Building, nurturing and growing your professional network is more important than ever. Here are three simple steps to increase the value of your network.
A recent article in Fortune proclaimed Ron Conway a "start-up's best friend." Conway is a Silicon Valley angel investor, but his value to start-ups isn't in the capital he provides. It is in the connections and introductions he can make for young and budding entrepreneurs to the most elite members of the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem.
Conway has effectively made a living off of his Rolodex. I am not suggesting we all try to drop our current ventures to harvest the value of our network (most of all because I would presume your Rolodex, like mine, pales in comparison to Conway's), but it did get me thinking: What can I do to increase the value of my Rolodex? I arrived at three immediate, simple steps.
1. Clean up your network and go digital.
The value of a Rolodex is in its accuracy. The average American has seven different careers in their lifetime, which means all the cards you picked up at a conference last week will be inaccurate in six years. If you don't have a means of contacting a person, is he or she really adding value to your network?
Luckily, the act of updating our Rolodexes has never been easier. With the advent of social media, LinkedIn in particular, we are able to quickly and easily stay in touch and consistently update our networks. It's time to throw out the business cards and fully digitize our rolodexes.
2. Add a broader perspective.
A network is a numbers game. The more people in your network, the more useful it can be when you need it. Succeeding in or building a business requires a network that is as broad as the issues a business faces.
Accordingly, there is always an opportunity to expand your network, but few of us actively focus on building it. The solution is to specifically devote time each month to building your network, and building it in a way that is different and unique from your current network. If you regularly attend technology symposiums, then you have a robust network for addressing IT concerns, but who will you turn to when a payroll or regulatory issue arises?
Conway's network was valuable not because it was technology focused, but because it included the likes of Biz Stone (Twitter co-founder), MC Hammer (musical artist), and Ed Lee (mayor of San Francisco).
3. Nurture existing relationships.
Even if you have a network of thousands, it is only valuable if the people within it will return your calls. It is therefore important to nurture the relationships that you have built.
In the simplest sense, you are able to extract value from a relationship if you are providing reciprocal value to the opposing person. Whether it be a dinner, phone call, or tweet, it is important that you let your network know you are thinking about their concerns, and encouraging them to do the same. We can never be certain when a dimension of our network will become valuable, but it is important to ensure the relationship is warm when that moment arrives.
Conway became the "best friend" of start-ups in large part because of his robust Rolodex. A strong network is possibly the most powerful tool in business. However, for many, the act of building a network is a daunting task. By focusing on simple changes, you can incrementally increase the value of your Rolodex, and while you might not be able to make a living off of your network alone, you will be able to drive significant value in your business.
KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree. @karlstark