Have you ever wondered how you can make the biggest investment in your career? At first glance, another advanced degree might make sense. Or perhaps an online certification course would be beneficial.
Sure, these things will beef up your resume, but there's a cheaper alternative that very well may be even more impactful: networking.
Unfortunately, networking can be a foreign (and potentially scary) concept to many. People often say, "I don't want to be a bother," or, "Why would that person want to talk to me?" For the uninitiated, it can be hard to figure out where to begin with networking.
When I was a child, I thought of networking as a grown-up way of making new friends. In a certain regard, that's exactly what it is. When you are in high school or college, you often make friends with your classmates, your scout group, or your sports team. Friends are readily available in a way they no longer are when we become adults.
Although networking contacts don't generally lead to long-term friendships, thinking of networking as a way of making new friends can help you get started and stay committed. Similar to friendships, networking is a long-term commitment that requires nurturing. It's an investment in the future, not a one-time event.
Many people only network when they're looking for a job. That makes sense. We're all busy with work and our personal lives. Networking is just another chore.
But think of it from another perspective. Should a networking contact recommend someone that they just met for a job? It's hard for a networking contact to speak about your character if they don't really know you or have never worked with you.
When you're ready to begin networking, start by looking for local professional events. There are many groups designed for certain ages or industries that can be found on websites such as Meetup.com. These events are often open to guests and are an easy way to get started with networking.
An even better way to grow your network is through your friends and family. If you're feeling adventurous, you could even try introducing yourself to someone you don't know on LinkedIn.
If you start to doubt yourself or wonder if you're going to bother other people with your networking efforts, just remember this: The most senior executives at any company rarely get there on smarts alone. They've honed their own people skills and spent years networking over coffee and lunch. They've been in your shoes before.
Not everyone will have time to network with you, but that's rarely a reflection of you. The person may be going through a difficult time at home, or they may be extra busy at work. If someone declines your invitation, or doesn't respond at all, move on to the next person.
Even a handful of high-quality contacts can make all the difference when you're growing your career. And, like anything else, networking takes practice. With enough time and experience, you'll be networking with no fear.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Memphis Daily News.
Angela Copeland is a career coach and CEO at her firm, Copeland Coaching.