As I ponder over these questions from both students looking for entry level positions as well as professionals in the work environment trying to improve themselves, there is a good striking similarity of the lack of understanding of professional networking. Perhaps confounded by the proliferation of the number of social media websites, the size of the friends circle within social media network and the practice of liking and sharing posts of people daily life, people think these social media practices are equivalent to professional networking. You can see some of these practices even in professional networks like Linkedln where people seem to follow such practices. I believe people seem to have lost the connection to professional networking and its true benefits.
When colleges seek high school students, they are looking for a lot more than being the first in the school because there will be a lot of such 'first in school' student applying for the college. What distinguishes one student from another is becoming critical as the entry criteria for admission. This fundamental need to differentiate is why the students attempt to do many things, such as volunteering for a social cause, practicing a unique art or music, or excelling in a specific sports. Particularly, this volunteering opportunities opens the doors to the understanding of customer service, accountability, and responsibility among many other indispensable values that students need to be exposed to become well rounded individuals. How did this core need to volunteer get lost as people go through college or get professionally employed?
While contributing to the society by volunteering time is more rewarding, it provides an opportunity for one to augment their skills and gain experience in many areas, such as event planning, technical skills, customer service, etc. Besides, the same experience introduces other people that know you by face and work ethics, which carry a long way in expanding professional opportunities as one begins to look for gaining experience as well as getting introductions. One is not only helping a cause but also building their reputation and visibility as they meet new people, make connections, learn new skills, gain competencies through experience, and get introductions. This experience is not the same as liking or sharing post in social media or broadcasting forwarded posts through communication vehicles.
Now, the professional networking can also be expanded with a Kaizen (continuous improvement) attitude to professional improvement. By attending professional networking events like the monthly chapter events organized by the local chapters of the Project Management Institute, for instance, one can expand professional associations on topics that they may be unfamiliar with, problems encountered by other professional in the same industry or sector, or creative solutions to problems similar to ourselves. Further, one can even seek input on how to solve a problem that they face in group activities in a larger professional events like professional development days or executive committee meetings. Any information thus gained becomes invaluable as one adapts them to their needs creating new knowledge that can be shared to others through blogs, presentations at local round tables or chapter meetings, through the open space, global cafes, unconference, or lean coffee meetings
One common question that always comes up is the time commitment needed and the cost of the events. It is true that events cost money because they have to be arranged too. Now, if professional improvement is at the core of your growth, then, one can find time because in my humble opinion, TIME is all about taking initiative managing energy. Many organizations support these professional improvement opportunities. One can always find ways to volunteer in part or full to cover themselves to attend these professional networking events. For instance, PMI is a volunteer supported organization that has numerous opportunities and Agile Alliance has the Purple volunteers always available to support large events.
In addition, the best way one can deepen the knowledge and wisdom gained is to share it with others. Similar to how the people in the rally race get a headstart running along with the person passing the baton, it is our responsibility to share the wealth of our knowledge and wisdom to the next generation during the time life can allow us to work together. There are a number of mentorship needs, such as those organized by PMI and NAAAP for professionals to volunteer supporting other students and professionals giving an opportunity for us to question our own fundamental assumptions from a different limelight and offer value to mentees.
In the end, whether one chooses volunteering, mentorship, or just professional improvement, it is imperative that one really understands that the value of one's brand lies much more in how many people know you for what you are! This knowledge of your true worth should be much more than just your organization but for the professional society that made you who you are. The best way to positively develop this individual brand is to be a servant leader in unlearning what you know, learning what you thought you know, and relearning to master what you learned. Then, your reputation precedes you.
Rajagopalan, S. (2015). Product Personification: PARAG model to successful software product development. International Journal of Managing Value and Supply Chains, 6(1), 1-12.