Extracurricular activities are critical to developing and managing your career.
Managing your career and developing professionally is a continuous effort, but one thing that can set you apart is your willingness to expand your professional activities beyond the walls of your office. Networking, volunteering, freelancing, and writing/speaking outside your day job leads to a stronger mind, more robust professional skills, a wider network of connections, and better time management.
Having a strong network of business professionals is valuable for multiple reasons. Include professionals from both inside and outside your technical specialty and industry vertical. Also look for persons to add to your network who are up and down the management hierarchy from where you are.
They can help you find your next job
I’ve had the privilege of leading dozens of talented individuals over the course of my career, and one piece of advice I’ve consistently given to each of them is “When you need a network, it’s too late to build one.” This is particularly true if you find yourself unexpectedly out of work. Building your network early and continuously increasing it can be a game-changer when it comes time to find your next job. You won’t find some of the best positions “on the market” but through word of mouth.
They can be a source of advice
When you need advice, turn to your network. If your network is both wide and deep, you’ll have access to a variety of opinions, experiences, and a wealth of information. Just as helpful as those in your network who have “walked in your shoes” are the ones who haven’t. They can offer a perspective outside your experience that could be invaluable.
They can refer customers
Your best customers are referrals, those you’ve found through word-of-mouth advertising within your network. Perhaps they might even become a customer. All new customers during my first year in business came through referrals from my network. Referrals are also a great way to keep your stable full of prospects you can easily turn into paying customers.
They can help you locate talent
Your new employee might be someone who wasn’t actively looking for a new job, but you found through your network. Putting the word out amongst those in your network can help you find the perfect employee you might miss otherwise through the application process. You might need to persuade top talent to leave their current position to come work for you, but you wouldn’t have found them without your network.
Where to network
Networking opportunities like industry events or group meetings are a great place to start. You don’t want to restrict yourself to networking with individuals just like you. Expand your horizons. Consider attending fundraising events or enrolling in training sessions or classes. Search for MeetUps in your area based on personal interests rather than solely on professional ones. In fact, you can network anywhere, anytime. But you need a plan to make it work.
How to network: Pitch and an Offer
There are a few keys to networking and some preparation you need to do ahead of time. First, you need to have a well-thought-out and rehearsed 10-second pitch that states who you are and what’s special about you. A good pitch should be intriguing enough that the person will want to hear more. You want to get their attention immediately and get them to say, “That sounds interesting. Tell me more.”
Who to network
If I’m going to an event and the attendee list is public, I’ll often study it to see who a beneficial contact would be. For example, I might target a certain management level or a technical person. Then I would research them on social media, particularly LinkedIn, to learn more. If there isn’t an attendee list, I might speak with the host and tell them my interests and ask for recommendations. Ideally, you should have two-three people that you want to connect with. Be specific with whom you target; no random salesperson will have the impact you’d like.
Working outside the office in a volunteer capacity can help you develop professionally. You can use volunteering to stretch yourself and perhaps do something outside your discipline, thereby picking up valuable new skills.
Beyond that volunteering is another way to extend your network. Choose charities and non-profits you feel strongly about. It’s an excellent conversation starter with any other volunteers and a great way to meet people outside your regular circle.
Volunteering can also be a great way to help charities you feel a strong connection with without sacrificing income. It’s a great way to give back to your community and make a difference to those around you.
Depending on the nature of your work and your employment agreement, you can expand your skills and experience by seeking out occasional freelance work. For example, if you’re the founder of a SaaS startup, you could consult with other startup founders to help them over the many hurdles they’re likely to encounter. Or if you have a more technical role, you could always offer your services freelance to help other companies, as long as your current employer allows it.
First, you need to ensure that your employment agreement permits you do other work. Many agreements state you can have other work as long as it doesn’t interfere with your primary job, but you need to verify for yourself.
Just a note: In general, I would be cautious about “freelancing” for colleagues. If you run into problems, it can adversely affect your work environment. If you have colleagues who insist, you can always say:
- “Can we grab lunch to discuss?”
- “I have a policy that prohibits me from working for colleagues.”
- Or you could set a rate that is prohibitive.
Write, Blog, and Speak
Writing and speaking can improve you both professionally and personally; both are skills you need socially and on the job.
- Write an article every day. Write something every day, either about your company, your industry, or your profession. Where you publish and the length of your articles will vary from person to person. You may publish on your company’s blog or write guest posts for industry or trade websites; regardless, the benefits are amazing. Not only will you position yourself as a thought leader, but you’ll get more visibility from those outside your immediate circle.
- Speak at industry meetings. Public speaking is a fear for many, but the benefits outweigh your anxiety. Not only will you become more articulate and poised, but you’ll gain access to an audience you otherwise wouldn’t have. The more you do it, the better you become, so join your local Toastmasters to get valuable experience
Writing and speaking help you develop focus and discipline. Being able to fight past the jitters before a speech or get around writer’s block on the days you want to avoid putting pen to paper builds character and willpower you can draw on in other situations. In addition, researching ideas for articles and speeches makes you a more well-rounded, knowledgeable person, and it may give you an opportunity for introspection. Finally, writing and speaking leads to interaction and engagement with your readers and audience, boosting your networking potential.
Networking, volunteering, freelancing, and writing/speaking outside the office will help you improve and grow, professionally and personally. The effects are wide-ranging, allowing you to connect with your tribe and expanding your tribe exponentially. Each is a way to work towards future personal and professional goals while getting valuable, first-hand experience and exposure and creating meaningful connections.