What does a guy in a red suit with a long white beard have to do with networking? In a word … everything! No, really. Santa is the original networker. I am sure some of you are thinking I may have hit the eggnog a little too hard at the office Christmas party, but rest assured I will prove that ol’ Saint Nick is actually the patron saint of networkers.
For 364 days a year Santa is busy in his workshop like many of us. When you’re working it is easy to get tunnel vision and focus purely on the task at hand. And after eleven hours in a workshop not many of us have the energy to even think about networking. However, the big guy knows that he needs to dedicate part of this time to thinking about the big picture.
So what does Santa do when he thinks about the big picture? Why he is making a list of course! I don’t know about you, but to me that means keeping track of the people you know. Sure you can go old school like Santa and bust out a pad of paper or you can use a tool like LinkedIn to keep track of your business connections.
Whatever it is, it needs to be a tool you will use consistently. And consistency is one of the keys to become a successful networker.
Put together a schedule that works for you. I divide up my networking activity based on my jobs. As a contract recruiter, that list can get unwieldy, so I try to keep my networking focused on my last three positions. Do I have folks I keep in touch outside of those parameters? Of course, I do. But for those folks, it is on a case by cases basis. You need to determine the size of your list.
Much like you need a tool to keep track of your network, you also need a systematic way to approach it.
The people I worked with at my last job, I keep in touch with by phone and email. And I am reaching out every couple of weeks or so. The people at my second to last job, I mostly keep in touch by email and do so perhaps once or twice a quarter. And the third job, I use LinkedIn mostly to reach out to them. Many of the connections I make are purely professional, so as such I don’t receive a personal email address. Using a tool like LinkedIn means I don’t need to worry about keeping track of corporate email addresses. For people in this group I will contact them two to three times a year.
And like Santa Claus, I do try to contact my entire network at some point during the holidays. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you try and do too much, the task becomes unmanageable and decreases the odds that you actually do it. So start small, but do start.
Okay so from Saint Nick we’ve learned so far that you need to have a tool that keeps track of who you know (make a list,) and that you need to do it consistently (check it twice). You also need to have a systematic way to balance your current obligations with the relationships you want to maintain.
I am not going to pull the wool over your eyes. It’s a lot of work. But let’s face it; work is the four letter word in the middle of networking. So like Santa, pick your spots. Remember he delivers toys to all the good girls and boys. If you determine the person is naughty and someone you don’t want to keep in touch with, then don’t.
Alright so now you’re ready to network. You reach out to your old co-worker Liz by email. You haven’t seen her in a while. In fact the last time you spoke with her in person was at her going away party two years ago. You typed in her email address, a clever subject line, and you now have a blank page and blinking cursor in front of you. It seems your train of thought has completely derailed.
Instead of worrying about what to write, think about what you would say if you ran into her at the grocery store. How would that conversation go? It would probably start a little something like this: “Oh my gosh Liz! How long has it been? How are you? What’s new?”
Guess what? Your email should be no different (well you could take out the “gosh”). But the point is that an email or even a phone call should be an invitation to a conversation. Get them to respond. Get them to talk about themselves.
Think back to when you were little and sat on Santa’s lap. Who started the conversation? Why Santa of course. Now starting off a networking conversation by asking them what they want for Christmas would be a little odd, but you get my point. You need to be the one to start the conversation.
What happens if you get their voice mail or you send an email that gets no response? That’s okay. Remember networking is an invitation to talk not a royal decree. The point here is you will have made an impression. In some ways it is like advertising. If you do it consistently enough, at some point, you will get a response. This is where networking requires patience.
I realize that it can be easy to lose patience especially if you have reached out several times and not received a response. You have to make a decision on whether you keep them on the good list or move them to the naughty list, but I would encourage you to think carefully before you give someone a lump of coal.
Networking is one of those things that we all know we should do. And all of us have the best intentions towards it. Think back to when you’ve left a place, and the people you were close to, what did everyone say? Let’s keep in touch.
Somehow thoughts never translated to action. The reality is out of sight, out of mind. But as employees today, we need to realize it is no longer the companies that you work for that defines your career, it is the relationships you make at those companies.
Now this feeds in to the oldest networking chestnut of them all: it’s not what you know, but who you know. However I have come to view that as one-sided. It implies that you network purely to benefit yourself. And while it’s true that effective networking can be a useful way to manage and advance your career, it should not be your sole focus.
This is where Santa Claus, the master networker, has one last lesson to teach us.
Networking, like the spirit of the holiday season, is where it is better to give than receive.
So as you enter in to the New Year, ask yourself, who can you help? And if you can make this a lifestyle choice, we will ALL be better off for it.