How to Optimize Your Relationships and Jump-start Your Career

Building and leveraging a network of mutually beneficial career relationships is easier than you may think. And having this network of relationships is crucial in today’s environment, where being good at your job is simply not good enough, or where applying to lots of jobs is an inefficient way to search. Whether you’re eyeing a promotion or seeing layoffs on the horizon, your network will help you. In a job search, your network will enable you to shortcut the application process and tap into the hidden job market where you’ll find the best opportunities.

Here are some ideas to help you to quickly build and optimize your network of career-advancing relationships.

Think expansively about your network.

Your career network is much bigger than just the handful of people you talk with every week. It includes your family, your friends, people you worked with 15 years ago but lost touch with, former professors or classmates, your dentist and so on. And interestingly, I’ve observed through client experiences that the people you feel most distant to end up being the ones that are most helpful.

For example, a client casually mentioned her job search to a neighbor who she didn’t know well. It turned out that the neighbor’s wife’s brother-in-law’s sister worked for the CFO of a financial institution where my client wanted to work. She got an interview with the CFO through this seemingly unlikely connection.

Another client contacted a classmate with whom she hadn’t spoken in 18 years, when she saw on LinkedIn that he worked at a company she was targeting. After a brief email exchange, he introduced her to the hiring manager. She ended up getting an interview.

Keep in touch.

Being a good networker is not just about being good at meeting people. True networking is about keeping in touch so that you build a real relationship, one where your network contact would be open to helping you and you would be open to helping them.

A prospective client came to me after a year-long job search that had gone nowhere. She told me she had some great meetings a year ago. When I asked her what happened, she said she had lost touch with them. If she had kept in touch, my guess is that she would have obtained the job she was seeking long before our conversation. At my urging she was able to recontact a couple of those with whom she had lost touch; one referred her to an opportunity where she received an interview.

I frequently get asked how to keep in touch, in a way that doesn’t come off as bothersome. Here are a few options and guidelines:

  • Send “additional thoughts” regarding a previous conversation, where you’re truly adding new value.
  • Share a link referencing something your contact would find of interest. Make sure they would truly be interested in what you send them, otherwise you’re just wasting their time.
  • Post resonant updates on social media that reflect what you’re up to career-wise as well as your expertise. Post on LinkedIn in particular, since this platform is all about career advancement.
  • Leverage holiday season greetings to include an update on where you are with your career or job search. Don’t ask people for anything in these messages, as it would ruin the spirit of the greeting. Just remind them of what you’re doing or looking to do to stay top-of-mind.
  • Send a simple “hello and update” individual or mass-email (make sure to blind-copy recipients if the latter). In this message don’t ask your contacts for anything, just simply update them on how things are going with your career or remind them what you’re looking to do. A nice touch: offer to make your network available to them for introductions.

If you’re gainfully employed, segment your network by frequency of messaging; for some, just twice a year is appropriate. For others who are perhaps in your field, update them more frequently. If you’re in a job search, keep your network updated on your progress roughly once a month, give or take. You want them to keep you top of mind in case any opportunities come to their attention.

Periodically evaluate your relationships.

If you are employed, create a “stakeholder map”—that is, a list of people who either you depend on for success in your role or who depend on you for their success. Divide this list into three groups of stakeholders:

  1. Your “bosses,” interpreted to include dotted line reporting and anyone above you who can affect promotions.
  2. Your peers, including business partners.
  3. Your subordinates, interpreted to include those not directly reporting to you as well.

Look at this list every two or three months. Are the individual relationships as strong as they could be? If not, come up with a strategy to improve them. For one client with a problematic relationship, a simple “good morning” did a lot to improve things. In another situation, the relationship issue was less easily solvable, and my client set up a meeting where he employed active listening techniques.

Make it easy for your network to help you.

When you reach out for help with a referral, send a concise email and be very clear about what you want. If you’re in a job search, for example, share your job target, what differentiates you from others, and examples of organizations where you want to work. Your contact might even forward such a clear, well-thought-out email to someone you would want to meet!

And if you’re looking for introductions in a job search, don’t rely on your network contact to do all the work. For example, if they offer to forward your resume (which almost never works), say something like, “To make it easier for you, perhaps instead I can reach out to your contact directly with “referred by [you]” in the subject line, and copy you. Plus, I’m looking to build a relationship with your contact long-term, even if nothing is available now. So would it be ok if I reached out to them directly?”

On LinkedIn, get to know everyone in your first-degree network.

LinkedIn is designed to make it easier to keep in touch via updates posted on your home page feed. But if your first-degree network (the people you’re directly connected with) consists of mostly strangers, then your updates will not be meaningful to them, nor theirs to you.

So, if you already have a first-degree network full of people you don’t know, get to know them! Send them messages saying something like “Hi Julie, thought I would reach out as I’m trying to get to know everyone in my first-degree network. I’m curious as to…” then reference something on their profile. Now if they don’t respond, then who needs them—they don’t get the “relationships” aspect of networking and will never be of help to you. I would advocate removing them from your network. On the other hand, I and some of my clients have gotten significant business or career opportunities from taking this extra step!