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How (and Why) to Build Professional Relationships

Group of professionals sit together and brainstorm ideas on a whiteboard
Venture College, CID, Allison Corona photo.

I’m going to be real with you. Networking, as a concept, scares me. When I think of that term, I think of a big convention room filled shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of professionals and I’m just standing there in the middle with my coffee not knowing who to talk to, I’m super overwhelmed, and, honestly, I’m thinking, “What’s the point? Why did I come here again?”

That type of networking works great for some people, but for a lot of people, not so much. So, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to throw that term out the window and start fresh with a new concept, which is basically, How to Make Friends in a Professional Capacity. Yeah, I like that a lot better. And I’ll tell you why (and how to do it, of course).

Networking is all about meeting the right people who will then connect with you other right people and so on and so forth, right? It’s about building a “network” of people you can leverage if and when you might need it. Inarguably super valuable, right? But also, if you think about starting from zero professional contacts to what a “network” should look like, it feels like you need to fill that convention room overnight with people who can help you in your career, which feels impossible.

Instead, I’d like to dial it wayyyyy back and we’re going to work on a baby steps method. The long haul method. Look, your career is going to be a long one (you got this!). I’m imagining a linear, gradual and consistent upstream of professional relationships throughout your career, instead of stressing about front-loading a whole heap of people at the start of your career — which again there’s totally nothing wrong with and that definitely works for a lot of people. But we’re just here to figure out where to start.

Step 1: see the awesome in others

Let’s focus on a single professional, and mutually beneficial, relationship. That is to say, when you go to class, your internship, attend a workshop, or you’re at your job, try to connect with others who have similar interests, career goals, or someone who can just mentor you or teach you some cool skills. Everyone’s good at something. Everyone can teach you something. And you can teach other people stuff too. But we don’t want to force it if it doesn’t feel right.

Step 2: genuinely connect (and know it’s okay if it doesn’t work out)

This is the tough one. But it’s an absolutely rockstar skill you can build over time that will serve you over the course of your entire career. We’re here to build genuine relationships with others and that often means being rejected, accepting feedback, and course-correcting.

Let me give you an example. I had this awesome teacher when I was in college, she was literally my favorite teacher. I looked up to her, I wanted to be like her, I wanted to write like her. I hoped she would take me under her wing and teach me all the things. So, I decided to put myself out there and ask for guidance, tips, tricks, anything. I sent her an email and didn’t hear back. I reached out a second time and didn’t hear back. I was hurt. I felt like I had done something wrong or that I wasn’t good enough at what I wanted to do to have her as my mentor. What I didn’t think about was everything that teacher had on her own plate.

We need to consider where other people are on their own journeys. If you need mentorship now, not everyone is going to be able to give it to you in the way you need. And that’s not a reflection on you, that’s just where they are at. And guess what. Someone else will have the space for you. You just have to get comfortable asking and being okay with it being a “no” sometimes.

Step 3: give back to those who give to you

Some situations are going to be more one-sided, like maybe a teacher giving you advice. But a lot of networking opportunities should be a give and take. Like I said, you have valuable skills, knowledge, and insight to offer others. Be generous with the connections you have (connect your connections with other connections — make sense?), share the professional struggles you’ve had and what you learned, and try to guide others you make professional connections with (as long as they’re looking for guidance). And, of course, down the line, once you’ve made a career for yourself, you can always become someone else’s mentor.

But remember, the whole point of all of this is to make meaningful professional connections. If you feel like you’re overwhelming yourself or getting frustrated it’s probably a good time to step back, reassess your own bandwidth, and then work on networking at a slower pace. People will always be there.

Step 4: learn, refine, and grow your network

Here is where the “why” comes in. I know there are so many “learn to grow your network fast!” or “here’s how to advance your career overnight!” tips out there, but I don’t want to sell you something that doesn’t work. What does work is being yourself, playing to your strengths, accepting where you can improve, and then genuinely working on that and repeating those steps.

Remember what I said about building connections over your whole career. This is a lifelong practice. Please be kind and patient with yourself, especially if you’re new to the professional world. I know it can sometimes feel like you need to have your whole career planned out right now, but you don’t.

I’ll give you another story. I got an offer to intern as an editorial (like more journalistic) writer, but I wanted to be a creative writer. I told my potential boss this and he told me a story about his own career and how it went in a totally different direction than he planned, but that he would never have it any other way. He told me that he got so much fulfillment from his current job and a lot of the time, things just happen the way they’re supposed to. At first, I kind of rolled my eyes. I thought if I didn’t exclusively have creative writing credits on my resume that I wouldn’t get the job I wanted. Now that I’ve graduated and have some real world job experience, I can tell you that every job is useful in some way. And I truly mean that. You just have to look for the opportunities and want to grow.

Today, I have over 7 years of writing experience on my resume, and I’ll tell you something else — if I had listened to myself, turned down the job, and made all these rules for myself, I wouldn’t have all the diverse writing skills on my resume that I do today. I would have been good at one thing and one thing only. And that’s actually not great in a lot of ways.

Step 5: be honest with yourself

Furthermore, trying to be someone else (in life and professionally) won’t bring you joy and fulfillment. I want you to be honest with yourself and with others about what help you need and where you want to be in your career. Setting goals or expectations that are unrealistic or don’t fully align with your professional happiness is not part of the plan.

Leave room for unexpected, happy detours, yes, but we don’t want to take a bunch of steps in the wrong professional direction just because we can. Little by little, we’re doing this to achieve stability in our careers and find satisfaction in the work we do.

Follow paths that make you happy. Make connections that feel helpful to you. That’s your “why”.

What you’ll experience along the way is a lot of life lessons, personal growth, rejection, which might be hard to take, but it’ll make you into a more resilient employee. You’ll also get a ton of great advice, learn what paths aren’t for you, try lots of new things, and you’ll find some joy doing it. Go find your joy, Broncos.

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  • Trisha Miller