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I’ve Spent A Lifetime Building a Mighty Network. Here Are My Secrets.

Rule One: Take pleasure in it. It’s not just a safety net, it’s YOUR net.

I’ve long been told that I “know everyone.” In other words, I have a great network, one that’s an object of envy. My jokey rejoinder is that I’m old, and so have had a lot of jobs. The deeper truth is that my collection of contacts isn’t just the result of a peripatetic career. Working in and around technology for a long time means that in addition to my own moves, virtually all of my acquaintances, friends and friends-of-friends have also changed places in our always-be-disrupting world.

But an even larger factor is that I am a connector, as Malcolm Gladwell described it. I’m always curious about people, and enjoy collecting stories: where do you live, what do you do, where did you come from, what would you like to do? And so I’m always open to meeting new people. When I do, immediately the wheels turn. How can I help this one find answers, get good advice? Who has what in common with whom? Who would this person enjoy and benefit from meeting?

You might not be as driven as I am by the connecting part. That’s OK. But as we hurtle along towards a gig economy, experience frequent job changes, and acclimate ourselves to living with continuous partial attention, it’s more important than ever to nurture a vast personal network — people you can tap for ideas, referrals, and support. Properly tended, this network is your currency, your brain trust, your reality check.

I define a network as a group of personal connections that grows over time and through experiences. Mine includes people I failed to hire, or who failed to hire me; people from agencies my company worked with; people to whom I referred a candidate; recruiters, designers, fellow scribes, conference pals, and many, many former colleagues who range from engineers and product managers to HR and biz dev pros.

Your list needn’t be that different. Your network can include friends from school, from internships, early jobs. And it can also include someone you bond with at a dinner party or weekend away, the friend of a friend who works at a company you admire, your hair stylist or mechanic, casual colleagues at your job, your neighbors, your parents’ friends (and yes, your kids’ friends). By the way, cultivating this lot is not the same as being on LinkedIn or Facebook (more on this below).

But first, a cautionary note. Building a network isn’t meant to be an exercise in the law of large numbers. Less important to me is the number of, say, Google Contacts I have (for the record, it’s around 4400), but who they are. These are people first, not your bits to flip. So keep a few rules in mind:

  • Don’t treat your network like an ATM you can hit up for withdrawals at any time. No one likes to feel used repeatedly, especially when it’s one-sided.
  • Don’t be strictly transactional (you get a job tip, you give a job tip, the end). The beauty of a good network is that it’s multi-dimensional, not only about the one immediate need (hey, it’s just like our lives). You might have, or need, advice on eldercare or childcare; your old work buddy might have the best advice on kid-friendly trips or finding a divorce lawyer. By the way, there’s no expiration date on you or your contacts doing one another a solid.
  • Don’t limit your contacts to one context. This is the biggest obstacle people give themselves: their requirements about who they think they should meet are extremely narrow. They can’t see that anyone else will have “value.” (This is why I’m careful with introductions — and I don’t offer again if there’s no follow-up.)

You might wonder about how to maintain or add to your network over time. There’s plenty of info out there on apps to manage your contacts and mnemonic tricks to remember bits and bobs about people you meet, so I won’t cover that here. Instead I’d encourage you to apply the principles I’m outlining to your overall approach. Tools come later.

I think of my own network as a living organism, one I work to nurture consistently, and from which I occasionally draw for a specific need. (Gardening metaphors are not out of place.)

In order to build up great contacts (and friends) over time, here are the main touchpoints:

Be helpful. When someone reaches out, just do it. Among my coffee dates: media executives moving from New York to the Bay Area who want to understand the ecosystem; PR pros wanting to jump from tech to consumer, or vice versa, and (quite a few) veteran journalists one step ahead of a pink slip at a collapsing publication. Most of the time I can’t offer instant resolution. I just hear them out, paint the picture I know, and think broadly about useful advice and interesting people who can further the conversation. I do this simply because I believe that we all need help along the way, to figure out next steps, clarify priorities, perhaps hear a snippet of an idea or get a sense of the landscape. Each of us will need some of these things eventually. Just don’t get all quid pro quo about it. Pay it forward.

