Professional networking doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

While networking is often enthusiastically embraced by individuals just entering the workforce or seeking to make a career change, it can be neglected by mid-career and senior professionals who believe their network is adequate and no longer needs to expand.

Networking is important for everybody—particularly those who are interested in becoming a leader in their organization or industry. A well-built and maintained professional network could be one of the most powerful tools for career advancement.

If you want to develop your professional network, here are several strategies that can help, as well as a look at some of the ways you can use your network to become more effective and achieve your career goals.

How Leaders Use Their Networks

1. To Identify Career Opportunities


Many business leaders leverage their professional networks and relationships to identify career opportunities. If your goal is to advance within your organization or transition into a new industry, you need to know who is hiring—preferably before everyone else is aware of the opportunity.

By building professional relationships with individuals who work in a range of organizations and industries, it's possible to gain a competitive edge through advance notice of openings, as well as from personal connections that can help you get your foot in the door. This holds true whether you're just starting in your career or have been a leader in your field for decades. If you don’t know about an opportunity, you can’t act on it.

2. To Build Their Teams


Business leaders don’t simply use their networks to pivot from one career or job to the next; they leverage their networks to realize benefits in their existing roles. One of the key ways they do this is by turning to their contacts to source talent for important jobs within their organization and team.

A well-developed professional network filled with individuals who are highly skilled in their areas of expertise is a pool of talent that business leaders can use when hiring season comes around. This can be particularly helpful during times when an organization doesn't have the luxury of working through its regular recruitment process—for example, after the sudden departure of a key player, or during the rapid development of a new project or initiative. When time is of the essence, having a network to rely on can mean the difference between making a good hire and making a great one.

Related: 4 Tips for Growing Your Professional Network

3. To Anticipate Strategic Change Within Their Organization


Strategic networking should not consist solely of building new connections outside of your organization. While external connections are important, it is just as critical for professionals to develop strong relationships within their organizations.

“Your internal and external networks are important leadership assets,” says HBS Professor Anthony Mayo in the online course Leadership Principles. “They're how you gain access to resources like information, know-how, and funding that are crucial in enabling you to help those you’re leading. Networks also foster your learning by connecting you to people in organizations with different skills, perspectives, and contexts than your own.”

By establishing a robust internal network, leaders can achieve several goals. Strong relationships with key stakeholders can make it easier to get a project approved, or increase one’s standing if an opportunity for a promotion presents itself. Similarly, by building relationships with decision-makers in the organization, it's possible to establish open lines of communication and stay abreast of strategic changes that may impact your role.

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4. To Keep a Finger on the Pulse of Their Industry


A professional network can be a powerful source of new ideas and information that leaders can leverage to keep their finger on the pulse of their industry and the world at large.

For this reason, leaders typically don’t just connect with individuals they expect to work with one day. They instead connect with thought leaders from within their industries to bring together as many diverse voices as possible and facilitate the free exchange of ideas.

“Effective networks are based on the closeness and diversity of the relationships within them,” Mayo says in Leadership Principles. “If you have a very large network in which everyone knows each other, you essentially have access to the same, recycled information. It’s more important for your network to provide new resources and have strong relationships that rest on a willingness to help each other.”

How to Develop Your Professional Network

1. Start Within Your Organization


Whether you're a current or aspiring leader, taking the time to build connections within your company can open the door to many opportunities.

Devoting time to sit in on meetings, whether or not they directly impact your department or initiatives, can be a powerful way of demonstrating your interest in the work of others. Other potential strategies include finding a mentor within your organization who's been in your position in the past, offering your expertise to a member of a different team who seems to be struggling, or simply going out to lunch with colleagues instead of eating at your desk.

Having a firm understanding of emotional intelligence, as well as your own strengths and weaknesses, can help.

2. Leverage Professional Associations, Conferences, and Events


When it comes to building a robust network of external connections, professionals have many opportunities to connect with others in their industry. Professional associations, for example, regularly host luncheons and other events where members are encouraged to mingle. Similarly, industry conferences or trade shows can be an effective means of meeting new people.

Consider speaking at an event or participating in a roundtable. In addition to giving you the opportunity to meet others, doing so will allow you to position yourself as a resource—an expert in the field—others will be inclined to turn to.

Related: 5 Steps to Creating a Successful Leadership Development Plan

3. Become a Mentor


Many people understand the value that mentorship can provide. In a mentorship, the mentee can learn from past mistakes, successes, and experiences of their mentor, and apply those lessons to their own career.

Mentors can also benefit from their relationship with mentees. First, mentorship requires the mentor to reflect upon their career in order to guide the mentee—a useful exercise, especially for those not accustomed to doing so. Second, when the mentee is sourced from within the organization, the mentor stands to benefit directly from the mentee’s improved performance.

The mentor-mentee relationship is a powerful one which, when maintained appropriately, can last for decades. These days, individuals do not typically stay at the same organization for their entire careers. This means that a mentor might train and build relationships with many individuals who eventually go on to work in a range of positions at a variety of organizations—creating a robust network of ambassadors who represent the mentor’s brand.

Leadership Principles: Unlock your leadership potential. Learn more.

Networking is Critical to Leadership

An effective leader understands that networking is important. As such, building, maintaining, and interacting with your professional network should be a key component of any leadership development plan. By helping you identify career opportunities, build a successful team, anticipate organizational changes, and stay on top of industry trends, your professional network is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal as a leader.

Want to learn more about how effective leaders develop and nurture their professional networks to advance their career goals? Explore our online course Leadership Principles.

Tim Stobierski

About the Author

Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.