I was leading a career planning workshop for senior executives, which of course includes talk of the ideal professional network. One of the participants dared to say he didn’t return unsolicited calls from recruiters. Seriously? Recruiters are definitely people you need to have in your professional network. Recruiters offer a critical window into the market. Even when you’re not looking, you want to understand the level of interest in what you do (what is your marketability?), the compensation for your role (what is your market value?), and the typical scope of responsibility, budget and/or size of team that accompany your level (are you progressing at, above, or below your peers?). Recruiters are just one type of contact you should know. Here are nine more people you need to have in your professional network:
A good recruiter is an expert in the job market. Other market experts include management consultants, researchers, journalists, securities analysts, academics, and leaders of professional associations. There will come a time when you’ll need expertise about a specific industry, company, or functional area. You want to know different types of market experts to cover a range of industries, companies and functional areas, as well as different types of knowledge.
Recruiters aren’t the only HR contacts you want in your professional network. I know an excellent employment lawyer that I have referred to various clients for offer negotiation, severance agreements, discrimination issues, or even just a second opinion when something seems amiss. When I need to switch insurance plans, I relied on my friend in Benefits to explain things in simple English. Knowing someone with a background in Compensation can provide feedback on offers. An Employee Relations contact can help with severance or brainstorming a tricky workplace situation. You want to know HR people, both inside and outside your company. Not every question needs to be escalated to HR at your company (most questions probably shouldn’t be!).
I like to use this term as a catch-all for mentors or sponsors. Your guardian angel looks out for you. This might take the form of advice from a mentor or more active support (e.g., nominating you for a plum project) like a sponsor would. Mentors can be inside or outside your company, as long as they know your area and can provide relevant counsel. Sponsors influence decisions and outcomes, so almost always should be people within your current employer. An exception could be a Board member or advisor who counsels senior leadership.
Board of Directors
No one mentor can provide everything that you need. Your guardian angel provides overall counsel, but you may also have particular needs – to improve your executive presence, to give better presentations, to develop a stronger relationship with the CFO. Just like a company has a Board of Directors with different skills but with a shared mission of looking out for the company, you want to cultivate a set of people who can help you. Perhaps your always put-together friend can help you upgrade your wardrobe to the executive level – a one-time commitment, not a formal mentorship. Perhaps your colleague whose presentations you admire can give you some tips or run a dress rehearsal with you and give you feedback. Keep a running list of what you need and who the experts are so you have an idea of who to tap if a need arises.
A shepherd is a guide for you within your company and an often overlooked part of a strong professional network. This person can be your peer or even junior to you, but they know the ins and outs of the organization – who the decision-makers are, who allies with whom, who competes with whom, and other institutional history that would be difficult to find out on your own. This person might possess this knowledge because they have been at the company for a long time or because they’re in a role that enables them to see a lot (e.g., EA to senior leadership or Chief of Staff to a key decision-maker). They might have a personality that endears them to a wide variety of people and engenders trust at high levels. There are always shepherds in the workplace, and they are great to know and ideally befriend.
Some people are better at change than others. Even if you embrace it or thrive on it, you’ll need others who share your change spirit when there is a new initiative or restructuring underway. If you’re not great with change, then you want to have someone who can encourage you when you’re in the midst of a change and help you see the merits, not just the anxiety of it. Cultivate a network with diverse attitudes, including change agents.
Sometimes you just need encouragement – not advice, not ideas, not a devil’s advocate. We all know people who are more optimistic and generally in a good mood. Whether they are in your career field or not, they belong in your professional network because the ability to get away from work is a critical part of work. You need to be refreshed to be at your best. You need a break to ensure sustainability. The running partner you have, where you don’t even know what s/he does for a living, is actually a key member of your professional network. Prioritize these relationships!
Sometimes you do need a devil’s advocate. A devil’s advocate exposes the opposing view and reveals potential pitfalls in an idea you might have or action you might take. A devil’s advocate is one type of truth-teller – those people in your network who help you see blind spots, deliver difficult but constructive feedback, and aren’t afraid to share an opposite point of view. Just like a leader shouldn’t be surrounded only with people who readily agree, you shouldn’t only cultivate relationships with people who flatter or praise you. Identify who has the temperament and expertise to be your truth-teller, and appreciate that connection.
If you’re stuck on who might fill a spot on your Board or be a market expert for an issue or you actually need an employment lawyer and don’t yet know one, you probably have a contact who always has a recommendation. These connectors know an unusually wide variety of people and are willing and able to make introductions. Your professional needs and focus will change over time. Markets and companies also evolve. You will always need to expand your network, and connectors play an instrumental role in that.
As you cultivate your professional network, pay attention to the types of contacts that you have. Where do you need to prioritize your networking time? Where do you need to expand your connections? What avenues – professional associations, social media, directly reaching out – are most appropriate for who you need to meet and how you need to maintain and grow relationships? When will you schedule these activities? What will you do today, next week, and this year?
A version of this post originally appears in my Leadership column on Forbes.com.