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Monday, May 4, 2015

Are you managing your most valuable professional asset? You should be.

In my 20 year career, I've worked at 6 different companies ranging from multi-nationals to a tiny 2-person outfit run out of an apartment. I've worked in numerous cities on three contents, meeting innumerable other professionals in just about every professional context imaginable. I now realize that if there is one thing I wish I would have done differently throughout my career, it would have been to better manage my professional network.

That last phrase is probably worth dissecting. Firstly, I'm referring to my direct professional network, those with whom I've interacted enough that we would recognize each other's name . Some of these people were coworkers at all levels of the organizational hierarchy, others were customers and still others partners or consultants. When I say manage, I'm referring to the idea of treating that asset with the care and respect it deserves. Don't get me wrong: I have made efforts to network and keep in touch with folks, but if I'm honest with myself, I haven't  made an investment in managing this asset commensurate with its worth. Something that has become crystal clear to me in the last few years is that my professional network is probably the single most valuable professional asset I have. I'm writing this post primarily for people who are beginning their professional journey -- although I think these ideas apply to anyone. You're going to meet tons of people over your career -- managing these relationship can make a difference in your career that is difficult to overstate.

The first time the importance of my professional network dawned on me, someone I really respected left the first company that hired me. I mentioned how disappointed I was to an older co-worker and he said "Look at the bright side: You now have a good contact at Company X." (Whatever it was.) We were in a very competitive industry and job market so he went on to explain that, the way he looked at it, his network's "reach" was growing almost daily!

The problem with neglecting your network is that you can't recreate or easily invigorate it in short order when you need it most, typically when you desperately need expert advice on something or, even worse, need to find employment. On that note, staying in contact with folks just so they can help you out when you need it doesn't sit well with some and clearly shouldn't. You goal in maintaining your network should be to create a potentially mutually beneficial relationship. Indeed, one of the best ways to keep your network healthy is to be willing to help others.

So how do you go about actively managing your network? I would assume there a many approaches, but I'll share a simple practice that has worked for me. It starts by making sure you store people's contact information in a consistent system of record that doesn't change often. A lot of our contact information ends up in our-email client in the form of contact records. Make sure you take this information with you when you change employers! Regularly backing it up by exporting it is a good idea.

Once you have a system of record, you should keep notes on your contacts -- it's amazing what you'll forget after just a few weeks. It's also amazing how well people respond to your remembering a detail about them, whether it's about their job situation or their personal life.

The next step is to schedule "ticklers", reminders to contact folks every once in a while so you don't lose touch. I do this with private appointments in my Outlook calendar. If I work for a period of time with someone I really like or respect, I'll create an appointment for several months in the future to remind me to send a quick e-mail or make a quick call. Sometimes I'll just say "hey", asking them how they are and what they're up to. Other times I'll include a link to something online that is relevant to them or our work together. Either way, this simple gesture is often enough to sustain familiarity for years.

How often you contact folks is a matter of judgment. I would say that if you've been in the work world for more than 5 years, you could easily ping one or two people in your network every week or two. I can assure you that a few years down the road you'll be glad you did.

In closing, your professional network may be the most valuable professional asset you have -- manage it carefully. The brutal truth is that you either manage it or lose it.

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