Relationships have always been important to me. My natural inclination is to maintain them. It follows that I am still in touch with people from grade school on, professors I had in college and law school, employers, co-workers and friends I have met along the way. I didn’t think of them as my “network” when we were in the school yard or having beers after taking the bar examination. But who can better attest to your character, competence and capabilities than the people who have known you, taught you, worked beside you and employed you?
A few years ago, I hired a young personal trainer who worked at the local YMCA where I am a member. She was an ambitious, gung-ho fitness enthusiast. When she left our branch to take a better job in the organization, I gave her my card and encouraged her to collect contact information from everyone she trained and worked with, and stay in touch. It seemed that she didn’t see the point. From what I understand, she has not maintained any connections she made at the gym. Down the road in a career, you begin to see the point and may regret earlier missed opportunities. The job of maintaining contact information has never been easier than now, with electronic methods such as vCards, Outlook and LinkedIn.
It is never too early to start building your network, whether you are still in school or in the early years of a career. Yet, many overlook this essential cornerstone of a career because they are singularly focused on doing the work. Developing a network does not have to take significant time in the beginning. It only requires an awareness that the person you’re having a beer with today could be the beer distributor you are representing in 10 years. So, if you have a natural connection to that person and share a history, why not make the effort to stay in touch?
Relationships are like money in this way: The earlier you start investing, the more appreciation you will get, and they grow exponentially.
In “The Evolution of Social and Economic Network,” Matthew O. Jackson and Alison Watts write that “network structure is important in determining the outcome of many important social and economic relationships. For example, networks play a fundamental role in determining how information is exchanged. Such information may be as simple as an invitation to a party, or as consequential as information about job opportunities.”
As a result, the larger and more active your network is, the more likely it is that you will be the person who gets the call. No matter how large or small your current network is, you can start to develop new connections and future prospects. The goal of networking is to interact with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further your career. What is it about this interaction with other people that is so repugnant or scary to many professionals? In “Marketing Your Services,” Anthony O. Putnam puts his finger on the distaste many have for networking, as it conjures up images of “earnest young professionals, dressed for success, systematically passing out business cards” at networking mixers, or friends and colleagues putting the squeeze on you at sporting and social events. Networking can be “a natural and effective marketing tactic when used properly. The purpose is to give and get information.” The giving part is all-important. If you focus on the value you can offer others, rather than what you can get out of it, any distaste evaporates.
Here are some strategies to get started:
- Make a list of everyone you know—friends, family members, classmates, former employers and co-workers—and find a method of keeping track of where they are. Make it part of your week to reconnect and stay in touch. Find ways that are meaningful and not just self-promotional. I keep in touch with former clients and connections by sending links to articles I believe they will be interested in, greetings on their birthdays, holiday cards and random emails to let them know I’ve been thinking about them. Always be genuine, and never contact someone you have been out of touch with and pretend that you were thinking about them when what you need is a favor. There are graceful ways to connect for a purpose, and faking it is not one of them. Remember, you are building a brand and accumulating interest.
- Join a professional group and be active in it. When I was a new coach, I joined the local chapter of the International Coach Federation. I went to the first meeting and it seemed like there were well-established cliques, and I observed people greeting each other warmly and immediately engaging in quiet conversation. I didn’t meet a lot of people the first time, but made one wonderful connection. It was her first meeting, too, and we have stayed in touch ever since.
- Later on, I took an opportunity to join a conversation between two coaches and it turned out that they were trying to solve a logistical problem of getting the organization’s promotional materials from one site to another. I volunteered to do it. That led to an invitation to get more involved and I decided to join the board of directors as the secretary.
- Why secretary? I would learn the inner workings of the chapter, find out what was happening at the global level, and be forced to listen and take notes. Pretty soon, I was one of the people showing up for monthly membership meetings and finding a room full of friends who help each other. When I was coming up with a name for my business, I sent a few options to the group, who had become my brain trust. They all responded, and one wrote that she was also in the branding stage and would reach out to me when she whittled down the final list. Although I ultimately benefited greatly from my participation, my reason for getting involved was just to meet fellow coaches.
Join a group that is not related to your profession. It could be political, religious or charitable, focused on sports, the arts or personal development. Part of life is having fun and being fulfilled, and every person you meet becomes part of your network, increasing the chance of that party invitation or learning about a business opportunity.
Networking is about relationships. When you think about it that way, it is much easier to get in the game. Create some goals and start now.
Reprinted with permission from the March 19, 2015 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.almreprints.com.