Any expert will tell you that networking is one of the best ways to advance your career, and it's also a good source of support for everyday job concerns. Employers, especially those with good diversity programs, also recognize the value of networking, and there are official -- as well as unofficial -- networks for virtually every group.
"A lot of people of color find these networks especially important," says Cornelia Gamlem, president of the GEMS Group, a human resources consulting firm in Herndon, Virginia. "They can be a kind of balance in understanding whether a situation is unique or if it's something other people have gone through as well. [Networks] can help people avoid that feeling of being isolated and overcome problems all on their own."
But remember that how you network is just as important as whether you network. Here are some rules to network by:
Get an Early Start
The sooner you start creating a network, the faster you'll progress in your career. Many professional societies have student chapters in colleges and universities. Making connections early will give you a head start on your job search. Keep your eyes open for networking opportunities as soon as you've landed a job.
Look Before You Leap
"Be careful of whom you ally yourself with," warns Mary Jane Sinclair, president of MJS Associates in Morristown, New Jersey. "They may be using you to advance an issue." Sinclair uses an example of a young college grad who joined an in-company women's network. However, rather than advancing the members' cause, this network was more interested in taking on management. "This woman was viewed by management as a troublemaker," Sinclair says. Once you've taken a job, carefully find the networks that will be most beneficial to you and your career.
If at First You Don't Succeed, Try Again
Unfortunately, there isn't always an obvious network to join. For instance, if you're an African American woman in a sea of white colleagues, it may not be easy to align yourself with others in the company. See if there's a local professional organization with African American members. Or seek out people in your community. Don't just limit yourself to racial or gender categories.
Cast a Wide Net
"Look for support wherever you find it," Sinclair says. "Networking really works best when the group's common interest isn't just race or gender, but the success of each member in the group." Establishing a broad network enables you to turn to different groups, depending on your professional challenges. "Without a broad-based network, there's no one to turn to in a time of crisis," Sinclair says. "The broader you cast your net, the broader your catch will be."
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