Cultivating a Professional Network

Cultivating a Professional Network takes time and effort, it is not set and forget but when you build the network that aligns with your interests and career aspirations it can be the difference between success and failure to launch.

The connections we make at school, university and our first job all go on to have their own careers sometimes we maintain and build on those connections cultivating a professional network but other times we let potentially important relationships wither and become forgotten.

Think about the fact that according to the Wall Street Journal as many as 80% of leadership jobs are not advertised. Learning about career opportunities that might suit your skills, having someone to recommend you or be a referee these are people in your professional network. But it is not limited to career progression, having a strong advisory network can be the difference from you being successful in your role and failing to meet your potential.

Most people have a moderate degree of recognition of the power of other people in their lives to make them healthier and happier. But I do think that that message starts to register more as people get older. There’s a fundamentally different psychology of thinking there’s all this time ahead of me, I can do whatever I want, versus I don’t have much time and I really have to emphasize the things that matter most.

Neal Roese (Kellogg INSIGHT, 2017)

Creating and cultivating a professional network takes time, work and commitment. According to Jon Burgess (who has made a career (and an international consultancy) focused on professional advocacy and relationship management) it is all about connectedness. “ADVOCACY is an authentic and purposeful way to live your life and do business… consciously understanding who is important, why they are important, what is important to them and how you can remain relevant and top of mind with each other – this is the key to building sustainable, high-value authentic relationships.” (John Burgess)

A good rule of thumb is to have between 50-100 people in your professional network that you have a call with or see face to face 2-4 times a year. Some people use sophisticated ‘CRM like’ tools to remind them of contact and personal details including birthdays, spouses names, children’s names etc.. But this can really come across as phoney and even creepy, so be careful on this.

Do make sure you have a regularly updated contact list, remind yourself the last time you spoke and keep some notes about what was going on in that person’s life. The key reminder here is authenticity!

How well do you maintain long-term professional relationships with those in your network?

As the chart below highlights many of us are not good at cultivating and maintaining our professional networks. More than 50% believe that they could improve the way they stay in touch, more than 8% accept that they put minimal effort into maintaining a professional network and only 6.5% believe that they maintain their networks extremely well, putting effort into remaining connected with people.

“Advocacy is an authentic and purposeful way to live your life and do business. consciously understanding who is important, why they are important, is important to them and how you can remain relevant and top of mind with each other – this is the key to building sustainable, high-value authentic relationships.”

Jon Burgess – Kwan
How well do you maintain long term professional relationships with those in your network. (SmartBrief 2021)

Building Maintaining and Cultivating a Professional Network

Some principles to help with the process of establishing a connection and remaining connected.


It might seem obvious but you need to figure out where you need to put the effort. Start by categorising the people in your network in logical groupings, for example you might have a list of people who are powerful colleagues, clients or potential clients, industry knowledgeable etc…


With so many ways to stay in touch now it might be easy to become a little blasé and think its fine ‘I’ve got this’. But demonstrating that you are connected and interested in the other person is an important step in any professional network. Congratulating them on their personal or career achievements and being there for support when things don’t go quite as planned. Take steps to demonstrate you are interested in the other person and their life, you don’t want a contact who only reaches out when they need something – so don’t be that person.


Having a huge number of social media connections does not make a powerful professional network. The tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, WhatsApp etc are however very useful to keep those connections between the ‘real time’ sessions where you meet face to face or you pick up the phone and make a call. Just don’t expect that a quick tweet or LinkedIn post can replace the importance of regular face to face connection.

“Building relationships is not just a critical career skill but a critical lifeskill”

Rebecca Zucker (Stanford Business, 2020)


It starts by listening, and offering support in ways that can really contribute to the other persons current needs. If you want to build a relationship then acting in a positive way and offering that support with pure intentions will help establish those bonds. But be careful not to just offer the support to seek favour with the other person – it is likely to achieve the opposite of your goal as people will see you as shallow.


