When is the last time you reached out to a former co-worker, just to say hello and ask about their dog Fluffy? Or, in the past 2 months, have you touched bases with that interesting woman you met at the Kiwanis meeting who has similar interests as you?
If you haven’t done either of these things (even if you don’t really know Fluffy and haven’t ever been to a Kiwanis meeting), then you are not doing enough to protect your personal brand.
What do I mean by personal brand? There is a lot of information on the Internet that can explain what a personal brand is much better than I can – go on, just Google the phrase “personal brand” and you’ll see what I mean. But in short, your personal brand is how you are perceived by people who might want to hire you, or buy your company’s goods and services. How do people find out information about you? Well, they Google you, for one. They also “ask around” – they talk to your mutual acquaintances, your competition, and your co-workers. Controlling the information that people have access to about you is the most important part of protecting your personal brand – and is completely within your control.
Anyway, back to networking. If you are one of the fortunate people that still has a secure job in this awful economy of ours, then good for you – I am happy for you – but you still need to be actively networking. The time to strengthen your personal network is NOT when you need them for something. You can think of your relationships with your personal network as “peace time” relationships, and “war time” relationships. During “peace time”, things are going well for you – you’ve got a job, or business is booming, if you’re an entrepreneur. This is the right time to spend some percentage of every week being in touch with your personal network. The number one rule of successful networking is to NOT wait until “war time” – i.e., you’ve lost your job, or business is terrible – before spending time networking. Establishing your network can take several months to get off the ground, and maintaining the network properly takes time as well – if you wait until “war time” when you REALLY need folks in your network to pull through for you, you are already several months behind.
OK – hopefully the importance of networking during “peace time” is firmly established in your brain. So – what types of activities should you be doing on a routine basis to maintain your relationships? Having lunch together, sending an e-mail, sending an e-card, forwarding online articles and websites of interest are a couple of the ways you are probably the most familiar with. Here are some additional “must do” items in my book, and all 5 should be done consistently at the same time:
1. You should be in touch with every person on your personal contact list a minimum of 2 times a year. If you are not in touch 2 times a year, then they are not really in your network. There are many different ways to be “in touch” – simple reach-out’s like a quick e-mail, to more elaborate touches like having lunch together.
2. If you do not already have a LinkedIn account, get one now. If you do have a LinkedIn account, make sure that you have spent time filling out all of the personal information they ask for, including the different companies you’ve worked for. This is the best way for former vendors or co-workers to be in touch with you. Even if you’ve had a LinkedIn account for years, I recommend everyone read Guy Kawasaki’s article on getting the most out of LinkedIn here (http://blog.linkedin.com/2007/07/25/ten-ways-to-use/) – he says it better than I ever could.
3. Develop some kind of electronic way to maintain a list of everyone in your personal network. This means tracking their name, e-mail address, physical mailing address, and an area to briefly log your last contact with them. This can be arduous to get going at first, but once the list is up and running, it’s very easy to record your interactions going forward, and it’s INVALUABLE for reminding yourself who you haven’t reached out to in a long time. I personally have always loved ACT for this purpose, but you could even use an Excel spreadsheet if you like – just make sure that you keep up with updating it.
4. Don’t forget the US Mail. In this day of electronic contact, there is still something very special about getting something physical in the mail. Keep up with your contact’s birthday and shoot ’em a card once a year. See an interesting article in Newsweek that reminds you of them and their cause? Cut it out and mail it to them. The holiday season? Send them a holiday greeting card (hey – it’s not too late to still do that this year!!)
5. With your personal network, focus your reach-out efforts on finding things you can do for them. Find out every time you contact them what they need at this particular time. Are they looking for a vendor referral, do they need a recommendation on a new daycare for their child, or are they looking for a job? The best possible way to maintain strong ties with your personal network is to focus on what you can do for them during “peace time”. And besides being a savvy trick for keeping in people’s good graces, it’s really the most satisfying way to maintain close relationships, “karma”-ckly speaking.
And for those of you who say “but I’m not looking for a new job right now” or “I’m not in sales” – ignore networking at your own peril. Do not wait until “war time” is upon you to invest in these critically important relationships.