By Martin Tillman, President, Global Career Compass

Is there something unique about a career in our field? What are the qualities that attract a young professional to the kind of jobs that international educators hold on a campus, in a nonprofit or private organization, or in an association or government? Are there different approaches one should take to sustain professional relationships in our field?

Before crafting a networking strategy, we need to apply a working definition: It's a process of developing professional contacts—or strategic connections—and building relationships for the purpose of obtaining field or sector-specific career advice and identifying related professional contacts. Are there unique strategies that apply to our field? Every profession has its own norms of behavior and patterns of communication and interaction. In my 30-plus years as a member of NAFSA, I feel confident in saying that we are a gregarious bunch of professionals, easy to interact with, sensitive to differing interpersonal expectations when communicating across borders and in different languages, and quick to share advice and information with colleagues whom we might be meeting for the first time. Right? Think about your own early regional meetings and how quickly you were able to build collegial relationships with those at other institutions in your region. Think about the ways in which you've already created your network during grad school and in other venues to further your education and training in the field.

Why Build a Network?

The NAFSAns I know are extremely altruistic with a broad range of international interests and widely traveled. The field embraces a wide range of professional roles for a very diverse group of professionals around the world. Of necessity, we are in a highly "wired" field. Members—especially younger professionals—actively use social media to communicate to build their strategic connections with their colleagues at home and abroad. On the other hand, I still believe that sustaining long-term professional relationships requires skillful and purposeful attention and active face-to face interpersonal dialogue.

But apart from the obvious instrumental reasons for being widely connected in our field, what are the implications of growing strategic connections for your professional development and career advancement? I'd suggest these advantageous reasons for being very deliberate as you go about building your professional network:

  • Provides access to insider information and informed insights about the field.
  • Builds long-term mentoring relationships.
  • Provides competitive advantage in the job search process and interviews
  • Results in clearer self-assessment of how a job is or is not aligned with your career aspirations.

Types of Networking

Networking can happen in unplanned and unfocused ways or it can occur with intention and purposefully. How to do that? I suggest the following principal "types" of connectivity that comprise a professional network:

  • Accidents and Acquaintances: Those we meet through unplanned and random encounters; perhaps to be seen again.
  • Associates and Actors: Those encountered over time and usually because of a shared or common purpose (e.g., a professional event). Often, individuals with whom you share information and insights (e.g., NAFSA knowledge community or member committee) in a mutually supportive way over time.
  • Advocates and Allies: Those you know well and trust—the people who promote you and the people you promote. Allies are your most trusted professional friends who know your career aspirations and are valued mentors.

Whenever I meet NAFSA newcomers or those who've been in the field for a few years, they're often a bit overwhelmed by the size of the industry and view the idea of networking to meet other professionals as a daunting prospect. As with any large project, it's best to break the process down into smaller parts! Here are steps to take to develop a strategic approach to expand your professional connections:

  • Research institutions and organizations to identify those whom you want to meet; see if they have a Linked In profile where you can view their career history, interests, and professional affiliations.
  • Understand what your goal is in reaching out to someone in the field. To succeed, you must have a clear intention and communicate in a way that conveys that focus.
  • Networking is a transactional process: so be prepared to work at setting up meetings or informational interviews—or perhaps Skype calls if it's an international contact.
  • While it is easier to reach out to someone of a similar age in a similar organizational context, older professionals—given the right introductions—will likely respond to requests for information or a meeting (perhaps at the next NAFSA conference).

Networking Competencies

Lastly, there are "networking competencies" that will make the process of building your professional connections easier and more successful:

  • Capitalize on your personal style of communication.
  • Envision your ideal network.
  • Strengthen your social acumen; practice and receive feedback from trusted friends and colleagues.
  • Showcase your professional accomplishments.
  • Be aware of optimal networking opportunities—plan ahead as making connections always takes longer than you think!

Building and sustaining a professional network is a process that develops over a period of time and after a series of purposeful and intentional steps are taken. I've suggested that the way to build a sustainable network is to not network in a happenstance or ad hoc manner. Being strategic in formulating professional connections will foster a network of colleagues who are trusted and whose career direction is aligned with your own. The objective is to build connections that may begin as acquaintances but who become advocates and allies actively supporting your professional career aspirations and goals.

Martin Tillman is president of Global Career Compass, an international consultancy, and former associate director of career services at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is a regular contributor to International Educator magazine, and an authority on global workforce development issues and the impact of education abroad on career development.