Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) alumna and faculty Amanda E. Major, EdD, CPTD, PMP, shares essentials for creating a network of peers and cross-functional professionals.
Networking to Build Social Capital
Networking is like constructing a double helix, built with other professionals through meaningful interactions (e.g., exchanges of information, guidance, connections to others, emotional support, or any combination of these). The double helix forms a ladder of success that’s mutually beneficial for both you and those with whom you meaningfully interact.
Anyone can network, whether it’s because you are interested in developing yourself professionally, creating a talent pool, building a team or alliances, staying abreast of professional trends, or working through strategy or team roadblocks. Essential for leaders in digital learning is creating a network of not only their peers but also cross-functional professionals. Networking is a method for cultivating leadership effectiveness in meeting strategic goals of higher education institutions via building meaningful, productive relationships.
Social capital results from building and maintaining your network. Social capital composes the social, active connections among individuals or groups developed through interactions in which trust and shared values flourish, prompting the exchange of information and the likelihood that each party is influenced by one another (McCallum and O’Connell, 2009). This has the propensity to enhance emotional, spiritual, and career growth.
Mechanisms of networking run the gamut from connecting to intensive coaching and everything in between. Networking has a mutual benefit between parties, but not necessarily a shared goal. You’ll want to set your own goal for interactions and generate a plan for the most effective mechanism for networking.
Connecting with another individual on a surface or deeper level could count as networking in a broad sense. A simple “hello” could initiate an open dialogue should the person you greet express an interest in continuing the conversation. Then you can learn more about that individual and their professional interests by asking carefully paced questions interspersed by answering their questions and making connections based on their responses. You might comment on a social media post with encouragement or notable commonalities. You may also be interested in participating in structured networking events, like EdSurge Loop or EdSurge Live, TOPkit Online CoLAB Networking Events, or OLC Innovate Virtual Speed Networking Lounge.
Sharing your knowledge is another mechanism for interaction. Typically, this occurs in an intellectually safe space. For example, this could be where the ground rules about sharing information have been established, and the individuals speak a common professional parlance, like at a professional online learning conference or during a structured leadership program. You might attend a webinar or read an article from someone in your network, and follow up with a message or telephone call.
As you develop relationships, you may cultivate deeper connections with those in your network to offer support as needed. Who couldn’t use a little extra attention sometimes? Perhaps serve as a resource to offer advice, address a question, or connect that person to a resource or another person in your network.
Coaching is a type of support that offers feedback. This is when someone gets REAL with you. That individual challenges your mindset or behavior, with in-the-moment advice that may counter your perspective. It gets you out of your own head to see professional situations from a different point of view, serving either to strengthen your own position or change your mind. Even a minor shift in perspective improves your prospects for successfully moving forward.
Demonstrating collegiality shows that you are a professional with valuable strategies or techniques to share. Be careful! You might develop a reputation for being a guru, which could only serve to build your network. It’s as easy as offering an orientation to a conference, like serving as an OLC Innovate Field Guide. Consider striking up a conversation with a colleague around the proverbial office water cooler.
Mentoring offers supportive guidance outside the individual’s own higher education institution’s governance structure. The mentoring relationship can broaden viewpoints, strengthen self-confidence and knowledge transfer, as well as improve job satisfaction and organizational loyalty. A simple way to provide career guidance is to act as a reference for someone applying for a job or write a letter of recommendation, or appreciation for a performance review packet. Participating in a formal mentor-mentee relationship via your higher education institution or a professional association can offer more structure to the two-way responsibilities of a mentor-mentee relationship.
Sponsoring involves backing the credibility of someone in your network. Sponsors are typically senior leaders in the organization that act as a conduit for a service, volunteer program, or a career opportunity. People can serve in this capacity as the way finder, door opener, advocate, or endorser. You do not have to hold an executive position to serve as a sponsor. For instance, all it can take is to say a few kind words about a colleague in a promotion review committee meeting.
