Networking pays off. (Re)start investing now.

When was the last time you caught up with a former colleague? Or engaged with a Gen Z employee on their perspective? Or reached out to a stranger to learn more about their company, role or industry?

If you’re like most, it’s been a little too long.

The power of networking is undeniable. (Expanding networks is one of the most frequently mentioned goals for pursuing an Executive MBA at Foster.) However, far too many of us fall into the trap of ‘just’ doing our (very demanding) jobs — while also balancing family, friends and other individual pursuits and/or community involvement — and let our network connections weaken.

Whether for career advancement and development, mentorship, job-seeking*, idea-gathering, strategizing, recruiting, or even something personal, having a strong, broad and diverse network ecosystem is invaluable.

So don’t wait; start building those networking muscles – and relationships – again. Today. This week. And next month. And every month. (Re-)dedicate yourself to engaging and/or expanding your network. Set 1-3 goals based on your career interests, then create a plan and milestones.

For example, if you want to increase your impact as a thought leader in your organization, your goals might be to: (1) increase your exposure to innovators and ideas and (2) expand your visibility across the organization. Your plan and milestones should reflect what actions you’ll take for both goals in specific timeframes, adding new contacts and strengthening existing relationships, to build momentum and progress over time. Then hold yourself accountable by tracking weekly and monthly accomplishments, as well as your engagement and actions with each networking contact.

Does networking take time and energy? Yes. But research (and, likely, your experience) shows the potential short- and long-term returns on that investment are high, albeit sometimes unpredictable (take it from an EMBA alum whose former colleague’s wife reached out seven years after meeting at a party to recruit her to a brand-name, growing startup). And the investment can be as little as 15-60 minutes a week, depending on your goals and preferred timelines.

Feeling reticent? At its core, networking is a simpler term for mutually beneficial relationship-building. Whether you’re introverted or extroverted, you know how to build relationships. Lean into your strengths, as well as the people who are eager to support your growth as you expand your network. Still struggling? Shift your mindset by leveraging your values. For example, pursuing an MBA is proof that continuous learning is likely important to you; focus on that as you engage and interact. What do you want to learn? Who has that experience? People generally love sharing their stories and helping others — more than you might think.

Networking (can happen) everywhere … While you might typically think of in-person large events, trade shows and industry conferences as quintessential networking scenarios, networking opportunities actually take many forms. Consider all of the ways you communicate (and build relationships), along with your preferred style and your audience’s, too. From LinkedIn messages and Groups, email, phone calls and Slack (among others) to volunteering, your kids’ sporting events and holiday parties – anywhere you have professional or personal interests, really — there are numerous ways to engage. Set your intention, and ‘show up’ authentically and eager to connect.

… And with anyone. Remember that EMBA alum mentioned above who made an impression on her colleague’s wife at a party? ‘Connectors’ are key, and they exist at all levels in organizations. Think of the people who seem to always know what’s happening where and who’s doing what, those who have their fingers on the pulse of the organization. They tend to be eager to connect people and resources. Appreciate the ‘soft power’ such connectors hold, use them as sounding boards and evangelists, and be sure to offer to help them. And don’t neglect ‘random’ opportunities to strike up conversations in public places; that stranger in front of you at Starbucks just might hold the key to your next job.

Give to get. Relationships (of all kinds) take time and attention. Like a bank account, you should deposit before withdrawing, whenever possible. Send an email to say hello to an old colleague. Comment on posts; share articles, news and job postings. Compliment someone when they’ve been quoted. Ask how you can help. Do some research on common areas of interest, and be genuinely interested in others.

Has it gotten harder? The advent of hybrid/remote work has certainly added challenges to networking, since ‘organic’ ways of connecting have decreased (hopefully, your CEO is not regularly hanging out near the coffee pot in your kitchen, unless you’re related!). However, there are benefits to making the effort; leveraging technology and tools like Zoom and LinkedIn saves time and money and allows for more flexibility in location and timing.

Investing just a little more time and energy in your network can bring untold benefits, predictable and unexpected, immediately and over years. What is possible for you in the next year (and beyond), if you grow your network, starting today?

*Studies show that 85% of jobs are filled through networking.