Keep in loose touch. Because I tend to remember something about the interests or expertise of my contacts, every now and again I share information (it could be a Tweet, an article, joke, cartoon, video) on that topic just to say hi, see what’s up. Last summer I met a Twitter-only friend face to face in London. We made a great connection, and continue to trade tidbits and referrals. I’ve introduced him to people who can help him find projects, and for whom he can do the same. “Loose touch” keeps you limber for future brainstorming and referrals.

But when you’re on the hunt for real, be more communicative. When you’re actively seeking a specific job or company or introduction, regularly thank your contacts (regardless of what they did along the way) and inform them as your process unfolds. I was delighted to get a thank-you note from a young woman I met after she followed up with each referral I gave her. She let me know about the state of her search and how she enjoyed each meeting I orchestrated. She too is a good networker. Of course, if your contacts are the precise reason you got what you wanted, go all out with the thank-you’s. I’ve gotten from and sent gifts to both the newly hired gal or guy and the hiring manager.

Weak ties are important. Depending on what you need, your closest friends may not be the best resource. Don’t forget to keep up with your weak ties — the people who are likely to be more remote, occasional and not obvious contacts. (You’d never ask a weak tie to pick you up at the airport.) In fact these are the people who may give you the leads and information that take you farthest. One example: I was recruited for my current job by a friendly acquaintance I would characterize as a weak tie. Since then, I’ve made three weak-tie referrals to the company myself, all hired.

Make good referrals. Now and then I sit down with friends or contacts in a service business to hear about their offering so I can refer the right people to them. When you understand your friend’s specialty or what their firm does, your referrals are more valuable. Knowing about a multinational event production firm is great if your marketing contacts work for a big company, too, but that’s not as useful for your pal’s 3-person startup. Take in all information, and use your judgment to make good calls.

Keep your word. If you proffer leads, follow through to make introductions or forward information. And if you intend to help out, do it right away — don’t toy with people who need help! I should also mention that if you truly can’t help — you don’t have any expert contacts or ideas — just say so, kindly. Don’t leave the request dangling. You too will want that aboveboard treatment when it’s your turn.

Network, not social network. All of this might strike you as a lot of work. Can’t you just post on Facebook, or Tweet, or query LinkedIn or Quora and be done with it? Each of these platforms certainly has a place for finding and trading on information and connections. But don’t limit yourself to them, as you’ll get random, self-selected responses, none as detailed or nuanced or private as you might need. And whether it’s private or public, these platforms default to lazy (if well-intentioned) responses. We’ve all chimed in with 3- or 4-word replies to a question posed to a group. Nothing is going to give you the same quality and depth as your personal network can. But honestly, a 1:1 connection that lives over time is much more rewarding than 1:some.

Make a list. Check it twice. Pause your regular routine every week or two and reflect on what you need answers to, or who’s asking for your help and ideas. Make a list of who and what, and then follow up with brief notes.

Finally, make introductions correctly. When you want to help, and have ideas for who should meet whom, write to your contact personally and ask if they mind an introduction. Only when they say OK should you briefly introduce the two parties, and then get out of the way. You don’t need to be part of the conversation. Give your friends the gift of connecting with one another. Pro tip: put the connector to bcc: in email, or ask to be dropped off if you’re that person. I’m amazed at how often the originator gets stuck in the to and fro of setting up a chat.

We live in a world of many unknowns. The more you can learn from others (about a job opening, medical advice, travel destinations, how to change careers, gaining any kind of foothold) helps you see around corners; the more you can ask for or give help to others on their path, the more knowns emerge — and we’re all better off. So, throw off your zero-sum blinders and get going.

And if these tips work for you, ping me. This could be the beginning of a beautiful weak tie.

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Is Voltaire’s advice — to tend to your own garden? — the best way to grow a network? Do you have tips or approaches to share? Network your way into the conversation by responding below.

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