What does "networking" mean today?

March 14, 2014

Last night I had the honor of serving on a guest panel for the Madison Business Mentors student group event. The seven panelists had a variety of backgrounds: finance, investment banking, retail, sales, non-profit, and even a couple of current MBA students. The moderators had us sharing our experiences with graduate school, interviewing, career choice, and networking.

Networking came up again during the Q&A session. A student inquired about the best way to stay in touch with colleagues or connections, especially when you know you may need to network with or ask a favor of them but don’t want to come across as using them. The answer seems simple — you just stay in touch. But is it actually that simple? 

My fellow panelists had different answers — schedule two hours a month and systematically work your way through your LinkedIn contact list (knowing myself, this behavior would fall away before it even started); shoot a value-add email to the person every 2-3 months (more realistic for me, but often feels a little contrived); do it when you think of it. I was mum on the subject, admittedly a little dumbfounded and completely caught off guard. I’ve never been fabulous at staying in touch with my high school or college friends, and today I maintain an ongoing relationship with only a handful. The most intriguing answer was to respond to whatever made you think of a person. If you read an article that reminds you of someone, share the link with them. If you visit a place that holds a joint memory for the two of you, reach out. I guess I relate with this approach most closely.

But this gets me thinking. I recently tipped over the “500+ contacts” threshold on LinkedIn. I’m fairly conservative about who I connect with, so I’m a little surprised that network is as large as it is. Although maybe I shouldn’t be. I ran in fairly unique circles in college — my architecture friends had little or no overlap with my fellow track & field athletes, who also barely overlapped my fraternity’s membership, which shared only a modest handful of my fellow soccer teammates, and were different still from the committee work I did with the Thurtene Honorary. 

I would have little hesitation to reconnect with any people in my LinkedIn network should the need arise. But stay in touch? That would take a colossal effort.

I guess my life since undergrad is no different. I coached soccer and now know those families; I continued to advise with the Thurtene Honorary at Wash U for seven years after graduation; I play Australian Rules Football and could easily drop into any of 30+ cities in the US and already know people at the local club, not to mention all of my overseas connections; I’ve held four-year stints at two different jobs in different industries with dozens of clients, and can now add a third industry when I include Design Concepts; my time in grad school added 100+ contacts as well. 

So how can you possibly consider that many people your close network? Can I honestly say I could send a message to any of those people asking for an introduction, solicit them for a recommendation, or refer someone to them? I had to take a peek to test it. And surprisingly, the answer is yes. I would have little hesitation to reconnect with any of the people in my LinkedIn network should the need arise. But stay in touch? That would take a colossal effort. It would be a monumental task to even select one tenth of them to try to converse with even on a quarterly basis. 

So what does it take to stay in touch these days? Does the definition actually have a different meaning in this digital-Twitter-Vine-profile-update-in-the-cloud day and age? I don't have an answer, but maybe I’m satisfied for now having shared experiences with an individual for a certain period of my life, and know that for a lifetime, I can always count on them for a favor.

Thanks to Belle and Maggie from MBM for the chance to expound some wisdom last night. I always end up learning more than I feel I teach.