When I think about the connections I’ve made and the relationships I have maintained I can’t come up with a clear and concise answer for how to keep connections. There are a lot of factors that go into maintaining these relationships. Location is huge and how you connected is pretty big too. It is always going to be easier to maintain connections that are in the same town, or relatively close to where you are located, than staying connected with people who live far away. It can be done, but it is just a little more difficult. I’m going to break this down into a few sections and hopefully my experiences will help you all, or will at least be a reference for ideas for you!
Connections near you:
Connections in the same city, or within an hour or two, are the simplest. You should stay in communication with them and talk about common things in your area. Some examples are listed below:
Professors: Let’s start simple. Even though professors might not be the first people that come to mind when thinking of networking connections, they deserve to be talked about. Professors can connect you with alumni or other people in academia; they can (and probably will) be references for you either for graduate school or for employment in your future. Talk to your professors, establish a professional relationship with them, or at least with a few of them. I have been fortunate enough to attend conferences with a couple professors and have had them as advisors for student organizations I was in leadership positions of. (Speaking of conferences and student organizations, BE INVOLVED! More on this coming soon to the “college life” page!) – This semester I am not in class with two of my professors, but I make it a point to stop in their office once a week and at least say “Hello! How’s your week been?”. I usually ask them about something happening on campus or something they are involved with as well. In turn, they ask what I’ve been up to, how classes and work are going, how graduate school searches and applications are going, etc. and we stay really connected. Use your professors and advisors as resources!
Industry professionals that are in your area are also not too difficult, but are a little more of a stretch if you don’t see them every week. My advice for this would be to just randomly check in with them. If you can visit their office, great! If it is a simple email, that’s great too! – I had an adjunct professor one semester that worked in the Athletic Department for the University. I saw this as an amazing opportunity to pick her brain about her job and the path she took to get where she is. The first or second week of classes I talked to her and told her about my interests and goals (at the time I was not very specific with what I wanted to do, but knew I wanted more experience no matter where it came from). She is an amazing woman and has helped me so much since that day! I talked to her regularly before or after class and when the semester ended I job shadowed her a couple of times. She told me about some volunteer opportunities within the athletic department and with her specifically. I volunteered to help immediately! After that semester I emailed her when school started the next year to schedule her and her coworker as guest speakers for my student organization I was president of at the time. From there, I asked about more volunteer opportunities, which ultimately led me to interning with her for the past year. I have learned so much and found an area of sport that I enjoy more than I ever thought I would! I’ve used her as a reference for graduate school and asked for advice for graduate assistantships as well. This all happened because I introduced myself, shared my interests, and asked how I could gain more experience.
Not every experience will turn out this way, but you never know if you don’t try. Miss every shot you don’t take right? :)
Connections not near you:
Connections outside of your city or area, this one is incredibly difficulty to make suggestions on so instead I’m going to just tell you about some of my experiences, even the bad ones!
First, I, along with my executive board, planned a networking trip to Nashville, Tennessee in Spring of 2014. We visited the Nashville Sounds (Triple A Affiliate of the Oakland A’s), Nashville Predators, Vanderbilt Athletics/IMG Representatives, Ryman Auditorium, and the Nashville Sports Council. (Keep in mind that from this trip my networking experience was a little different because for two months prior to going I had been emailing these people to set up tours, meetings, parking arrangements, and whatever else needed to be planned. You can absolutely have this kind of experience too, but at the very least you can see how I handled some of these relationships afterwards.) After we did all of the tours and meetings I hand wrote thank you notes to EVERY person we spoke with. Just to give you an idea, the Predators had 10 people in our meeting room at one point, they ALL got a thank you note. (See my post on how to write professional thank you notes here!) I also added most of them on LinkedIn. I say most because some of them I either didn’t personally talk to, or I felt I didn’t get to know well enough to warrant a LinkedIn connection notification. I think it is important to not use LinkedIn by adding a professional after hearing their name one time, you should have a relationship and feel confident that when they see your name they will know who you are.
As time has gone on I have not stayed in contact with some of them for various reasons, but there are still two or three people from that trip that I keep updated on what I am doing and they keep me up to date on job opportunities or experiences that they think I’d be interested in. Some of the ones who I have not stayed in contact with are because they have switched jobs (out of the sports industry), I’ve lost their contact information because of a job change, or simply because they don’t respond or seem disinterested. It happens. You won’t be able to keep close connections with everyone you meet. Those who I have stayed in contact with though I try to email about once a semester or more if there is something that I really want to talk to them about. I also keep a close eye on them on LinkedIn. Recently one of the men I met from Nashville Sports Council took a different job in a different area of sports. I liked his job change on LinkedIn and researched the company. When I send him my next email I will ask about the move and the new company. I don’t just want to talk about myself with these connections, I also want to talk about them and what they’ve been up to.
Second, there is no such thing as a bad connection. It’s kind of like publicity; they say no form of publicity is bad publicity. The more people you know in and out of the industry the more educated you are and the more chance you have to learn of new things going on, companies, job openings, volunteer opportunities, etc. With that being said, there are some times when taking a step back might not be the worst idea. I had established a professional relationship with someone in a leadership role of a professional organization that was within my event planning interest area. This person often emailed a few of us job, networking, and educational opportunities. Which was great! However, after trying to bring this person to campus to guest speak and failing to schedule it, the situation became a little tense. I think it was unfortunate that schedules did not work out and that communication was difficult because of busy schedules by all parties. After a somewhat negative email being received I replied with an email where I tried to be as professional as possible and basically say “I’m sorry that schedules are not working out, but we are unable to have you on campus this semester. Please understand this and maybe we can try again in the fall.” After that I did not hear from the individual and I thought that perhaps my professional relationship with them and their organization was over. Recently I received an email from the same person with information about an upcoming conference and when I replied saying that I unfortunately could not attend because of work, I received a reply that my unavailability was not a problem and if I needed any help with post graduation life to please let them know. – I believe that by trying to handle the situation professionally and taking a step back the connection is still there. If I would have replied negatively or rude I think the connection would no longer exist.
Third, don’t overlook academic connections. During one of my conferences I attended I was approached about graduate school. To be 100% honest, I was about as against going to graduate school as a student could be! Even being against it, I engaged in conversation about it anyways. After hearing their pitch and doing some thinking I realized I might actually want to pursue it! The first program director that approached the group I was attending the conference with was from a university and program that really wasn’t for me, however I was very nice and inquisitive about their program. I decided to approach some of the graduate students attending the conference and ask their opinions about their program and graduate school in general. They led me to the director of their program and we had a great conversation. I gave him a business card and was very honest by telling him I really had not done much research on graduate programs, but was extremely interested in the program. He also gave me his business card and told me to contact him with any questions or if I decided to apply to their program. My professor, attending this conference with my group, also had a conversation with the program director regarding my potential interest in graduate school as well as my background and experience (another example of why connecting with your professors is important!). I’ve since then reached out to the director and applied to their program. Fingers crossed! --- To expand on this, the graduate students I met there and discussed all of this with are now people I talk to regularly and have helped me so, so much with my graduate school search! They may be more of friends, but they're also networking connections and have played an important role in my career and academic advancement.