It’s not what you know, but who you know.
You’ve heard this well-worn axiom for career success countless times. But how often do you give thought to who those “who” really are?
During the course of my professional life, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to find a few individuals who started out as contacts, became my confidants and now function as career partners. My networking VIP is a wise and respected CEO of a private company. No matter the business decision or issue I’m facing, I know I can turn to him for insights.
While having successful and time-tested business pros to tap for advice is invaluable, it’s important to develop a deep and diverse network. Looking at some of the people who’ve helped me the most, here are four surprising individuals who might help you, too:
1. The outsider
It’s only natural you’d build the core of your network around people you have a lot in common with, whether it’s the job you perform, the company you work for, your industry or your location. The problem is that swimming in the same circle for too long can be hazardous to your professional growth and upward mobility.
Forge relationships with people who work in completely different roles or fields. While there’s comfort in connecting with like-minded people who have similar backgrounds, you’ll limit your exposure to new ideas, perspectives and career opportunities if you don’t reach beyond this group.
It’s smart to get involved with industry-specific associations, but joining general business organizations is also worthwhile. Consider going to training events on broad career topics, such as ethics, digital etiquette or work-life balance. Or attend networking get-togethers geared toward professionals in a related occupation. If you work at a big firm, volunteer for cross-departmental initiatives and get to know colleagues in all corners of the company.
Consider reaching out to non-coworkers you know (and trust) whose careers differ from yours. Examples might include neighbors, vendors, old classmates or your whip-smart cousin from Colorado. The point is to branch out. When working through the pros and cons of a difficult work-related decision, for instance, it’s beneficial to hear various viewpoints.
2. The networking philanthropist
Some networkers are stingy and protective. They’re far more interested in dropping names than facilitating introductions. Others view networking strictly as a numbers game, collecting as many connections as possible, no matter how tenuous they may be.
The networking philanthropist, on the other hand, methodically cultivates a smaller web of authentic relationships he can use to assist members of his circle. He makes time for you when you need help or a sounding board. He also passes along the names of people you should know, job leads and news articles of interest.
Learn from the networking philanthropist’s pay-it-forward approach and model his behavior. The more you do to aid other people’s careers, the more likely they are to reciprocate.
3. The caring critic
It’s great to have cheerleaders in your network who’ll celebrate your successes and share words of support when you face a career quandary. But it’s also smart to have someone in your corner who challenges you and tells it like it is, sans sugarcoating.
Full of frank feedback and tough questions, the caring critic pushes you to work through professional problems. While it might not be fun to get your resume picked apart or hear that your social media persona is hurting your career prospects, receiving some unvarnished straight talk can be instructive and motivating.
4. The up-and-comer
One of the most common networking mistakes is schmoozing solely with people who can help you today. What about tomorrow? Networking is like farming: plant seeds now so you can reap a harvest later. (Click here to tweet this thought.)
The up-and-comer is someone who isn’t in a position of power or influence at the moment, yet she’s clearly going places. Offering to be a go-to resource or mentor for a high-potential peer or an impressive recent graduate is a nice gesture that can be personally rewarding and prove to be a sound long-term investment in your own career.
The bottom line is that focusing all of your networking efforts on currying favor with perceived power players isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. It’s beneficial to connect with successful leaders, but don’t underestimate the importance of taking a balanced approach to networking, fostering and maintaining meaningful relationships with a wide array of talented people at all levels and stages of their careers.
Paul McDonald is Senior Executive Director for Robert Half (NYSE: RHI), which specializes in the placement of professionals in the accounting and finance, technology, legal, creative and administrative fields. He has advised thousands of job seekers and company leaders over the course of his nearly 30 years in recruiting.