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5 unconventional ways to grow your professional network

Try stepping outside your usual roster of groups and events to grow your professional circle even wider.

Tired of collecting business cards at cocktail mixers and lunch-and-learns? It might be time to mix up your networking routine with some fresh new tactics.

Try stepping outside your usual roster of groups and events to grow your professional circle even wider. In fact, you might form deep friendships, which can easily turn into valuable business contacts, with these five unconventional approaches to networking:

1. Start a Meetup group
Why? You'll get much more mileage out of running a group centered on an industry topic than simply attending a networking event. As the organizer, you'll be the face of the group, and the role helps you establish yourself as an expert. Plus, lining up speakers and finding new members gives you a great excuse to reach out to people you want to meet anyway.

How? The Meetup site makes it easy to start a group. Pick a topic that's new or emerging in your industry and spread the word among your peers. In some cases, your employer might let you host the group at your company's offices. Kick things off with a compelling topic for discussion or a local speaker. Ask the first attendees for input about what they'd like to learn.

2. Break a sweat
Why? Physical activity requires discipline and teamwork, and side-by-side effort naturally builds bonds between people. You can grow your contacts list by joining a soccer league, long-distance running club or yoga class. As a bonus, it's great multitasking: You sneak in a workout and build relationships at the same time.

How? Choose the activity that's most appealing to you. Sharing a common interest makes it easier to start friendships — not to mention the occasional post-game happy hour. Focus on being friends first. But don't be surprised if your new marathon-training partner eventually calls you about a project or other career opportunity down the line.

3. Join that work committee
Why? You're busy enough with your job. So volunteering to help plan the company party or mentor the latest crop of interns probably doesn't rate high on your wish list. But it does give you a chance to build relationships with a wider range of people across your organization and position yourself as a team player and leader, both key things that can help you be more effective at the office and even earn a promotion.

How? Reach out to HR or current committee members to offer your time. Once you've joined, treat the tasks you take on as seriously as your other work duties. And when you're in the group, focus on getting to know your fellow go-getters.

4. Make time for volunteering
Many people who self-identify as leaders make a point of being involved in the community through charitable organizations, so it's a good avenue for connecting with other motivated professionals. There's also nothing like rallying around a good cause to forge strong bonds. Plus, some employers look favorably on resumes that list significant community engagement.

How? Choose an organization or cause that you're passionate about. You might start out as a rank-and-file volunteer or offer to put your professional skills to work. Many small nonprofits need help with social media, IT, event planning or bookkeeping. The next networking level-up is to join committees and boards. These opportunities sometimes require an invitation, but you will build your visibility by building your relationships in the trenches.

5. Network in another industry
Why? If your standard industry events feel stale, you might simply need to jump over to a related field. Social media community managers, for instance, might widen their skills and network by checking out a group for Web designers. An established IT professional might keep up with the latest tech ideas by attending a startup conference.

How? Home in on one related industry then do a little Google sleuthing to uncover promising groups and events. Sign-up for those email lists and watch for events that catch your eye and work with your schedule. You'll likely come away with a new perspective on work, a wider knowledge base and new contacts.

Networking can happen anywhere, but these proactive tactics can energize the whole process. So keep your eyes open for unexpected places to make new and lasting connections. You might just discover that both your personal and professional lives become more fulfilled.

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