8 Ways Women Can Use Their 'Relationship Capital' To Build Powerful Careers

Advice from a career coach and communications expert.

two women walking across a street, relating and talking OneInchPunch / shutterstock.com 

Julie's career was at a crossroads. Her career began as a bank teller, which seemed like a good opportunity after graduation.

She had been overlooked for a promotion — again. And she wasn't sure why. 

She felt stuck, and a bit burned out. Yet, Julie's career direction seemed to remain unwritten.

She enjoyed engaging with small business owners and entrepreneurs. She loved the idea of working to improve financial access to loans and grants for business creation.


But she was unsure she wanted to stay in the banking industry and aspired to have more social impact.

Beginning to turn this passion into a career transition appeared overwhelming and impossible.

At a loss, she reached out to people outside her professional circle for advice.

She discovered in her conversations that conscious, purpose-driven relationship-building, complemented with focused information and fact-finding, can transform your daily routine into a more joyful and fulfilling reality.

And that can clear the way for a more fulfilling, rewarding professional life.

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Relationship capital is your greatest career asset

Building professional relationships and expanding your network into an ecosystem may be the most underappreciated yet effective way for you to create a successful career path.

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, defines your network: "Your network is the people who want to help you, and you want to help them, and that's powerful … help the people in your network and let them help you." 

Look at every interaction as opening the possibilities to develop an expanding network for purpose.


In "They Will be Giants: 21st Century Entrepreneurs and the Purpose-Driven Business Ecosystem," Robert Kim Wilson distinguishes between a network and a purpose-driven business ecosystem. 

A network is the contacts you may have on your LinkedIn.

An ecosystem is those with whom you are actively engaged in opening opportunities and working with each other.

View your network through an entrepreneurial lens. Cultivate a mindset of value creation and discovery.

You can create value from an entrepreneurial mindset to innovate and initiate opportunities. You can then reimagine a future with the help of others who understand your values, aspirations, and ways of being and working.


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Don't waste the chance to engage

But first, you need to determine what you want and define your objectives. People need to know who you are and what you want before they can help you. 

I am amazed how people unintentionally waste the opportunity to engage with those who can most help them.

Imagine someone giving you a check for a substantial amount, and you put it in a drawer and never deposit it.

That happens when someone you know refers you to someone else who can help you. 

Once you have identified your aspirations and researched the fields and people you want to contact, you can approach referrals with clarity and focus. 


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Here 8 secrets to help you turn a referral into a networking opportunity

1. Take notes

Always take notes when you meet with someone trying to help and provide references.

2. Share your motivation, passion, and interest in what you seek

Enable the other person to suggest someone to contact to pursue your endeavors. Don't ask for a job! Clarify that you want to talk to people who can help you understand possibilities. 

3. Thank the person for the reference, and ask if they can use their name when you contact that individual

Also, ask about any personal interests or stories that could help you to understand the reference better.


4. Check out the references on LinkedIn to learn about them

Please note what you may have in common or a point of view the person has written about, so you can reference it in your outreach.

5. Reach out with a personal message

Refer to the person who recommended you and ask an intelligent question. Offer a compliment on something they've written or created. Let them know you admire what they've done and who they are.

6. Ask for the easiest and most convenient way to connect

Most busy people only have time to meet those they know for lunch or face-to-face. It would be best if you asked them the most convenient date, time, and way to connect. Zoom video conference or phone contact may be easier to say yes to than a face-to-face meeting in their office or a public location.

7. When you speak, listen, learn, and be prepared to ask many questions. 

Show that you have researched and are informed, curious, and insightful.


8. Follow up with a personalized note of appreciation (an email is fine).

Reference some of the person's topics or observations. You can also provide some information helpful to them based on your fact-finding. Take your chance to show gratitude and that you understand what that person said.

Be sure to copy the originator of the reference in your follow-up note. Show professional courtesy and enable the referrer and referred to speak about your qualifications and qualities with authority.

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Be the change agent you want others to be for you

The flip side of this relationship is for you to offer references, connections, and opportunities to others. Your research should help you be a source of information and support for others


Whenever I speak with colleagues, I reference a book, TedTalk, or an individual for them to follow up with based on their interests, not just mine.

When I invite a guest speaker to my class, I always request that the speaker responds to my student's requests to connect on LinkedIn. I have made it a point with some of my colleagues that if I find a promising student who has excelled in my course, I will send them on to them for informational interviews.

Be aware that choosing people with the characteristics you seek is as important in building your network and ecosystem as the information and references they can provide.

The fastest way to transform and improve yourself is to meet and associate with people with the characteristics you aspire to.  


If you want wisdom, find wise ones. If you want to be more engaging:

  • Find good storytellers.
  • If you want to be more generous and giving, find those already helpful and giving.
  • Create your professional circle of like-minded people who seek to relate meaningfully with others. 

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Finding your own path to effective networking

Julie followed the advice. She decided that she wanted to investigate the finance field and see if she could fit in with a nonprofit agency or a foundation dedicated to improving access to capital for entrepreneurs and small business owners.


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Here are four example resources for networking research

1. Compensation and Benefits Report 

Check out this annual survey of salaries and benefits by job title and size of the agency in the nonprofit sector. Get a handle on the payment you may currently qualify for or what you aspire to become. 

2. Guidestar

Its comprehensive database profiles nonprofit agencies by financial health, size of revenues, program service, service impact, board of director composition, and other attributes.

3. Foundation Directory

This is the motherlode of information to see where the money flows and who is receiving it. 


4. Journal of Philanthropy 

A well-respected source for trends and the latest techniques in nonprofit management, fund development, and impact measurements, this is a go-to publication to become educated about the macro trends in the nonprofit sector and where new opportunities may be found.

So, Julie has access to free research sources with good, current information for her career search and is prepared to make a sound decision.

However, learning about the categories and salaries for employment, the best agencies, the grant recipients, and macro trends in the nonprofit category does not answer more basic, important questions: 

  • Why do I want to work in the nonprofit sector?
  • What are my objectives?
  • Are there other paths to fulfill more purposeful work than just the nonprofit sector?
  • If so, how do I find out?

In Julie's case, this is her search for a better future. With focus, research, and grit to persevere, Julie navigated her career by being aware of what she might want, getting informed, and reaching out to others who could help her on her way.


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Jeff Saperstein is an ICF-certified career coach and memoirist who works with business professionals who feel stuck and want a career transition.