I am going to assume that since you are reading this, you at least value the concept of having a network and that I don’t have to tell you that most new jobs, new business leads and new opportunities come through your network. Maybe you have a large flourishing network. Maybe the concept of the verb “networking” makes your stomach turn. But if you can’t or won’t nurture people who matter to you, don’t expect them to do much for you when the time comes.

    First of all, I am NOT going to tell you that you need to be on Facebook and Twitter and I will shun the use of the words “Social Media” to the dismay of some of my cool marketing friends. There are simple ways to keep a thriving network.

    Rule #1: you have to care. Care about people and genuinely want to keep the people that you have worked with, volunteered with or hung out with in a positive place in your life. A consistent message I hear from people over the years is that they feel abandoned when close work friends move on to new companies and are never heard from again. Look closely at how you behave once you move out of a circle of people. Do you assume that since you “don’t have much going on” that they don’t want to hear from you? Your relationships grew out of those convenient opportunities to grab lunch or a cup of coffee on average days on the job. You have to create those opportunities now by picking up the phone and letting them know you still want to get together. If you honestly want to keep the relationship, you will find the time.

    Second, (and here’s a news flash) EVERYONE IS BUSY. Yeah, you are busy. I know. No one is sitting by the phone – but when it rings isn’t it nice when it’s someone you enjoyed talking to in the past and they called to see how you are doing and to set up time to get together? Of course, it is. And you may have to schedule two or three months out to make it work – but keep that appointment and you have gone a long way to helping people know they are a priority with you. Because it isn’t about being busy – it’s about PRIORITIES. Make keeping your network alive a priority – instead of watching NCAA basketball, Project Runway or playing Farmville.

    If you start out with these intentions, here are some good habits to create to make your network flourish:

    1. Use the NOTES section of Outlook. Simple. Nearly everyone has Outlook (or Entourage if you are on a Mac.) Make a couple of notes in Outlook when you talk to members of your network: The date you last spoke or saw them, names of spouses, kids or pets, favorite sports teams, vacation spots, anything that will jog your memory the next time that you speak to them and let them know that you listen and you care. You’ll score plenty of points when you ask how their trip to Aspen was or if Snickers is housetrained yet.

    2. Make a weekly goal to call 5 people in your network by Friday. Go through your contacts and select the easy ones first. Give yourself 15 minutes a day to do it. To be honest, you’ll leave a lot of voice mails. But if you can just reconnect with a couple each week, you will prevent your network from declining. If you are unsure of what to say, here are some opening lines:
    “I was just going through my contacts and saw your name and knew I had to call you just to check in. Dang, I miss you!”
    “I was just thinking how we used to see each other nearly everyday working on project X and I miss that. Not the project – just talking. Want to get together?”
    “Susie Q asked about you the other day and I was caught flat-footed because I realized its been ages since I saw you. How are you doing?”

    3. Coffee, Lunch, Beers, Taco Bell runs. All are great excuses to get together with someone from your network. If you eat alone OR eat with the same people day after day, you are in danger of becoming caught in repetitive thought patterns. Put some change into your life by inviting someone you like but don’t see enough to join you.

    4. Insert this into EVERY networking conversation: “What can I do to help you?” Seems simple, but it’s a sentence that carries great meaning and can open up your conversation in a whole new way. They may be looking for a new babysitter, wondering about a strange sound in their engine block or how to ask for a raise. Whatever it may be, listen and then follow up and DO whatever you have committed to. Usually it is easy: look at my resume, ask me to lunch again, listen to me tell you about my recent bad day. But I guarantee that saying this sentence will make you and them feel better. (Oh, and by rule of reciprocity, there is often something they would like to do for you as well.)

    5. Use LinkedIn. There are a gaggle of other applications to use as well, but to be taken seriously, LinkedIn is the granddaddy of them all. That is a topic for an entirely new blog posting. I have used it since 2004 and can tell you that I use it nearly everyday. Yeah, it’s that important. But more on that later. (f you are interested, here is what a complete profile looks like.)

    6. Make some tough calls. You know the ones I mean. After a month or two of calling your pals that you weren’t that out of touch with, it’s time to reach out to some of those people who you have ignored for a while. First bosses, first employees, people who helped make you who you are today and that you have lost touch with. It feels hard to do, but there are two things that will make it easier: (1) they are going to be THRILLED to hear from you. After all this time, you’ll find that all they really want to know is that you are doing okay and that you remember them well. You are and you do. (2) You will feel terrific about reaching out and reconnecting. That little bit of guilt you have for not being the one to call will go away and you will want to repeat that over and over again.

    And THAT is how you create a thriving network.