During my 20 years in high-tech sales and marketing, I have achieved many goals, developed many strategies, experienced many successes, and learned many lessons. Much of this can be attributed to a constantly growing knowledge of how to manage and maximize my network. Especially in the past decade, our world has witnessed an explosion in the role social media plays in our daily, personal, and professional lives. While I do enjoy Facebook as a vehicle for the daily and personal aspects, my main tool for professional interaction is LinkedIn, and I work diligently to avoid excessive and unnecessary overlap between the two platforms. Additionally, I find it vital to retain and update contact information of clients and colleagues, past, present, and potential. Responsibly utilizing my network certainly plays an incredibly important part in my career.
As a rule, I don't connect with anyone on LinkedIn whom I don't personally know. While I have more than 500 contacts and receive an average of four to six invitations per week, I am careful not to connect with people who are simply fishing for more connections. In order to maintain and grow your own brand, be careful not to dilute it with people whom you don't know or who are not aligned to you professionally. To be a truly valuable contributing member to a growing organization, it is in your best interest to have a network of professionals who touch your part of the business. I have many channel-sales and marketing professionals in my network, but I also engage with individuals from other functional areas of the business in human resources, finance, legal, operations, and engineering. As long as I've worked with them directly, I want them in my network to help growing companies recruit quality personnel in any functional area.
In addition to communicating via LinkedIn and other electronic vehicles, I challenge myself to call and meet as many members of my network as possible, whether while I'm traveling or at home. My personal goal is to have six to 10 direct touches each month with my closest connections. Some of these contacts might bridge the personal/professional boundary, but there has to be a professional aspect to the relationship. Having drinks with my two BFFs doesn't qualify. When I'm working at a company that is on a hiring binge, that number can easily reach 20 per month. Sure, it takes time and effort to spend 30 minutes on the phone or getting coffee, but the return is undeniably positive. For example, I recently ran into a former colleague at an airport, and after exchanging "Hello's," he exclaimed, "I was just talking about you!" This represents the fruits of personal connection. If you want to improve your brand and be considered excellent at networking, you have to do more than simply sit behind your laptop.
My realization of the importance of professional networking occurred in 1995. I was somewhat stuck against the glass ceiling of university administration when someone I knew reached out to me about software sales. Though I had sales experience, I knew nothing about the high-tech industry. However, I had learned that maintaining relationships and building business contacts could benefit me in the long run, and I was right. As my first high-tech job grew, so did my network.
When the company for which I was working was bought by VERITAS, I was given a shot at managing a large account with StorageTek, mainly because of my location and the relationships I had within the company. As the integration of the companies was happening, VERITAS had just penned an OEM deal with StorageTek and needed someone to manage the account locally. Despite my relative infancy in the industry, the network I had built helped me succeed in this role, and it led to some of the most lucrative financial years of my career. In 2007, I was working for a company spun out of California; it turned out to be not my best career choice. As I weighed my options, my network came to the rescue. A former colleague contacted me about an opportunity to start distribution at Data Domain, an up-and-coming company. Within days, he connected me with the Data Domain people. I flew out for a daylong series of interviews, received a verbal offer that afternoon, and had a contract waiting in my email when I returned home to Colorado. I accepted the offer and started immediately; the company went public a few weeks later.
After Data Domain was purchased by EMC, I remained there for 18 months to gain the experience of going through the integration process. Ultimately, I needed to get back to a smaller company, and my network delivered big time. Nimble Storage offered me the opportunity to build from the ground up, enjoy the excitement of another start-up environment, and reconnect with many respected former colleagues. The venture worked out very well, and it reminded me that while it's great to build new connections, it's also fantastic to know that reliable connections from the past can provide a sense of complete confidence and enable success.
Professional networking can be a tricky business. Do keep in touch with your closest and most-valued connections, especially those who are moving in interesting circles and have a history of career advancement. Don't throw around your connections casually -- too many people will abuse the opportunity to further their own agendas. Do keep your profile up to date; leaving a position means taking it off your profile. Most industries are too small to get away with such behavior, especially if the position has been filled behind you. Don't reach out to your network only when you need something. Reach out to say "Hello." Check in on LinkedIn regularly to congratulate your connections when they get new jobs, promotions, or have work anniversaries.
Take care of your network, and your network will take care of you.