet their needs, not just how they could meet yours. One of the most annoying types of person is the one who sees networking as collecting, who sees prospects instead of people, and who thinks only about getting. Don’t be that person!

I have found that a practical way to follow the first principle is principle #2: Volunteering makes for great network connections. I have made many wonderful professional connections—and terrific friends—by volunteering in the neighborhood, at school, for my children’s sports teams or dance clubs, at work, and at the ASA before I became its executive director.

There are multiple benefits to building your network this way. Not only do you meet people, but you learn from them and about them as you work side-by-side to accomplish a task. I learned how to run a meeting—and, more importantly, how not to—from my volunteer activities. I saw examples of how to effectively express gratitude to volunteers that I hope I have modeled for others. Barriers come down and real openness often occurs in these settings, and networking happens organically in the process.

As the executive director of the ASA, I’d be remiss if I didn’t emphasize how volunteering to serve in ASA chapters, sections, committees, and outreach groups is a tremendous way for you to build a professional network and make lifelong friends. (By the way, the address by 2014 ASA President Nat Schenker illustrates this valuable message well.) I have no doubt those 20 years of ASA volunteer work helped build the network that ultimately led me to this wonderful opportunity to serve the association as its chief executive.

The two principles I have explained here—learned from others in the ASA and in my career in academia—have been a solid guide along the way.

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