One of your best assets is a strong professional network. People who can provide references, inside information, and facilitate connections are invaluable. But to take advantage of your network, you have to categorize your professional network correctly.
Why Accurately Defining Your Network Matters.
One of my earliest jobs was in government relations for a trade organization. Government relations is about just that, relationships. But being new to D.C., my network was as deep as a thimble. This is where my co-worker came in, let’s call him Boots, and he was always offering up his Rolodex for my use.
Boots could be charitably be described as chronically outgoing. And while his zeal for networking was admirable, he referred to every person he’d ever met as “friend” no matter how well they actually knew each other. This created real problems.
Several times, I called one of Boots’s “friends” to set up a meeting, and spent an uncomfortable five-minutes explaining to this dear friend who Boots was. Sure, they’d met (usually once), but they were clearly not friends. This made him look bad, but it made me uninformed and guilty by association.
Working with Boots taught me one important lesson: Don’t misrepresent the nature and depth of your professional relationships, either intentionally or carelessly.
If you represent to a colleague or your Boss that you have a “friend” on the inside, they’re eventually going to want to leverage that relationship, and what happens if you can’t? Depth of connection matters. Categories matter.
Defining Your Network: The Six Categories.
One. Your Friends. This one should seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes lines get blurry. My rule of thumb for deciding whether someone is my friend: Could I invite them to my home without it being awkward? Going to someone’s home breaks the professional fourth wall, and makes the professional, personal.
A friend is willing to do you a real favor and go out of their way for you. So save the title for those you can really depend on, who won’t hesitate to stick their neck out for you and vice versa. If you have any doubt about whether the other person would refer to you as a friend, don’t use the term.
Two. Colleagues. If you work with someone regularly or see them frequently at after-hours work events, they’re probably a colleague. The term can be cumbersome, but it’s the best way to describe friendly, consistent relationships that only exist because of work.
Colleagues would think of you for a job opening, recommend your work to others, or take a meeting they might not otherwise just because you asked. The relationships are happily symbiotic, built on shared professional experiences and trust.
Over the course of a career, you’ll start to develop “close colleagues.” These are deeper relationships that sometimes go beyond work, and the line between close colleague and friend sometimes blurs. But these are not bail money and shovel people; save the dirty work for your friends.
Three. Friends of Friends. Leveraging your friends’ connections is often a necessity. To consider someone a FofF, the person linking you two together needs to be a friend/colleague of yours and a friend/colleague of hers. Your friend’s endorsement should be all you need to reach colleague-status with a person you otherwise don’t know or barely know. But be wary, if your connection with the FofF sours, their connection with your friend/colleague could sour as well causing a dangerous domino effect.
Four. I Know a Guy. You know a guy if you’ve had multiple meetings in the same year or worked together on a project via e-mail but never met in person.
The critical components of knowing a guy are 1) that she knows who you are without being reminded, and 2) that the person is better than likely to give you information that they might not give to someone else. Knowing a guy means being able to pick up the phone and call without hesitation, but they might still say no.
This category is also useful for people who you went to college or graduate school with but who you only saw in class or haven’t seen in years. When you’re not sure how deep the connection runs, you know a guy.
Five. I’ve Met a Guy. This is exactly what it sounds like. You chatted at a reception or before a meeting. You have her card. You remember this person, but she will probably need a refresher to remember you. The critical component of meeting a guy is having their contact information. You’re able to reach out quickly, but you’ll have to reintroduce yourself just to be safe.
Six. We Connected on LinkedIn. Connecting with someone on LinkedIn gives you the ability to contact that person when you don’t have their e-mail or phone number. Never represent a LinkedIn connection as someone you can leverage. Being connected is merely a bridge to building a relationship, it is not the same as having a relationship.
If you can’t break your Outlook contact list down into categories based on familiarity, and be honest with yourself, your Boss, and you co-workers about how well you know these people, then you are going to face a lot of awkward and potentially damaging situations. So use your words and your best judgement when describing your professional relationships, your reputation will thank you for it. No one wants to be, or do business with, the guy who thinks every person he’s ever met is his “friend.”