Networking Maintenance Ideas
Hopefully, you are empowered to begin connecting, sharing, supporting, engaging others in a collegial way, mentoring, or sponsoring. Maintaining your network is a deliberate, active process. Consider these ideas in any customizable combination:
- Plan a quick conversation over coffee with someone in your network.
- Master the art of small talk.
- Launch and consistently update your digital identity (e.g., your own professional website or blog) (Whitaker, 2017).
- Maintain online social networks by posting informational or fun content with hashtags.
- Volunteer with professional associations to meet new people.
- Meet via a video conference or in person.
- Schedule a sequence of iterative meetings.
- Make a plan for engaging your network during and after conferences.
- Attend a session at a digital learning conference and stay to chat after, or follow-up at a later time with an email.
- Collaborate with those in your network on scholarship (e.g., conference presentations or authoring opportunities) or service efforts (e.g., volunteering at a conference).
- Drop a note (e.g., a text, email, IM, or a handwritten card) to express your appreciation.
- Return favors.
- Introduce professionals from your network to other professionals.
- Have good conversations in which you are fully present (Sanders & Douglis, 2021), exercising emotional intelligence and strong social skills.
- Request a light interview with someone in your burgeoning network to:
- Gain information about a job or career path,
- Understand higher education digital learning strategies, or
- Gather a sneak peak of their projects, program portfolio, or operations.
- Prune your professional network as your career progresses (Whitaker, 2017).
Networking Outcomes to Reap
Much can be gained from maintaining your network. You may experience a sense of joy from networking that innately arises when you connect with another human being, warding off any sense of isolation. You may also find increased fulfillment from your work and career. You may vicariously explore new career pathways. You may find yourself learning from others, trying new methods of doing things, defining or redefining your brand. Ultimately, through networking, you develop social capital that offers a support net for you, both professionally and personally.
Reap What You Sow
Networking comprises a transactional relationship that advances both the giver and receiver in some way. It has an indirect impact to advance and add prestige within the digital learning profession, as networks of people develop a common language and pathway for knowledge creation and culture building. This was evident for me as I cultivated a solid network via the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) as an alumna, and it still holds true as I mentor emerging and established digital learning leaders as a faculty of IELOL. A key component for participants of this unique, blended learning leadership development program is cultivating a network of online leaders in higher education, who are passionate about improving and advancing this profession, while also offering a structured networking opportunity for those interested in leadership.
My networking philosophy is to give a little more than what you request from others. That which I do for others, tends to solidify in my mind cognitively, levitate me emotionally, or elevate me in the professional space. I gain a stronger awareness of my own reservoir of knowledge, skills, abilities, character, and vision while helping others.
You keep what you give, in a sense. Try giving to members in your network, and you’ll understand its intrinsic and extrinsic value.
Editorial Note: OLC’s Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) professional development program provides an experience that not only emphasizes the value of cultivating your professional networks, but also, at its core, provides the opportunity to connect with cohort members as well as a growing network of alumni leaders in the online, blended, and digital learning community. Read testimonials from our alumni to learn more about the impact of the IELOL experience or join our upcoming informational webinar on Feb. 16 at 5 p.m. ET.
Center for Creative Leadership Leading Effectively Staff. (2020, November 22). Women need a network of champions: Why mentorship and sponsorship are important in the workplace, particularly for women. https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/why-women-need-a-network-of-champions/
Jackson, C. H. (2019, September 3). 5 Tips to maximize postconference networking. Educause Review. https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2019/9/5-tips-to-maximize-post-conference-networking
McCallum, & O’Connell, D. (2009). Social capital and leadership development: Building stronger leadership through enhanced relational skills. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 30(2), 152–166. https://doi.org/10.1108/01437730910935756
Sanders, S, & Douglis, S. (Hosts). (2021, November 22). Good conversations take time and attention. Here’s how to have better ones. [Audio podcast episode]. In Life Kit. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2020/10/15/923962314/good-conversations-take-time-and-attention-heres-how-to-have-better-ones
Whitaker, M. (2017, August 7 ). How to create and keep a useful network. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-create-and-keep-a-useful-network