With over 22 years of experience leading community rec organizations, Jake Steger shares about the power of having a professional network.
How did I learn to build a professional network?
When I was in my early 20s, I met Mack Ray, a senior officer of a large bank in Corpus Christi, Texas. Mack and I met at the Downtown YMCA and it was amazing how he knew everybody and everybody knew him. Mack started to mentor me after I asked him to volunteer for the YMCA as a division leader for the annual support campaign. Together, Mack and I assembled a team of 20 volunteers to raise funds for YMCA outreach programming and services.
As I got to know Mack, it was impressive to watch him operate and navigate challenges. He had a unique professional presence and I really enjoyed meeting up with him for lunch or coffee to listen and learn. He was always introducing me to people and telling me stories about his unique experiences and friends. Anytime I had a question that involved “who” it seemed like Mack always knew someone we should contact and chat with. Mack was a master at networking, and I was so fortunate to be his friend.
Always have a purpose that is greater than yourself.
When I started building my network, I decided I would not do it for money or for myself. I started building my network for a different purpose – to meet new friends, to learn from and to help others. Over the last 20 years, I’ve taken so many meetings that would never make sense from just a business perspective. In fact, if some of my old bosses knew about the meetings I accepted, they would not have been very happy with me.
I was not meeting with people and making decisions on who I connected with solely from a business lens. I discovered early on in my professional life, you never know when a new contact or friend can help you or someone you know along the way. The timing or the need may come later, so it’s also important to stay connected to your network of friends.
Does building a network payoff?
For me, my network is paying off more today than it ever did when I was working for the YMCA. Starting a company isn’t easy and my network has been extremely valuable. All the strategic partners for REC Business Solutions have come from my network either directly or indirectly. My company would not be in the position it’s in today without the partnerships I was able to pull together in the first 100 days.
The unique ecosystem my business operates under has been extremely valuable to my clients and has provided means for the business to generate revenue beyond the consulting retainers charged by the more traditional firms. To that extent, I don’t view traditional consulting firms as competition as I work in a collaborative environment with extremely unique partners, products, and services. That is how my networking is paying off for my business beyond monetary means. I have discovered how to leverage the power of my professional network to carve out a niche that doesn’t have direct competitors.
Building a network is a commitment and I believe in the time and investment that goes into creating one. I strongly encourage young professionals I encounter to think beyond the “payoff” when building a network. When we do things for a purpose greater than ourselves there is so much more to gain. I believe money is a false security and I have personally discovered I feel more satisfied and rewarded when I’m a part of a mission or purpose that changes people’s lives for the good.
What goes into building a network in today’s digital world?
Starting the foundation of a network is no different than it was many years ago. With that said, I believe technology and social media can be leveraged to grow your network at an exponential rate. Social media is extremely important today and I believe it must be consistently used with a personal brand attached to it. People want to know who we are and what our interests are. They want to know if they can trust us. When people align with our thinking the result is our experiences and testimonies better resonate with them. The more “raw” and “real” we share our lives and experiences on social media the more trust and credibility we gain with our followers.
For example, if you like to travel share some of the moments with your network. If you enjoy sports and outdoor adventure, share these experiences on your social networks. I absolutely love when I get messages on social media that creates opportunities to meet people on virtual calls. Some of these calls have been tremendous for my company and have led to new partnerships and business relationships.
To sum it up, I believe technology is an accelerator for growth in business, and from experience, this concept applies to building your professional network as well. The foundation is built on the relationships you have and maintain with people. People want to be connected and in today’s environment that can be virtually and in person. Personally, I prefer a healthy balance of the two approaches. Happy networking!
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