Your Network Takes Work

How to find the hidden gems in your contact database

I’m going to issue a challenge to you. Identify in your head every single person you’ve met, the context in which you met and instantaneously list out everything they’ve done since your last meeting. This is, of course, a fool’s errand, but it’s how we sometimes treat our network.

We assume we have a good handle on the people in our world that we could call up for advice or look to for career opportunities. In reality, we’re sitting on a goldmine of connections that are out of reach. By the end of your career, you will have had conversations with tens of thousands of people. Some of whom have the same recollection of you as you of them. Some you will influence greatly, and you will not be able to pick them out of a lineup. Some have changed the trajectory of your life, and they could not guess your name with one million guesses. So it goes.

But within that wide network of people, there are plenty that remember you and would be happy to help you, if only you asked. My goal for this piece is to give you the tools to better use this invisible network to not only help yourself, but potentially help people along the way.

  1. Reprioritize LinkedIn: LinkedIn has many, many faults, but it remains the gold standard for tracking people’s careers. And it is the digital storefront for professional service providers. Get a headshot up there, add links, and make sure your career history is up to date. I’ll tackle how to maximize LinkedIn in another post.

  2. Start from the best possible perch. If you’ve meticulously curated your email contacts or address book to track with whom you’ve come in contact and where they’ve gone, then you can start there. If not, LinkedIn may be your best bet. Or a combination of the two (see below).

  3. Get the right tools. A weakness of mine is being too tool-dependent. Another weakness is moving from one tool to the next if it’s not perfect. If you’re not, that’s great. I previously used Contact + and am now using Dex (I prefer the latter to the former). Basically, what you want is something that can do some (or all) of the following:

    1. Help you tag people or put into groups based on relationships

    2. Track when you last chatted with them and remind yourself when you want to speak to them next

    3. Update when they change jobs (often this is through LinkedIn API)

    4. Accumulate notes and/or retain email chains with that person

    5. A robust search that can help you find diamonds in the rough

  4. Put in the work! I am probably 30% through my Dex contact cleanup, and it’s taken a lot of time. I am convinced it is very much worth it, as I’ve identified two warm prospects I never would have gotten to without this exercise.

    I’ve eliminated a bunch of people I did not remember or have disappeared from LinkedIn (it obviously won’t stop me from connecting with them if they reach out), tagged people, ensured their new companies are reflected in their profiles, and put them into groups.

    I have groups of colleagues, clients, friends, and partners (former and current), which I then tag deeper into when that relationship was formed (e.g., my current consultancy Total Emphasis, one of my previous agency jobs, college, etc. I have to go through and set up a contact cadence, and add notes for contacts the system did not already identify from emails.

  5. Reach out: I do not believe in overly formulaic emails, and I don’t believe in unthinking “hello, what’s up?” emails. The sweet spot is in between. When I see someone thriving, I congratulate them for it. When I see someone struggling, I tell them I’ve been there (and will be there again - circle of life). I definitely share a remembrance if I have one. And I offer a simple next step - I’d love to connect if you’re interested in that.

  6. Don’t get discouraged: If you’re not getting ghosted, you’re not being expansive enough. Any relationship is the result of two parties. You may remember someone, and they may not remember you. That second party may have changed, may be overly career-oriented and shortsided about your influence, may have not gotten the gospel of help, or may have always been a person who prefers not connecting. They may literally not remember you and find it unnecessary to continue. They may never have seen the message. I would caution against following up more than once, unless this person holds the key to some future for which you strive. In that case, you have to push forward. It’s okay if you reach out to someone who never responds. It just confirms you are not just staying within the same network you always frequent.

  7. Keep your commitment: Don’t ghost someone you reached out to initially. Set up time and talk. Tell them what you’ve been up to and ask them to share their recent trajectory as well. Ask about their family. Do they still like TV on the Radio? Hey, let’s keep in touch. That’s it. Make a note in your tool. One way to keep your commitment is to not “overcommit.” Don’t reach out to 10 people at once and set up 10 calls. You will not be able to fulfill, and you’ll go down in someone’s notebook as a curio who asked to talk and then never did.

This is just the start. Feel free to think about your contacts differently - or add or subtract steps. If you have other tips for the Survival Signal audience, let me know! Above all, hopefully this gives you the confidence to start plumbing your contacts to find someone who can help you today. And also hopefully you’ll be a little more receptive to someone who reaches out to you that you don’t quite remember. Help and be helped, that’s the name of the game.