Networking is crucial, from your first job delivering papers or slinging burgers to your ultimate dream job of a Board position in a global organization. If you think of over the span of your career, it’s rather like gardening. You begin in the early season with easily grown veggies, then branch out into new crops later as the season heats up. There are some crops you keep year round that renew their usefulness like asparagus, coming back year after year and offering greater yields as time goes by. Others, like the carrots, you harvest just once and then they’re gone. And of course, there are weeds in every garden.
Early growth. In the beginning of your career, you make contacts through family and school. Like early spring lettuce and peas, these contacts can sustain you in the beginning, but they only last a brief time. Your Uncle Bob is a great contact to reach out to when you need a college internship, but the chances of Bob being able to further your career at the executive level are slim, unless you’re unusually fortunate. These are contacts that often get cleared away for newer, more productive contacts as your career grows. Some may become social contacts, others will be discarded as the connection fades.
Career launch. In the first five years, you’ll want to cultivate the that can help you move from that very first professional job into the next, to see you through the change from job to career. Your bosses, mentors, and even the recruiters who place you are the crop you’re trying to grow during this time. If your boss moves forward in his or her career and leaves the organization, stay in touch. This is the kind of valuable contact you need at this stage.
Stable career. In years 5-15, you’ll want to stay in touch with your peers. Old bosses and mentors will have a stale perspective, people who have worked with you recently are a prime source of tips on new openings, career advice, and a larger network of their own to offer. Since they’ve been in the trenches with you, they also offer great referrals, too! Be sure to reciprocate, offer your network contacts generous favours in return.
Mature career. At the pinnacle of your success, your network efforts should shift from your peers to your employees. As you give them great references for new positions, stay in touch. That brilliant kid you mentored into a great employee? Keep track of her. The next time you’re looking to move up, or branch out, she may be in a position to recommend you as a great boss and mentor…the perfect addition at her new organization. They may even become entrepreneurs looking to hire someone just like you.
The weeds. At any stage of your career, those who offer nothing in return, who burn bridges with you or with others, and those who you have simply outgrown can be gently weeded out of your network garden. Just as in a real garden, nothing has a place unless it feeds you. Quietly leave those unproductive contacts off your invitation list to events, and eventually delete the contacts from your phone and computer. Everyone that’s left in your contacts will be vital, productive, and useful. Just make sure to offer them the same value in return so you know you’re growing your network garden into a great career tool.