There's been renewed interest in the topic of networking over the past few years as the recession has lingered. And rightfully so, for networking should be the centerpiece of your business development strategy whether the economy is weak or strong.
Once the economy recovers, I expect networking to take on growing importance in recruiting talent as well. With looming shortages of technical professionals, this can no longer remain simply an HR function. Firms will increasingly need to mine the collective relationships of their employees to find adequate new hires to fuel their growth goals.
But there is value in tending your network that goes beyond merely meeting the current pressing needs of business. This came home to me, surprisingly, when I first went out on my own and was in desperate need of clients. It occurred to me at that time that attempting to jump start my networking efforts just because I needed to grow my business obscured the reason those relationships really mattered.
After 32 years in this business, I found myself pondering what my legacy was. What had I done of lasting value over all those years? That question took on added meaning a few years later when my former employer of ten years was acquired by another firm. Virtually everything I had accomplished in that period of time was rendered void in the transaction.
Many of you can point to facilities that you designed as a lasting testament of your professional achievements. I did some design work early in my career, but most of those facilities have since been replaced, improved, or abandoned. What about your designs? I later helped with a few major environmental remediation projects. But the goal of most of those was to leave as little visual reminder of our efforts as possible.
My point is not to diminish the value of our work, but to put it in context. The realization I came to after 32 years in this business was that what really mattered were (1) the relationships I had built and (2) the people I had been able to serve along the way. Whether the job entailed designing, consulting, selling, or managing, the results were best measured in how much people were helped by what I did. And those relationships were to be valued beyond whatever information, referrals, or new work they might generate today.
Networking has unfortunately been miscast as primarily a sales activity. But it is better viewed as a relationship building activity with benefits far beyond selling. If relationships and serving others are the two enduring products of our careers—and I'm convinced they are for most of us—then networking shouldn't be left only to those who are business developers. Everyone should maintain their network of professional relationships.
Networking is a discipline that helps us hold onto those valuable relationships. I must confess that I have done a poor job in this regard, as have many of you. I've changed jobs, changed locations, lost clients, and lost track of some of my favorite colleagues and clients over time. This despite the technological tools that make it relatively easy to stay in touch. But like many of you, I often succumb to the tyranny of the urgent at the cost of tending to the important, less urgent, matters—like relationships.
That's why I'm constantly urging young professionals to develop the habit of building and nurturing their network. Like investing in the stock market or a retirement fund, the installments you make in professional relationships accumulate value over time. And like your nest egg, you will appreciate being able to fall back on those relationships when your current source of security fails—a job loss, career change, business startup, etc.
Of course, stepping up our commitment to maintaining our network is good for us old dogs too. The bottom line is: Make friends, take care of them, stay in touch, and you'll reap the rewards, both personally and professionally, for years to come. Not a bad legacy either.