To Build Your Network, Find Your ‘Champions’

If you want to advance in your career, build your influence, switch jobs at some point in the future, or simply have a richer life, you need to nourish your network and to add to it over time. It’s essential to do this whether you’re still working from home and have to network virtually or if you’re meeting people in person. 

As an executive coach, I work with C-suite leaders from large companies and startups, and I see that professionals often make the mistake of focusing on too narrow a group of people in their networking efforts. Sales VPs might only think about connecting with customers, for example, while people early in their careers might look for mentors and overlook the need to build relationships with their peers.

That’s a mistake. Support, guidance and help often comes from unlikely sources, so you should develop a broad network. Also, if you’ve let your network go because of the pandemic, it’s time to re-engage. 

To help you do this, I’ve created a simple model to highlight the different kinds of people to include in your network to make it more robust. Some of them you may gravitate to naturally and some you may not have thought of. 

It’s called “Champions,” and you can use this framework to assess your own network and determine where you want to add people.

“Champions” stands for:

C – Clients & customers. Obviously, your business can’t run without customers, so they are an essential element to have in your virtual Rolodex. If your job is to sell to customers you probably already know this. 

But even if you aren’t customer-facing, getting to know customers helps you understand your company better. That gives you better perspective and more feel for that business, all of which make you more valuable.  Even if you are in HR or IT or other functions which don’t run into customers in your daily world, you can go to industry events to meet them or find other ways to build connections with them.  

H – Helpers. It’s easy to overlook helpers because you might assume that junior people or administrative assistants are not important. However, helpers can ease your way. If you have some junior people in your network you may be able to tap into their skills, which you may not have, and into their networks which may be more rich than you think. Junior people can also simply help out when you need some extra hands on a task. And, how many times have you needed an administrative assistant to do you a favor by getting you on her bosses’ calendar? Don’t underestimate how significant a helper can be. 

A – Allies. An ally is someone you can count on to support you and make an effort in helping your ideas come to life. Allies also provide emotional and psychological support which is very helpful during times you’re feeling down. You can find allies by looking for other people whose goals align with yours. If you are in marketing and trying to improve your customer satisfaction scores, for example, you will find natural allies on the sales team. Look for allies up, down, and across in your organization.

M – Mentors. Mentors are a traditional category of people you should have in your network. Great mentors will not only give you advice, they’ll also find ways to get you involved in things that will help you develop. They might volunteer you for a project to help you grow and give you great exposure. I have a friend who works at a large consulting firm. One of the partners at the firm had him present to the clients on his own, even though he might have been considered a bit junior. Great mentors will see you for who you are, guide you, and then occasionally throw you out of your comfort zone to help you build your skills.  Mentors can be older or younger and you should definitely cultivate more than one.    

P – Peers. Peers are people at the same place in their career as you. Peers outside of your company can be the source of new job leads, information about your industry, and interesting opportunities like speaking on a panel. You can meet peers by getting involved with industry organizations and attending conferences. Take the time to get to know then informally, and also showcase that you want to be someone who values giving by sharing information and opportunities with them before you ask for anything.

Inside of your company you run into peers in project teams and staff meetings.  Because you see them all the time you may forget that you should create a personal connection with them. That’s important because if you have a good rapport with your peers you can more easily resolve inevitable conflict with them. Peers often have to “vote” for you to get ahead in your career, so it’s important to get their support sooner rather than later. The best way to cultivate personal relationships with your peers is to find informal moments like coffee or meals or simply chatting before a meeting to get to know them better. 

I – Internal to your company. People who work in large companies often think of “networking” as something you do with professionals outside of their company. However, it’s critical to build relationships inside of your company as well. The more people you know, the more you know; that’s because the people in your diverse network will tell you what’s really going on. When you know people across the organization you can more easily transfer to new groups if you’d like to. 

Knowing more people also helps you get bureaucratic things done more easily.  One of my clients once became friendly with the head of payroll because they happened to be in the same meeting one day and connected about their shared immigrant story. That connection became important when one day there had been a massive screwup with the paychecks of his people, and with one call to his contact he sorted it out.  

O – Onions. I call these people onions because they have layers and layers to them. For example, in my network, there is an investor who also is a drummer for a touring rock band. I know someone who owns a chain of shuffleboard clubs, and I have a friend who is an entrepreneur, an author, and a painter. These people make your life more interesting. They also have a diverse network themselves to can introduce you to others who will greatly expand your own network.  

N – Networkers. These are great connectors themselves. I have a friend who is an incredible networker.  Whenever we’re talking about a subject, he immediately pulls out his phone to look for relevant contacts in his LinkedIn network to connect me with. When you have networkers in your life it’s almost guaranteed that your own network will continue to expand. 

S – Subject matter experts. If you know people who are experts in a certain field well enough to call or email directly, you can learn the information you need immediately. You can also get them to speak inside of your department or at a conference. Additionally, if you do that, you also build your own credibility as someone who can get influential people. I also group people in the media in here – it never hurts to be friendly with people at the New York Times!

After you’ve assessed your network using the CHAMPIONS framework, take a look at your results. Where are you overweighted and where are you underweighted? 

One of my clients, Beth, a new vice president at a tech company, did this and she saw that she had a lot of internal mentors and plenty of peers. 

She also saw, however, that she didn’t have any subject matter experts at all, and that she was very light in knowing customers. At her new level of vice president, she would have to be much more active in dealing with customers and also bringing key people into discussions. This made her realize that she’d have to spend some time cultivating those categories of people. 

That insight is an example of why it’s so helpful to assess your network a few times a year. We naturally gravitate towards people who we run into organically and easily and whom we have a natural affinity for. It takes effort to go out outside of your regular routine. Looking at your networking holistically helps you pinpoint where you need to fine-tune your efforts.

Avi was another client of mine who zoomed out to look at his network. Avi was on the fast track to becoming a partner at his law firm, but he realized that he hated it. He wanted to find something else but he had no idea how and his network was very overweighed with other lawyers – including many of his family members. He had to add more networkers – people who would introduce him to other people – and onions – multi-faceted people who had a lot of layers to them and could help him think of things outside of law. So he consciously added them, and within eight months he was able to find his way into a small company doing investor relations for them, which was a much better fit for him. 

Use the CHAMPIONS model to look at your own network, identify people you’d like to add, and then make a plan to find them.

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