Building Your Network in a Rural Area - or - How to avoid shooting yourself in the foot

This guest post is from Chelsea Pennick, who is a young professional working in Montana and is the blogger behind New Voices in Conservation. I have always been impressed with how Chelsea builds her virtual and in-person networks and asked her to share some of her tips. From Chelsea:

Working for a foundation with national giving programs, I have the privilege of seeing what is happening in rural communities across America.  Working for a national foundation has helped me to grasp the common threads among the grassroots organizations in my field-their context, operating environment and unique challenges.  We have the additional privilege, in my opinion, of being one of a few foundations located in a small city in a very rural state.   Building my network here in Montana has been important, both professionally and personally.  Following are reflections on my experiences:

Rule 1: Don't Burn Your Bridges

So maybe this rule is universal.  But no where more so than in a rural area.  That intern that you supervised last semester and were glad to be rid of?  Just wait, they could be on the hiring committee for your next job.  The co-worker that you struggle with every time you have to work with them?  Don't tell them off in your 'I'm leaving this joint" elation--they could be friends with your new boss.  The degrees of separation are few to none.  Be ready to walk the fine line of being friends with your co-workers and bosses.  And if you're not friends, work on creating positive working relationships at least.

Rule 2: Relationships are Everything

Again, its nothing you haven't heard. But in a rural community, the next job you get is likely not even going to be in the paper--its going to come through your personal or professional network (which are the same thing-see Rule 1).   I'm not talking about your Linkedin Network (though I have one), I'm talking about your grocery-store-shopping, coffee- & beer-drinking, dentist and hair stylist, and maybe your mom-on-Facebook network.

Rule 3: Be Patient-Be Flexible

That ideal job you're after?  Sit down, get comfortable.  It could be awhile.  For that reason, it would do you good to be flexible.  Your career trajectory is not likely to mirror anything you see on TV or in the Movies.  Make the most of the job you have because you may be there for awhile--and rather than wasting all that good time, make the most of it. Look for every opportunity to learn a new skill, offer to help the folks in other departments, get on a board.  Better yet, work on getting on the board of the organization you want to work for.

If you are determined to move on from your current job-likely you will have to think a bit more broadly about what you are hoping to gain and the skills you want to develop.  This may mean working for a for-profit to gain sales skills that could be put to work as a development director or associate.

Rule 4: Learn to face your foes head-on

If you're the type to run away when conflicts arise, then rural living may not be for you.  Leaving your job when the heat rises is often not an option.  Instead, the lack of alternatives challenges you to face the situation head-on and try to figure out how to work through it.  I'm not saying this is the best practice every time, but when you get the initial urge to bolt, you might realize that the job you have is the only one in your field.  Now's the time to bone up on your conflict resolution and difficult conversation skills--they are good to have in your toolbox anywhere you live.

What lessons have you learned building your network?

Chelsea Pennick is Program Associate at the National Forest Foundation where she manages grantmaking programs and learning opportunities to build the capacity of organizations working to find collaborative solutions to natural resource issues.  She writes about her experiences living in a rural area and building her career in the community conservation movement on her blog at New Voices in Conservation.