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When I was headed off to my freshman year at Boston College, my Uncle Bob gave me this piece of advice: “Don’t make friends too quickly.” Bob, a priest and professor who had been teaching theology to freshman at the University of Scranton for decades, knew from freshmen. He knew if I scrambled to attach myself to the first people who came along, I’d regret it. Once the social cement of those first few months hardened, it got harder to get out—away from people you realized weren’t going to be worth the trouble. And he was right.
Today, we’re all on a new (virtual) campus, where people you call “contacts” run the gamut of those whose kids you know by name to others you’ve never even been in a room with. We’re all like freshmen, connecting like mad to anyone who will have us. But the advice remains the same and just as, if not more, valuable: Don’t make friends too quickly.
Why? Because your network is a big part of your net worth—that’s where your best connections, leads, and even friendships will come from. And not just that: Your network is what you bring to the table. With great people in your court, you can take on almost anything. But without strong, qualified relationships, you go nowhere. This (American) idea that you do it all on your own? Bunk. Everywhere I’ve ever gone was possible because of someone else.
While it’s important to be open and willing to connect with new people all the time, be wary of leaping to connect folks you can’t vouch for. It’s tempting, in our friend-everyone Facebook culture, to think the bigger the network, the better, right? (Look at me! I know everybody!) That’s only true to a point. You can’t know everyone, and they can’t all know you. One strong referral is better than five weak ones.
I know how it goes: You meet someone out, a friend of a friend, and she’s in PR too and you should really connect, and she sends you a LinkedIn invite, and maybe you’ll have lunch at some point, and maybe you won’t. But would you hire someone, or are you going to refer someone—a client, a friend, a colleague—to someone you shared a beer with?
In a moment of generosity, you might want to—to show that you’re professional, courteous, generous, maybe even friend material. Maybe it’ll work out. She could be a gem, and you might send each other business for years to come. But you shouldn’t just hope. You should know. Everyone’s busy, but if you don’t take the time to really vet your own contacts, they’re not going to be worth all that much.
We talk about the shifting business landscape, how it’s become flattened, informalized. You have direct access to people through social media you never would have before. This doesn’t mean we’re all tight—in fact, what it means is that we’re all for hire. And we should all be under each other’s scrutiny, too. So when it comes to your personal network, guard it with your life. Because it is your life.
Too many folks treat their referrals and contacts cheaply, freely, looking to get whatever they can for and from them, like a stand on Canal Street in Chinatown. That’s not how I treat my hard-earned contacts and relationships. I prefer to keep them under glass, Fifth Avenue style.
Case in point: Belinda. She was the office manager where I got my first job as an assistant, about a thousand years ago. Belinda is now a solopreneur, like me, who has a thriving business of her own as a contract project manager. But she couldn’t do it, she says, without her team. She’s not an employee, doesn’t have traditional “co-workers.” No, instead she chooses her team, just as she chooses her clients—carefully. She has a network of friends and colleagues (usually, they’re both) whom she values tremendously—so much so that you might not be qualified to even meet them.
Because she won’t refer you or anyone else until she knows your intention, how you’ll treat them, what you’re like to work with, and what you’re like as a person. If you really value your network, this is what you do. I don’t send my friends into business situations that make me uncomfortable, unless they want it and have been warned.
The reverse is also true: I applaud your interest in connecting your friend to an established contact, but you’ve got to take great pains to establish outcomes and manage expectations. If that new girl who seemed cool at the bar turns out to be a total flake—or worse, difficult to work with—it’s going to hurt your prospects as well. Because now your word, and your referrals, carry less weight.
While relationships may ignite more quickly and easily than ever before, we still need time to build trust. So give your network some thought and scrutiny. If you’re an avid connector like me, the process of introducing great people is its own reward. I love it. I have no problem making intros when stakes are low and someone’s in need, provided everyone knows the score.
But the real efforts are more involved, and more worth it. For instance, I spent a good chunk of last Saturday crafting individual emails to a handful of women I know and love, introducing them to a new colleague who was moving to the area. This woman was so grateful for that effort—and trust me, I don’t make it for everyone, but it was the most rewarding thing I did all week! And the best part? My network continues to feed itself.
That’s the goal: Make your network self-sustaining—while continuing to nurture it. Don’t wait until you get laid off or want to switch careers. Because if you do, it won’t be there to catch you. You’re more valuable now than you ever were before. Not just because you know more. Not because of your paycheck. But because a rich, strong, qualified network is part of what you bring to the table, any table. You’re the head of your own “organization,” composed of a qualified, dynamic, supportive team, and with them in your court, you can do just about anything.
Choose carefully, treat them right, and they’re with you for life—longer than any one job or any one industry, even. Relationships are your life’s work. And it’s what will make it all worthwhile.