No more excuses! Do you feel you’re too old, too young, too new, too introverted to connect successfully with people who can help your career? Nonsense. Everyone needs to build a contact database. Anyone can build one.
Most jobs are found through informal networks of connections, the “six degrees of separation” that link disparate people through a chain of friends of friends. Those connections should live in a contact database. That database is ground zero for your networking strategy. Because of the symbiotic relationship between who you know and what you do, it is imperative that you pay attention to your contact list. Let’s begin.
Who Is in Your Network?
Your network should include people from:
- Your past—people you used to know
- Your present—people currently part of your world
- Your future—people you would like to know
Contacts come not only from these three points in time, but also, as diagram 1 shows, from three overlapping activity spheres: the personal, aspirational, and occupational.
Aspirational and occupational spheres are the most relevant for careers. These contacts are your links to other career paths, geographic moves, and the next steps in your current chosen field.
- Many people equate their contacts with the personal sphere. These people are your best friends, family, and other close contacts who provide backup and support. They also usually support your thinking rather than add new ideas, and so are less useful than the other spheres for the purpose of career changes.
- Your occupational sphere includes people from current and past work lives, people in complementary professions, vendors who sell to you, your clients, and your friends. Their careers and contacts lead to information and introductions.
- Aspirational ties typically represent your weakest links. This is your dream builder, the knowledge enhancer network. You find these links everywhere—at events, on social media, in reading material. They include experts in your own field, areas you want to learn more about, or fields you might consider .
People in your aspirational network can help you develop the skills and knowledge you need to succeed. They may be successful business executives or innovators. Some will teach you new hobbies or life skills. Others will be thought leaders, visionaries, and coaches. Each of them exposes you to new ideas and ways of acting that prepare you to move forward,
Of course, contacts should include best friends; strong ties you go to for comfort, support, and confirmation., “But if your network only includes people like you, you probably will have less access to new ideas and opportunities. . . . People who network strategically make use of both their strong and weak ties; the former for support, the latter to bring in new information.”
Weak ties connect you with acquaintances or friends of friends. They are people on your holiday card list, people whose business card you kept just in case, friends of your friends: “someone you know cursorily or historically or maybe even thorough a network of friends. Someone you used to work with, someone whose kid was on your kid’s soccer team 10 years ago, a former neighbor, an acquaintance in a professional group. And strangely, it’s someone who can make a difference.”
“When you look at charts showing network relationships you can see the importance of weak ties in creating linkages between pods of personal, strong networks.” Weak ties bring new insights into your network.
How Do I Build My List?
Theoretically, the size of any network is infinite. If you ask any networking contact to introduce you to any close contact and if you assume that every person has at least fifty close contacts, the numbers are overwhelming.
You can make adding contacts more realistic, manageable, and effective by tying them to your career goals.
- Where are you now in your career?
- Where do you want to be in five years? Ten years?
- What do you need to know and learn to get there?
- Who do you need to know to find out the answers to these questions?
Answers to these four questions will create your path to contact list amplification. Remember: You are not necessarily looking for a greater number of strong relationships. Your focus, rather, is on expanding medium and weak links to people with new ideas and areas of influence who can introduce you to their network.
Begin by going through old business cards, address books, college directories, office personnel lists, colleagues on nonprofit boards, friends from community activities, and so on. Add speakers from saved conference agendas. Add authors you hold in high regard. Add professors, consultants, mentors, inspirational leaders. Add them all to your contacts database.
From this expanded contacts list select twenty-five names that seem most relevant to your goals. Turn to online sources to update what you know about them.
- Research online to see where they have been and where they are now.
- Check their profiles on LinkedIn and their workplace websites.
- Find the contacts whose career trajectory or current workplaces interest you.
Turn Paper Connections into Live Relationships
Create networking strategies to forge connections. Think of career networking as forming relationships with people and organizations to help you understand your career choices. Remember: These are relationships built on reciprocity. As you learn about others, you will look for ways to help them reach their goals, and they will do the same for you.
Are you thinking it will be awkward to suddenly burst upon someone you haven’t seen or heard from in years? It could be; but it’s more likely that if you frame it correctly, they will be pleased to reconnect and will be flattered that you want their advice. To begin, connect first by email to set a time to talk, make them a LinkedIn connection, and send an in-mail request for an information interview, or just pick up the phone and call.
Begin Conversations with the Truth
- With a friend from “past lives”: “I know it’s been ages since we talked. I am calling now to see how you are doing and ask you for career advice.” [Talk about how they are doing now.] “I want to move from _______ to your practice area. I hope you can help me understand what I need to do to prepare for this kind of work and what is the best way to find such a job. Could we schedule a 15-minute conversation?”
- With an acquaintance: “I don’t know if you remember me. We met _______. I was impressed with your career trajectory. Now I am looking to do the same kind of thing. I wondered if we could schedule a 15-minute call?”
Remember, please, to keep them in the loop. Thank them for having agreed to the call, and, if you act on their advice, let them know what happened.
Keep Your List Fresh
List-building is an iterative process. As your career ideas change, so too should people on the list. Make it a habit, after every networking activity, to add new names or add new information to names already on the list. For example:
- At your monthly networking group meeting, you heard that Charlie was changing firms. After the meeting, update your database and call him to congratulate him and find out more about the move. Record your action and what you learned in your database.
- After an event, add the names of the handful of people with whom you had meaningful conversations, making sure to add the specifics of where you met them, why they were there, and conversation highlights.
- Every six months, go through your list to winnow outdated contacts and identify gaps you need to fill to keep the list in line with your current goals.
Keep building and expanding the interest areas of your contacts and you will have a ready resource for wherever your career takes you.
 Carol Schiro Greenwald, Chapter 3, Strategic Networking for Introverts, Extroverts and Everyone in Between (ABA, LPD, 2019), p. 34.
. Marc Miller, “To Get a Job, Use Your Weak Ties,” August 17, 2016, forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2016/08/17/to-get-a-job-use-your-weak-ties/#2619254a6b87.
 Greenwald, Strategic Networking for Introverts, Extroverts and Everyone in Between, p. 34.