Building Your Professional Network, No Experience Necessary – Joseph (USA)

What is a professional network, and how do you build one? What does it mean to develop your brand? For this post, I tried to pick topics relevant to students with little to no work experience; however, I think anyone can benefit from this discussion. Over the next few paragraphs, I will discuss some possible answers to these questions and underline my thoughts using my experiences. But why only some answers and not a definitive guide? The answer to that is simple; there is no cookie-cutter solution that will work for everyone. You will ultimately have to try things for yourself and see what works for you.

First and foremost, let me give you my definition of a professional network: the people you surround yourself with who will help you achieve your professional goals. I believe the best way to get started in building this network is to attend a workshop geared toward professional networking, entrepreneurship, or personal branding. Before arriving, you should make a rough draft for your elevator pitch; in other words, a paragraph about yourself highlighting your personality and skills. During the event, you will have some time to refine and practice it. These vital few words will change over time as you change as a person but will remain a keystone in growing your professional network.

To improve my professional networking ability and understanding of the topic, I attended a Google Student Workshop: Personal Branding. This event took place on Zoom this past November, and while, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make any new connections, I did take two items on which to act. For my first action item from this workshop, I decided to use the idea of creating an elevator pitch to update my LinkedIn summary and tagline to match the direction in which I want to go after completing my master’s degree. And for the second, I decided to write this blog post to organize my thoughts about building a personal brand and professional network.

In building this network, one skill stands out among the rest: painting a picture of why someone needs you in their network. This skill requires some knowledge of negotiation because, essentially, you are selling yourself and your abilities. A great book on this topic is Getting More by Stuart Diamond; it shows you how to see things through other people’s eyes to achieve your goals.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Write

Let’s look for a second at how I used Diamond’s advice to become an International Student Ambassador. First, I thought about why I wanted to be an ambassador. My primary goals were to expand my professional network and make some friends in Tartu. Next, I thought about how I could stand out from all the other applicants. In other words, how can I get a position as an ambassador?

To do this, I had to consider, what’s my “thing,” a question whose answer may not be as straightforward as you might think because each situation is unique. For instance, at a job fair, I may talk about my adaptability and reliability under pressure. However, while applying to become an ambassador, I decided to showcase my abilities as a photographer. Why? The answer is simple; everyone loves a photographer that will volunteer their time and equipment. The ability to recognize which of your talents best fits a situation is critical when building your professional network.

Now, you may be thinking, that’s great, but I’m just a student. I don’t have a portfolio of skills or a wealth of experience to draw on. If I don’t have anything to give, how am I supposed to follow this advice? You can start by finding or creating a strong group of peers who will become the core of your network. With them, you can share ideas, work on projects together to build your skillsets, and connect with others.

This group will consist primarily of people in a similar place as you in life but may also include one or more mentors. These are people with whom you can both have a good time and also talk shop. Since I’m a rather reserved person, how do I go about growing a group like this? First, I look around for the most outgoing people I can find. They are an excellent resource for getting introduced to other people. But, for all that value, what do I provide them? Sometimes just someone to shoot the breeze with, and other times I can offer them unique perspectives, ideas, and stories. And, after spending some time with them, I have found that a core group will form.

Photo Credit: Joseph Haske

An alternative way to find people and possibly gain work experience is to join an organization or club. You can also take courses outside of your degree program. These groups and classes can help build out your resume or CV. For example, I am an International Student Ambassador, which has allowed me to add all the other ambassadors to my professional network. It also allows me to meet various international students through events like handing out welcome bags or participating in filming a series of videos for the university’s Youtube channel. What’s more? I can put it on my resume, and it will give me more experience to talk about during my next job interview.

Now you might be thinking, but wait, that sounds a lot like making friends and then exploring your hobbies with them. If that’s the case, you’re right. What’s the only thing that’s changed? The mindset. I’m more aware of how I’m presenting myself and how others perceive me; in other words, my personal brand. That doesn’t mean I carry around a clipboard with a checklist on it to rate each person’s character traits. I don’t make diagrams or continuously think about what they can do for me and what I provide them. Now, I’m simply more conscious about whether or not we have a mutually beneficial relationship. I’m also more aware of how my surroundings affect how I’m perceived.

Photo Credit: Joseph Haske

Since it makes up such a large portion of my personal brand, what other factors contribute to how others perceive me? Initially, other people make judgments about you based on how you look. Your professional network, appearance, and attitude, in my opinion, account for most of your brand. In the first paragraph, I posed the question, “what does it mean to develop your personal brand?” I have already discussed how the people you surround yourself with affect it. But, I think the easiest and most direct way to influence how you are perceived and develop your brand is to think about your physical appearance. As you build your brand and network, it may be necessary to change things like your hairstyle or clothes to broaden your opportunities.

Let’s take, for example, my choice to have long hair. Many people have preconceived notions about men with long hair, and having it could severely limit my ability to find a customer-facing job. It may also make people want to avoid associating with me in a professional sense. With these seemingly severe drawbacks, why keep it? Having something about your appearance different from the “norm” can be a massive asset at networking events. I stand out with long hair and a beard in a sea of clean-shaven men with mid-fade haircuts, meaning people will be able to remember me more easily. And, for me, this is enough to keep it for now.

To keep things short, I leave it to you to think about how your attitude affects your brand. I hope you have gained some unique insights into the topics I have discussed through my examples and ideas. Instead of summarizing my points and giving a lengthy conclusion, I would like to take a moment to thank my sister, Stephanie, for taking the time to provide me with incredibly detailed feedback on my rough draft and for being my co-photographer for this post. And now, to wrap it all up, I will leave you with a fantastic piece of advice my good friend, Dan, gives — don’t only talk to people when you need something from them.