Sharing what you are achieving can be a positive aspect of professional networking but when it comes across as constant bragging your connections will start turning off. A professional network is based on individual respect for each other, so they already know you are great.


Some people will come and go from your life, it is a fairly normal cycle that we only have a certain amount of time and energy to balance all the different individual needs in our busy lives. If someone seems to have drifted out of the circle you can make a little effort to see if its possible to bring that person back in – but don’t push it. If they have new priorities it is not worth trying to chase a relationship with someone who does not have the time to offer back to you.

“Whether you’re looking for clients or a new job, if you get introductions to new people, they can then introduce you to others and you’re more likely to find what you’re looking for. Getting one ball rolling in your search leads to others.”

Rebecca Zucker (Stanford Business, 2020)
Image Credit: Alina Grubnyak

Diversity in Professional Networks

Your professional network is there to help you with your career (as you are to help them with their careers). That does not mean you cant also be friends but it is important that you consider the group of people who are your network of professional advisors, where they are strong and where you could gain insights from different perspectives. With that in mind when you are cultivating your network think about those skill and experience gaps you are looking to gain insights into – have a list and actively look at people who can help you in those specific domains of skill and experience.

Building a quality network goes beyond having a really good address book. It is knowing that the person will take your call, has time for a conversation, can make an introduction or provide you with valuable advice. They will do this because they believe in you – something that is built up over time.

Making Time

Herminia Ibarra (Professor of Organisational Behaviour, INSEAD) explains many managers believe they just don’t have the time to network or that they consider it somewhat un-savory. But if you want to succeed, you need a network and you need to make the time.  Ibarra tells us that managers should delegate more in their day jobs and schedule networking into each week, making it into a habit.  “A lot of people who are not very good at this may feel, initially, that they are wasting time.  They’ve gone to that conference, to those meetings, to this networking event, and what do they have to show for it?  They have less time to do the bread-and-butter day job. However over the longer term or even over the mid-term, those are the contacts that really pay off.

Leadership roles require less actual work and more enabling work to be done effectively, and as Ibarra continues that is where networks come in.  “Informal connections that give you information, ideas, resources support, political intelligence“.

The importance of curiosity

Being curious and authentic enables you to build relationships on TRUST. Exploring common interests, learning from people about their experiences and different points of view help you better understand their perspectives and enable you to better contribute back to them at different points in the their careers.

Key Takeaways

  • Cultivating a professional network can be a very effective way to build your career and it can also be very rewarding.
  • Your professional network is something that you give back to – think about how you are contributing back to the network.
  • Don’t be afraid to drop people out of your regular connection network, or to later reconnect but don’t expect to be able to magically rekindle a relationship that has had no effort.
DIGEST of articles from HBR
How to Maintain Your Professional Network Over the Years
By Rebecca Knight
Published: 20th September 2016

And from KelloggInsight
Podcast: How to Maintain Your Social and Professional Connections
By Neal J. Roese & Craig Wormann
Published: 4th October 2017

and from Fast Company
7 Ways To Maintain Your Professional Network Without Annoying Your Contacts
By Rachel Grumman Bender
Published: 22nd June 2016

and from Stanford Business
Eight Tips for Building, Maintaining, and Leveraging Your Professional Relationships
By Sachin Waikar
Published: 13th January 2020

and from INSEAD Knowledge
How to Get Ahead When You Hate Networking
By Charles Galunic, Ben M. Bensaou and Claudia Jonczyk-Sedes
Published: 7th November 2016

and from INSEAD Knowledge
Networking is vital for successful managers
By Herminia Ibarra
Published: 26th March 2007 

and from INSEAD Knowledge
Networking in the New Reality
By Lee Seok Hwai
Published: 10th July 2020

and from SmartBrief
How well do you maintain long-term professional relationships with those in your network?
By Mike Figliuolo
Published: 17th March 2021 

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