Building and maintaining a network is daunting. Who’s really adding value to your career, and who’s simply another LinkedIn connection you don’t really talk to?
“The most empowered and rewarding career is an intentional one,” says Millennial career coach Ashley Stahl. “Your network is your career potential in so many ways, and it’s crucial to be intentional in its creation.”
Intentional networking doesn’t just benefit you, either. “Networking with a purpose not only helps you feel more organized and focused, it also helps the people you are networking with,” says career expert and personal branding strategist Hannah Morgan. “They know why you are reaching out and how they can help you.” (And they know they can count on you to return the favor.)
Which types of people should you make sure you intentionally have in your network? Stahl and Morgan have four suggestions.
- The nerve center
Most people hate networking, Morgan says, and this is where having someone who’s connected and in-the-know comes in handy. Someone who acts as the nerve center doesn’t simply know everyone—this person also knows everything about everyone.
But don’t think that you can connect with this person on LinkedIn and she’ll automatically know what to do to help you. It takes time and energy to build the relationship and ensure this person knows what your goals are. “You need to make sure this person clearly understands your message, and then they will take care of the rest,” says Morgan. After all, how can people help you if they don’t know what you need?
- The mentor
Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and they can offer more emotional or information-based support (or both), says Stahl.
The basic role of a mentor is to provide reassurance and wisdom in your career. Sometimes mentors might give you general guidance for handling tricky career situations, and others might be better for specific industry-related advice.
The one thing all mentors have in common? Selflessness. “A great mentor is there to believe in you,” says Stahl. “If you’re lucky, you’ll find a mentor in your career who will help you with your confidence during times of career distress.”
- The sponsor
How does a sponsor differ from a mentor? They don’t just give you advice—“they show up when they really believe in your performance and results in your workplace,” says Stahl.
Sponsors are typically people you work with (or who at least work in the same industry) and are a few rungs higher on the career ladder. They put a great deal of value in how well you do your job, and they will fight for you to move up, as well as give you the information you need to succeed in the office.
Getting a sponsor, though, requires some real grit and hard work on your part; you can’t just show up at a networking event and find one. “It’s a relationship you can only access if you provide results at work and someone is inspired to believe in you to an extent where they are willing to help you reach new heights,” says Stahl.
Having a sponsor in your arsenal can make all the difference when it comes to navigating office politics, promotions and simply excelling at work.
- The sounding board
This person isn’t necessarily there to make connections or tell you how to do your job. Rather, they’re a natural listener who is interested in helping you think through your problems methodically and logically, which can be a huge asset to helping you tackle any number of career situations.
The most important thing about finding a sounding board? Avoiding people who are “yes men” (or women) and will simply tell you what you want to hear. A sounding board isn’t meant to agree with you. They’re there to help you “evaluate your options and perhaps uncover new workarounds,” says Morgan.
Look for someone who’s honest and constructive and who brings a fresh perspective—not someone who affirms everything that comes out of your mouth.
By Lily Herman