Each week, TopResume's career advice expert, Amanda Augustine, answers user questions like the one below from Quora and the Ask Amanda form. A certified professional career coach (CPCC) and resume writer (CPRW), Amanda has been helping professionals improve their careers for over 10 years. Have a question for Amanda? Submit it here.

Q: What is the best way to grow my professional network?

What are some different ways I can expand my professional network? — Sarah W.

Great question, Sarah — and kudos for recognizing the importance of building a strong professional network!

Whether you love it or loathe it, there's no denying it: Networking is an essential component of a successful career — especially if you're looking for a new job. In fact, studies find that you are 10 times more likely to land a job when your application is accompanied by a referral. But if you want these coveted employee referrals, you must be willing to invest in your professional network. Below are some ways you can grow your business network of contacts in some formal — and not-so-formal — environments.

Join an industry-specific or professional association

There's no better way to expand your professional network than by getting involved with a business organization or industry-specific association. Find the local brand to an association that aligns with your desired career, attend their regular meetings, and make an effort to introduce yourself to those you meet.

If you're unsure where to start, look at the LinkedIn profiles of your superiors to see what groups they're affiliated with. If you have a mentor at work, ask for recommendations. In addition, take a look at the Directory of Associations, which contains a directory of all local, state, national, and international professional associations.

Once you've found a few business organizations to test out, prioritize the events that target speakers and attendees who align with your goals. This may seem obvious but networking, when done well, can certainly be time-consuming. That's why it's important to evaluate each networking opportunity before you RSVP and only dedicate your time to the events and activities you believe have the potential to yield the best business networking connections. If you're interested in large-scale conferences and tradeshows, take a look at 10times, the world's largest business event platform.

Give back to move your professional network ahead

Whether you're attending a charity event or volunteering your time, charitable work is a great way to meet new people and expand your professional network. Find a non-profit organization whose cause you truly believe in and you'll be sure to bond with a few of your fellow volunteers. Better yet, look for skill-based volunteer (SBV) opportunities where you can leverage your professional skills for a worthy cause.

Take a look at VolunteerMatch, Idealist, Catchafire, and Points of Light's HandsOn Network to find the right volunteer opportunity for you.

Leverage your alumni networks

A survey by alumni networking platform Alumnifire found that 90 percent of hiring managers would prefer to hire a fellow alumnus if given the option. Reach out to your alma mater's alumni relations office and check out their site to find your local alumni chapter. Then, get involved. Attend an event with the purpose of speaking to people you don't already know well — remember, the purpose of these networking events is to expand your professional network — not chat up your old roommates. If you played an active role on campus during your time at college (i.e. student government, Greek life, campus ministry, sports clubs, etc.), find out if any of those groups have alumni chapters.

If the idea of attending a structured networking event makes you queasy, trying swinging by the local bar that broadcasts your college team's sporting events and making some new friends. Click on the following link for tips on how to make the most of your next alumni networking event.

Practice your elevator pitch while you play

Between juggling your responsibilities in the office and at home, and trying to fit in a little “me” time, you may feel as though there isn't any room left to dedicate to building your professional network. However, nothing could be farther from the truth!

There's no better way to form a meaningful connection with someone than over a shared interest. When you're not working, what do you like to do? Are you a CrossFit enthusiast, an avid knitter, or a foodie with a penchant for small-batch craft beer? Whatever you're into, chances are there's a group of people outside your current network who enjoy it as well. Use your hobbies outside the workplace as a way to casually approach networking and meet new people. This is a great alternative to a more structured professional networking event. Explore Meetup, an organization that brings people together to do more of what they want to do in life, to find a group or event that speaks to your interests.

Make professional networking a family affair

Whether you're coaching your kid's baseball team or organizing a bake sale for your church, family activities can turn into networking goldmines. Use these opportunities to get to get to know your family's friends and colleagues. You'd be amazed at who you could meet at your spouse's work reception or your niece's dance recital.

Search for networking opportunities at work

Who says you can't expand your professional network during office hours? Unless you work for a very small company, chances are you aren't well-acquainted with every single person on the payroll. Consider grabbing lunch with a colleague in a different department to learn more about a different area of the business. Find out if your organization has a social committee, running team, or a group involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities, and see how you can get involved. Or better yet, take the initiative and form one of these groups at your company to meet new people — and gain some visibility with the management teams. Click on the following link for more ways to network with your current colleagues.

Look for chances to pay it forward

Many people assume that professional networking — especially when you're looking for a new job — involves begging for favors. However, you should never approach networking with this mindset. Instead, set out with the intention of giving value to get some in return. When you're meeting new people, ask questions to get to know them — what interests them, what they care about, etc. — and really listen to their answers. The more you learn about your new contacts in your professional network, the easier it will be to offer assistance (and receive it in return!). Look for ways to provide value to the person with whom you're speaking before you start asking for favors. This could be anything from a hotel recommendation to an introduction to someone in your existing network.

How to expand your professional network

There's not one “right” way to network, so try a few of the recommendations above until you find the method that works best for your personal style. Also, don't discount those you meet through your social activities. While your new connections may not be directly connected to your desired industry, who's to say they don't have friends or family members who are?

Make sure your resume is ready to be shared with your professional network. Request a free resume review today.

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