9 networking tips for field-based global development professionals

by Shana Montesol Johnson

This article originally appeared on Devex.com. I wanted to be sure that the Development Crossroads community had access to it as well.

We’ve all heard how important networking is to the success of our career. But how can you network if you’re based in the field, far away from key decision-makers or unable to attend organized regional networking events like this week’s Devex Career Forum in Manila?

Here are nine tips for those of you who are based in the field, or residing far from where your contacts (actual or desired) are located:

1. Reframe how you define networking

Some people think of networking as meeting new people, attending networking receptions and collecting business cards. I define networking as “the process of building and maintaining relationships with people who can help you, and whom you can help.”

Seen this way, networking can be done from any location — just because you aren’t physically present to attend your alumni networking breakfast doesn’t mean you can’t build and maintain your relationships with people in your network in other ways.

2. Nurture your current network

Since networking is not only about acquiring new contacts, it’s equally important (if not more important!) to cultivate relationships with people you already know, both inside and outside of your organization. Ask yourself, “Who are the people I’d like to keep in touch with back at the home office, back in my home country and/or in key spots elsewhere (such as the country I’d like to work in next)?”

Make a list of names, and decide how you’ll keep in contact, and how often. Tailor your approach to the preferences of others (e.g., some people prefer a quick email update, while others spend more time on social networking sites) as well as what will be doable (and not overwhelming) for you.

3. Grow your network

Give some thought to the kinds of people you would like to have in your network (regardless of location). How can you meet them from a distance? You could seek email introductions from mutual contacts or colleagues. You could follow international development professionals on Twitter, and interact with them there. If someone you’d like to meet writes a blog, by all means read it regularly, comment thoughtfully, and even offer to write a guest post.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of Skype

You may be wondering, “What good is an email introduction to a new contact if I can’t hop on the subway to meet them for an informational interview?” Well, just because you’re based in Jakarta doesn’t mean you can’t have coffees or informational interviews with people in DC (or Geneva or London or Manila). After all, the people who would be willing to have a coffee with you or give you an informational interview are probably just as willing to have a Skype call with you.

Don’t be shy about asking. Just be kind about time zones and schedule it during a reasonable time of day for them (even if that means that you are getting up early or staying up late to make it happen). And if you have the bandwidth for Skype video, it really is almost as good as being there in person.

5. Network locally

While it’s important to expand and nurture your network in other geographic locations, don’t neglect the people who are all around you. Some of the strongest personal and professional relationships among global development professionals are forged in the field. Get to know your colleagues and locally based professional contacts. Spend time with them outside of work, and find out how you can be helpful to them.

And push beyond the expat bubble to get to know the resident global development leaders — both existing and up-and-coming. You never know who will go on to become the minister of health or lead that NGO you’ve always wanted to work with.

6. Make the most of home leave

Home leave is a great time to reconnect with family and friends. It’s also a great opportunity to refresh your professional contacts and reach out to new people in your field.

If you have plans to travel to or near a place where your contacts — or prospective contacts — are, be sure to schedule time to see them. A side trip to a key city not on your family’s home leave itinerary may prove worthwhile, even for just one day. Seeing someone face-to-face, even if it’s just once a year or every couple years, can help maintain a relationship. Plus, your contacts may be more apt to make time in their always-busy schedules to see you when they know you are only in town for a short period of time.

7. Take advantage of work-related travel

If your work brings you to a new city or town for a few days or weeks, use that as an opportunity to build your network. Search through your Devex connections, LinkedIn contacts or Facebook friends by geography to find out (or remind yourself) who lives in that area. Consult your alumni network database to see if fellow grads live in the place you’ll be visiting. Reach out to contacts, existing and new, to arrange one-on-one lunches, coffees or dinners.

Or gather a whole group together for a meetup. If your contacts don’t already know each other, all the better — they’ll get to meet or catch up with you while expanding their own network at the same time.

8. Consider a self-financed networking fund

Maybe your organization doesn’t pay for you to take home leave, and you don’t have work-related travel that would give you the opportunity to connect with key people. Consider spending some of your own money to network, whether that means paying your own way to a conference or buying a plane ticket to see people face-to-face. Think of it as an investment in your career.

9. Keep asking, “How can I be helpful to the people in my network?”

Just because you are far away from your contacts does not mean you can’t help them. Think about how you can leverage your geographic location for the benefit of your network. You probably have access to information or insights from the field that your contacts back at headquarters or your home country lack. Share these. Be generous. Be proactive. This is what will make your network strong.

If you are based in the field, what have been some ways you’ve found effective in networking at a distance? If you’re based at HQ or your home country, what have you observed about the networking approaches of your colleagues in the field? Please share these in the comments section below.

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