You are the leader of the most powerful organization in your work life—your professional network. How and where you lead it will determine what you get out of it.
What many professionals don’t realize is that by turning their professional network into a self-sustaining organization or tribe, they will have positioned themselves to benefit personally from the good works of others. The idea is to turn your network into an organization that not only provides you with job and work leads, but also one that provides hundreds of others with the same.
Traditionally, large groups have been difficult to form and costly to sustain. Mostly it’s because the most efficient way to manage a group has been through a hierarchical managerial framework. That framework is unsustainable without the capital to support the people (management) that holds it together. That’s why most traditional organizations that originally formed for a greater good inevitably must re-focus on self-preservation.
However, today the Internet allows us to organize without organizations. Eliminating the prohibitive costs of managing a traditional organization means that the size and scope of your professional network is only limited by what you wish to accomplish and how you inspire others to achieve it. In that spirit, I’ve outlined ten steps towards creating a thriving professional network of any size or scope.
- Make Meaning. Your first task is to define the purpose of your network’s existence. Complete this sentence: If your organization never existed, the world would be worse off because_______________________________. A strong sense of purpose will be the only thing that pushes you beyond the dips.
- Circle of Five. Recruit four co-founders that share similar passions. As the network grows you’ll need a tight circle of peers to share the workload and maintain the integrity of your fledgling group. Ideally you’ll want co-founders with extensive personal networks and a communications platform from which to influence people, such as a blog or newsletter.
- On LinkedIn. Start a LinkedIn group and have your co-founders invite every relevant contact from their own personal networks. Encourage them to ask their closest contacts to do the same. LinkedIn allows you to quickly reach critical mass because everybody is already there and joining your group requires only a click. Make each co-founder a group Manager so they can invite contacts and reject applicants if necessary.
- Meetups. Meeting face-to-face is still the most powerful way to make a lasting connection. Using your LinkedIn group, start organizing meetups at local coffee shops once or twice a month. Remember to vet the location and schedule events off peak hours. Encourage everybody to bring one or more potential new members. Use a sign in sheet to collect names and emails—after the event share that information with attendees.
- Growing up. When you outgrow the local Starbucks you’ll need a more intimate and dependable venue. Look for local outplacement firms, libraries, churches or a community college with an available conference room. These organizations welcome exposure to the local business community. They typically won’t charge a fee, but I highly recommend giving them a plug during meetings and on all network communications.
- Emails. Eventually you’ll need to communicate with hundreds of members. Speaking directly to each member is impossible so it’s time to start a newsletter using a simple email distribution service like ConstantContact. Use their free newsletter templates and don’t forget to track open rates and click-throughs to ensure your messages are favorably received.
- Expert Presenters. Once you can predictably fill a room with say 15 professionals, you’ll be surprised how many highly-qualified presenters will be looking to speak to your group for free. High caliber membership attracts high caliber presenters. It’s a great draw for members and it’s a terrific networking opportunity for the presenter.
- Website. If you want to attract press coverage, business partners or exponentially expand your audience, you’ll need a strong central presence online. I highly recommend a free and dead-simple to use blogging platform like WordPress. Sign up, choose your template and have your website up and running within minutes. It’s that easy.
- Connectors. Always keep an eye out for “connectors.” These individuals are expert cultivators of acquaintances and are powerful allies as you look to expand geographically. If you wanted to expand from say Los Angeles to Orange County, you’d find members with extensive personal networks in those regions. They can fill up meetings quickly and give you instant credibility with the right type of professionals.
- Fees & Dues. Eventually you’ll be tempted to make a living off of your network. Anybody would, but be warned, it’s likely to be an uphill battle. Choosing a revenue stream introduces market norms into an otherwise purely social environment. Helping others without direct reward feeds our need for community. Introducing money into the equation gets members into a more cynical you-get-what-you-pay-for mind set. Basically, it’s too easy to lose the warm fuzzy stuff that greased the network’s wheels in the first place.
Don’t be surprised if your organization takes on a life beyond your original intention. That’s a good thing. At the end of the day, when you’ve done a great job, you’ve given members the ultimate gift, the infinite possibilities that come from meeting likeminded people and making new productive connections. And for that, they will always remember you.