One of the most common, and easily avoidable mistakes that people make when building professional relationships is approaching them as purely transactional. You, of course, ultimately want to be able to take advantage of a relationship when the opportunity presents itself, but it cannot be the all-consuming motivation of your networking. So how can you go about the process of building relationships in a productive and meaningful way?
Don’t Ghost Your Contact
Let’s assume that you’ve contacted Jack Goldsmith, a partner at Bougie and Prestigious, LLP, and he has agreed to meet with you for coffee. You meet up and hit it off. You delight him with your tale of how you came to law school because of this really awesome episode of Suits that you watched in college and he regales you with tales of document review that send your heart aflutter. You shake hands and part ways with a new business friend.
And then you don’t speak to him for a year and a half when you ask him for help getting an interview. Now, suddenly, that terrific interaction in which you managed to walk the tightrope to come off as someone Mr. Goldsmith was dying to hire is far more remote in his mind. In between that interaction and you reaching out for help, he’s met with dozens of other students and practicing attorneys. Some of those were good, and some of those were bad. But all of those interactions were more recent and more memorable than yours. So, what can you do to prevent this?
One of the few satisfying aspects of using LinkedIn and updating your resume is the feeling that comes from putting pen to paper to write down the latest development in your life. Whether it’s the new job, an improvement to your GPA, or a new leadership position, it feels good to announce that you’re continuing to grow to the world. Why not have more of that feeling by letting your networking contacts know how things are going?
Now to be clear, I’m not saying you should send an email every week to each and every contact that you meet; that’s how restraining orders are made. You can, however, make contact every few months after major events in your career. It doesn’t have to be long, detailed, or even particularly thrilling. For example, you could fire off something like this in about three minutes:
Dear Mr. Goldsmith, I just wanted to let you know that I received an offer from the City of Chicago's Department of law. I applied after you spoke so glowingly about your time there. I'm really excited about the opportunity. I'd love to grab another coffee sometime this summer after I get settled and catch up! Thanks again for your help.
Simple and to the point, with a soft ask for continuing contact. You’ve put yourself back at the front of your contact’s mind, informed him of a good thing, and made a soft ask for another meeting in the span of four sentences. Which brings us to other ways to get in front of your contacts.
Seize on Shared Events
In addition to the above where you make an ask for further 1-on-1 meetings (which is always encouraged), you can make use of time that your contact is already devoting to networking.
For instance, if you met Jack because he is an ND alumnus, you might consider asking him if he is attending the Notre Dame Club of Whatever’s annual summer picnic. In addition, many firms regularly hold receptions during the summer months and winter holidays. When you RSVP, just send Jack an email letting him know that you’re going and that you’re looking forward to it.
In some cases, you may have connected with someone over a shared hobby or interest. One of my networking contacts mentioned that he was a member of a running club during a coffee. Before I went to that city for my 2L summer, I reached out and asked him about the club again, and he offered to meet me at their next run and introduce me to people. While that example is obviously a bit rarer, it does happen.
Not Useful…for Now
One other mistake that is far too common is discarding contacts when your interests or goals shift. If you met Jack while you were interested in pursuing a lucrative career in BigLaw, but now you have resolved to pursue a life of destitution in public service, you shouldn’t just discard Jack as a contact.
While Jack’s primary focus, and the bulk of his contacts, may be in BigLaw, he undoubtedly has classmates, friends from church/synagogue/mosque, former colleagues, fellow members of the Flat Earther Society, and other social acquaintances that might be of interest. You also never know what course people’s careers will follow. By maintaining that connection and building that relationship when you affirmatively need nothing from the person, you are building a stronger, more vibrant relationship than you would if you approach it from a purely transactional place.
Why Does This Matter?
In all honesty, it might not. You may maintain a contact for several years and never call on them for something. That’s okay, though, as the only thing you’re out is a little bit of time. However, if you do need Jack’s help and you haven’t maintained that connection, emailing out of the blue for that help is the professional equivalent of texting “u up?” to an ex at 3 am on a Tuesday night. Sure, he may answer, but wouldn’t it be better to be sure?