For many people, a membership in a professional organization begins and ends with paying dues to keep their name on a membership roster. Yet they may be missing out on important connections and knowledge that can be gained by attending events and getting truly involved in a professional group.
Whether you are building a business or a career, professional organizations offer opportunities that can accelerate your success, such as networking events for making new connections, conferences or lectures for broadening your knowledge, and career resources - including job listings and resume reviews.
But if you aren't actively and effectively engaging in that organization, those opportunities can pass you by. Follow these guidelines to help ensure you're using your professional organization membership in a way that will set you up for success.
Research plays a role in every aspect of your career, including making a strategic choice about where to get involved by analyzing where you need to grow your network, said Dorie Clark, a marketing consultant, adjunct professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the author of "Entrepreneurial You," "Reinventing You" and "Stand Out."
“For example, if you're an entrepreneur you may know tons of other entrepreneurs, but you may not know people in your specific industry," said Clark.
The goal of joining groups is to broaden your network.
“If you're a business manager, you may have great 'bonding capital' which means you have strong relationships with people who are like you or work in your company," said Clark. “That's great, but if you lose your job or want to change careers, you're better off with 'bridging capital,' which means you have relationships with people outside your office or industry."
Building a network that is “robust, wide and deep" will make you stand out in your field, said Judy Robinett, an entrepreneur and author of "How to Be a Power Connector."
“Look at organizations that you wouldn't normally think about," she said. “If you're an accountant and go to an accounting conference you'll see the same people and hear about the same opportunities. People need to get out of their comfort zones."
College alumni groups are natural fits because you can be connected to people in several fields, said Clark, but they work best if they're active or if you went to an impressive school.
Robinett also suggests volunteering for philanthropic organizations (a good place to meet the well-heeled set) and searching on LinkedIn for a wide variety of groups that could be valuable to join.
Once you've found a group to join, Clark recommends attending multiple events in quick succession.
“You'll be more memorable if you go five times in six months instead of five times in a year," said Clark.
While it may be tempting to arrive with a fistful of business cards and “work the room," both Clark and Robinett recommend approaching meetings as a chance to build relationships.
“Quality is much more important than quantity when it comes to networking," said Clark. “A worthwhile goal for an evening might be to have three good conversations. It's better to get to know people more deeply. Even if they may not be a good professional connection, it's good to find out that you have something in common with someone."
Ask people about their hobbies or families to get to know them and to discover commonalities that connect you beyond your profession, said Clark.
If you're shy, Robinett suggests finding a “wingman"— a friend or colleague who can accompany you at events, making you more comfortable when approaching people you don't know. She also recommends simply practicing smiling and saying hello to strangers, which might help to ease any discomfort.
"I recommend that people start with what I call the 'three golden questions'," said Robinett. Her first "golden question" is "How can I help you?" “Everyone needs help. If you can add value and be generous, you'll be memorable, " she said. After you've offered help, you can follow up with the other two "golden questions": What other ideas do you have for me? Who else do you know that I should talk to?
Almost as important as the initial conversation at a networking event is the follow-up, said Robinett.
“Email something of value right away after meeting someone, such as a book recommendation, an article or an email introduction to someone," said Robinett.
Follow-through can establish a relationship that can continue at subsequent events or separately from the organization.
Entrepreneurs and senior managers have different needs to meet through professional organizations, but individuals in both groups should establish their goals before increasing their participation, said Robinett.
“You need to decide who you want to meet - whether that's people in a particular field or position or a specific person - and then figure out how to get into the right room to meet them," said Robinett.
To benefit from those connections, you'll need to get involved and build relationships.
“Many people don't realize the exponential benefit of taking a leadership role in an organization compared to just attending a meeting once or twice a year," said Clark.
“The more deeply involved you are in an organization, the greater the likelihood that you'll build meaningful relationships with other members."
A side benefit, said Clark, is the boost in your status that can come from being in a leadership position.
“It looks like you have been chosen by your peers to lead them even if you just volunteered for something," said Clark. “You also become the go-to person in your field if you have prominence in a related professional organization."
While you're not likely to jump from new member to president in a short time, Clark said there are multiple ways to get involved with groups that can boost your career.
“There are two hidden positions of power that give a disproportionate bang for your buck," said Clark. “If you volunteer to be membership chair, you have an excuse to reach out to any member you want to meet. If you volunteer as program chair, you can invite anyone you want to build a relationship with to be your next speaker."
For many members of professional organizations, an annual conference or convention can be the pinnacle of networking opportunities. Strategic planning can improve your success at these larger gatherings.
“Many conferences publish a list of attendees and speakers in advance," said Clark. “Review those lists and decide ahead of time who you want to meet or spend time with. You can look at the schedule for coffee breaks and email the individuals you'd like to meet to set up time with them. By telling someone you've been following their work or you have something in common, you have a much better chance of success than just hoping you'll run into the right people."
Clark has another suggestion for conferences: Volunteer. Signing attendees in at the registration desk means you have a good chance of meeting every attendee, while volunteering to help the organizers, introduce a speaker or be on a panel gives you visibility within the organization.
“Volunteering can deepen your relationships and help you learn new skills," said Robinett. “You can also ask the organizers who you should be sure to meet."
Your goal for a conference, suggests Robinett, should be the same as at a networking event: to develop three quality relationships.
“Follow up with these people by sending an email thanking them for meeting you, hook up with them in LinkedIn and send them some helpful resource material," said Robinett.
Active participation in a professional organization takes time, but that time can be valuable when it leads to deeper connections with others and helps you progress your business goals.
This article is for general information and education only. It is provided as a courtesy to the clients and friends of City National Bank (City National). City National does not warrant that it is accurate or complete. Opinions expressed and estimates or projections given are those of the authors or persons quoted as of the date of the article with no obligation to update or notify of inaccuracy or change. This article may not be reproduced, distributed or further published by any person without the written consent of City National. Please cite source when quoting.