Organize Your Network and then Maintain It
Your business connections are worthless if you have no way of finding the right connection at the right time. If you hit it off with a hiring manager at a conference, only to be unable to find their contact info when you are looking for a new job, then that connection is useless. So get organized: Use your phone, get a Rolodex, have a legal pad of names and numbers – do whatever you need to do in order to keep those connections organized and easily searchable.
You need to have a map of your network in order to visualize it and use it as efficiently as possible.
Next, remember that value begets more value. As you keep in touch with the people in your network – and you should keep in touch as often as possible – you need to be giving them a reason to keep coming back to you. Link them to an article that you read that you think they might find useful. Offer a helpful tip that you just came across. Let them know that you have been thinking of them and that you want to help them succeed. If you are in their corner, then they will be in yours.
Successful networking is not simply about getting a name and a business card; it is about earning someone’s trust. Those who are uncomfortable with networking may need a mindset change. I consider myself an extrovert, but networking can still make me feel uncomfortable.
Your network needs to be maintained, but do not waste time fostering connections that do not provide you with some kind of value.
Networking doesn’t have to be an onerous, time-intensive process. Let’s discuss some ways you can do it efficiently and effectively. One of the best ways to save time in networking, and add value in the process, is to connect multiple people with one another. When I visited San Francisco a few years back, I had limited time, and I wanted to see my colleagues John and Susan. They weren’t acquainted, but I thought they might enjoy each other, so I invited them both to dinner. It was a time-saver for me, because it allowed me to connect with both of them in one evening. But it also forged a new connection. They’ve subsequently gone to numerous networking events together, and John has referred Susan to many podcasts for interview opportunities.
If you’re feeling pressed for time when it comes to networking, think creatively, and maybe you can connect people who’d appreciate it. The default in business culture is to just invite someone to coffee, but you might not have time for that. Instead, if you want to meet up with someone, invite them to join you at an event you’re already planning to attend. Maybe it’s a networking event, or a fun activity like a fund-raiser for a charity you support. They’ll appreciate the unique experience and the chance to spend time with you, and you’ll get to know them deeper and perhaps benefit from their connections as well, since you can introduce each other to new people at the event. This is a fast, easy, and symbiotic way to network.
If the idea of networking seems stressful to you, think of it this way: To start out, you can limit yourself to just one networking meeting per week. In my ebook Stand Out Networking, I profile Michael Cats, a consultant who stays in touch with colleagues in various ways, such as through emails and letters, but reserves one slot per week for an in-person meeting with a new acquaintance or someone he wants to deepen a connection with. Almost anyone can spare an hour a week for networking, so if you commit to it, you can do it. We’re all busy, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to avoid networking. By connecting multiple colleagues, inviting people to events you’re already attending, and focusing on doing just one meeting per week, you can begin to get momentum.
Later, think back to your initial meeting or meetings with your new contact, and try to write down key details you remember: the town they live in, their favorite sports team or hobbies. This can be useful because it provides you with opportunities and good excuses to get in touch. If their team wins the Super Bowl, for instance, you can shoot them a quick note. If their town gets flooded, you can email them to see if they’re okay. If their company wins a large contract that gets reported in the newspaper, you can congratulate them. These are all very natural ways to be in touch that don’t seem strange or out of place.
For each key contact, think about how often you should be in touch. You probably don’t want to pester a potential client every week if they have told you they won’t be making a decision for another six months. But you certainly don’t want to let too much time go by, or you risk being forgotten. Perhaps a monthly check-in call or email would be optimal. For each key contact, write down how frequently you want to be in touch with them. Some CRMS, or customer relationship management software systems, can track this for you, but you can also choose to do it manually and keep track in a spreadsheet if you prefer. You don’t always have to follow up in the same way. It’s actually more effective if you use different strategies so you can test which ones get the best response. My preference is for people to email me, but you can stay in touch with colleagues in a huge variety of ways. If someone’s a dedicated social media user, perhaps you can tweet him periodically. Another colleague might be old school and prefer actual telephone calls. For someone you’d really like to prioritize, perhaps you can invite them out for a meal regularly. And just about everyone these days appreciates handwritten cards, which have become quite rare.
The method of follow-up you use matters far less than the fact that you do it. Most people take a wham-bam approach to networking, constantly seeking new people to meet but never properly following up with the people they’ve met in the past. Doing so will set you apart and make a powerful impression.
It should be clear that networking has benefits that go far beyond your career pursuits. Networking, when pursued with the right attitude and motives, will make you a better, more selfless person – as interested in the advantages that accrue to the contacts in your network as in the more obvious pluses for yourself. And rest assured, there will be pluses as your contacts see the value that you are adding to their connection with you and respond in kind.