When you surround with great people you get great results. Whether that’s knocking a project out of the park, throwing a killer event, or using your connections to find a new job, being surrounded by influential and insightful people means leveling up your career. Knowing great people can change the way you approach projects, negotiation, and the job search.
We are heavily influenced by the people we spend time around. Having smart, well-connected colleagues, friends, and mentors can hugely impact your career for the better.
The question is: How do I meet successful people and build a network to support me? As an advisor to businesses and nonprofits in Washington, DC, I hear this question all the time, especially from young professionals early in their careers.
In today’s post, I want to show you some of the strategies I’ve used to surround myself with influential people. When I started trying to meet these people, it was daunting. It’s hard to put yourself out there. The system I’ll show you requires that you play the long game in establishing connections with people who are successful and can provide you with insight. Investing in long-term relationships may be harder at the beginning, but you’ll get disproportionate results in your career from taking the time early to build a high-quality network. So, let’s get into it.
Decide who you’d like to meet
When I first moved to Washington, DC, I started working at a nonprofit that does economic development, helping nonprofits and businesses grow in the city. While I’d done similar work in Pittsburgh and abroad in Senegal, I wanted to meet influential people in my new city who worked in my field.
First, I researched the top nonprofits doing similar work in my city.
Editor's Hint: You can search for nonprofits on Idealist!
Then I thought about private companies and government agencies also working on the same issues. After I had my list, I started to dig in. I realized I knew a few people in lower-level jobs at some of these organizations already. I made a list of new people I wanted to meet.
I recommend this simple exercise- writing a list of the people you want to meet- to any person who has just moved to a new city. I haven’t reached out to everybody on my list (yet), but the people I’ve met along the way have also been hugely helpful to me.
Don’t go straight for the Presidents, Directors, and CEOs right off the bat. Think of people who are more accessible - mid-level people or the administrative assistant of a key decision-maker at the organization.
The critical thing is that you have a list of people who can contribute to your next steps and who you want to be around. Once you have your list, it’s time to figure out how to meet those people. I’ve found two strategies most effective: establishing authority at events/meetings and using mentors to get an introduction.
Establish authority by running events and joining committees
The most reliable way to meet successful people is to show up. Go places where influential people meet – nonprofit board meetings, conferences, industry events. When you go, look for ways to help. Volunteer for these organizations, sit on committees, do something that consistently puts you in contact with people you want to meet.
It’s easy to send an email to an event coordinator and offer to help run an event. They’re often in need of extra hands, and you get access to the attendees as well as the speakers. In this way, you benefit from interacting with subject-matter experts and other key professionals. When you help out, do an outstanding job. Introduce yourself to everyone and work hard to make a distinctive contribution.
What’s the key that makes this work? There’s no slimy “networking” or special trick. When you volunteer to help organize a conference or sit on committees, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate your competence. You’re showing other successful people that you’re good at what you do. They will remember you for that.
Get a mentor
I recently emailed my mentor about a project I had coming up. He responded right away and his help was invaluable. In just a few sentences, my mentor helped me decide what to prioritize and how to go about tackling those goals. He had been in similar situations before, and when I felt out of my depth, he was there to help me out.
We've all heard that getting a mentor is one of the best things you can do for your career. My mentors can have given me valuable advice and lent perspective to my career. They also have more social capital and experience that allows them to introduce me to new people I would have otherwise never had access to.
If you don’t have a mentor yet, start with this uncomplicated process:
First, think of people you already know who you like. These people should like you too, that way it'll be an easy sell to get them to mentor you. Don't worry if this person isn't the "perfect" or "ideal" mentor. Your mentor may not come from the career field you aspire to. Sometimes outside perspective can be even more valuable than you anticipate.
Suggest a coffee meeting. Get in touch with a few of the people you thought of and ask if you can take them to coffee for 15-20 minutes to get some advice. When you get there, spend the beginning of the meeting asking questions about the potential mentor and their career. Only at the end should you ask for your advice. A good rule of thumb is 80% asking questions and hearing stories, then only the last 20% of the conversation should you ask for advice.
Follow through on the advice you received and follow up. At the end of your meeting, thank them and ask if it's okay to meet again in a month or so to let them know how it went. The next month, actually tell them how it went when you implemented their advice and repeat the above steps again. Congrats! You have a mentor!
Once you establish a rapport with your mentor, you may be granted access to their social sphere as well. If you need something, your mentor can advocate for you. I’ve received introductions to key professionals, insights about my industry, and advice about my projects from my mentors. This only happens with time as your mentor grows to trust in you.
You can (and probably should) have multiple mentors at once, each with a different perspective on your career. Using their advice you can triangulate a career trajectory, and gaps in one mentor’s advice will be filled by another’s. Between your mentors, your social sphere grows, too.
It’s not hard; it just takes time to build lasting relationships. Surrounding yourself with successful people takes time, but it pays huge dividends in creating a meaningful career.
About the Author: Bennett Garner's specialty is in economic development, and he's worked for nonprofits in Senegal, Pittsburgh, and DC. To read more of his ideas about building a genuine career, visit his Guide to Your Dream Job, a step-by-step roadmap to finding meaningful work.