Back when I was in high school (and dinosaurs roamed the earth), everyone knew who the popular kids were. They hung out together in groups, oozed self-confidence, and had a whole second layer of people who just wanted to be close to them, to be popular by association.
Today, high schoolers have a whole new way of tracking their popularity. Online social networks such as MySpace and Facebook let you track how many “friends” you have. By comparing your number to your friends’ numbers, you can tell how popular you are relative to them. In some groups it becomes a contest, to see who can have the most “friends”. In fact, there is now a place where you can buy up to 5,000 Facebook friends for $654.30, or up to 10,000 Facebook fans for $1167.30.
LinkedIn, the professional social networking site, has a similar connection-based operation. You make “connections”, and can follow their status changes, discussions and other professional activities. But does having a large number of connections on LinkedIn mean you have a vibrant, healthy professional network? Or does it just mean you are good at asking for connections from everyone you run into?
One way to test this is by looking at your list of connections, and asking yourself “Would this person take my phone call?” An even better question – “If I lost my job and called this person, would they merely sympathize, or would they go out of their way to look for leads and opportunities that matched my background and professional goals?
To turn it around, how many of the people in your professional network have you talked to lately? How many have you done a favor for, or passed along a tidbit that you thought might help them out? How many do make contact with on a regular basis? Or do you look your list of connections and try to remember where you met them, and why you wanted to connect in the first place?
Connections, whether tracked online, in an electronic database, or in an old-fashioned paper Rolodex, go stale with time. Online systems make it easier to keep current contact information, because they update their information when they change companies, but just because you know how to reach someone doesn’t mean you have a real connection with them. After all, it’s not hard to find the phone number for the White House, but would President Obama take your call? It takes time and effort to maintain real connections with others in your professional network, just like any other type of relationship.
NOW is the time to take a look at your network, solidify the relationships that are important to you, and build on your new, tentative connections. Delete people whom you can’t even remember (they probably can’t remember you either). For people you haven’t talked to in awhile, make contact. Send an email, write a card, or pick up the phone.
People who have large, strong networks know who to call when they need help. But that’s because they have prepared ahead of time, by building relationships and helping others out. After all, they way to measure the strength of your network is not by how many people you know, but by how many people really think about you.
This article was written by freelance technical writer Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2006).