It is relatively easy to maintain crucial connections when you are a regular in the office and able to attend industry events. However, things change when you go away on maternity, paternity, sabbatical or study leave, or are absent for a long period for any other reason. We often feel that our network dissipates before our eyes the moment we step out of the office and stop attending events, and as the anxiety of not wanting to impose descends, it is natural to pull away from business connections.
Re-establishing your network on your return to work is not a “nice-to-have”, but a “must-have”, on both a professional and a personal level, and it is not difficult to do if you approach the task in a structured way and prepare the ground before you put on your out-of-office.
Allocating time to networking in the flurry of returning to work is not just a way of strengthening your professional profile after a period away. The social aspect of any business relationship – be it internal to the office or external – is tremendously significant. Whether you are naturally a team-player or work best when left to your own devices, feeling a part of a bigger purpose will act as a major motivator and help ease you back into the work environment. As a deeply social species, we feel our most authentic selves when we connect with others – a colleague, a client, or a business contact – who share our values and are working towards similar goals. And it is crucial that you make a commitment to initiate the renewal of those connections for your personal wellbeing, as well as your professional benefit.
When I returned from maternity leave, I had a four-month-old at home and still no set routine. So, of course, attending networking events was the last thing on my mind. Yet I was craving the company of those who shared my new identity as a professional working mother, and that was my incentive to revive my networking skills. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now honestly say which strategies were worth investing in. Below is my tried-and-tested guide on how not to let your professional identity wither away when you leave the office.
Before you go: the “backburner” strategy
The “backburner” strategy ensures that your hard-won contacts remain valid while you are away. This doesn’t have to mean scheduling in endless coffees and writing countless emails, but could involve taking one or more of the following steps before you go away:
- Compose a list of your most valued contacts – both internal and external – so that you know who is in “your network”.
- If possible, send an email to each individual contact to advise them that you will be away and when you might be back, giving as many details as you feel comfortable, depending on the level of your connection. The easiest way of doing this is by grouping your contacts into different categories (for example, “A” for the closest; “B” for more formal; “C” for business acquaintances, and so on), composing one email for each of the categories and then sending it to each contact as applicable. Don’t forget to add a short personal message in each of the emails, so that they do not read as copy-and-paste jobs.
- Formulate a plan for how you will treat each of your contacts or contact categories while you are away – to save time in doing so while you should be studying, caring or just on a break.
- Make sure that you have connected with your contacts either on LinkedIn or using a networking app – StayTouch is my favourite.
While you are on leave: follow your plan – in your spare moments
- Follow your plan: make time to stay in touch with your connections, wherever you are going. This does not have to take long. Use LinkedIn or your other social media to keep tabs on their professional news and moves, commenting when possible and appropriate. This takes minimal time but creates a sense that you remain present in the professional world.
- If at all possible, aim to touch base with your “A list” contacts every couple of months, perhaps arranging a coffee, lunch, or a call to keep the relationship going, depending on how you have planned to keep in touch with that person.
- If you are away for a prolonged period that stretches over Christmas, ensure that you send Christmas cards to all of your most valuable (“A list”) contacts, both inside and outside your organisation.
The price of taking the above steps may be a day or two spent preparing the lists and doing the contacts inventory, and short periods of “work” while you put your plan into action during your leave, but it means that you do justice to the months and years that you have previously spent accumulating your valuable connections. In terms of the time spent, you are in fact investing in your career and your future, so give this exercise the time that it deserves. Rest assured that the time you dedicate to this will pay off in personal loyalty (and future opportunities!). Bear in mind that even a professional relationship is still a relationship, and in my experience it is those relationships that I “kept warm” when it was not a part of my job that later brought in the most benefit professionally. People like to be remembered, even with a quick scribble on a Christmas card.
On your return to work: don’t be shy about reconnecting
If you discover on your return to work that, despite your efforts, your connections appear to have evaporated, it is important to remember that this is in fact unlikely to be the case. Even if you have never been a conscious “networker”, you will have organically nourished and nurtured connections both inside and outside your organisation. There is never a bad time to revive those connections – if you got on at one point, there is a good chance you will get on again. I have dropped some good connections and re-connected years later – and we picked up our conversation where we left it.
So, on your return, do a similar exercise to your pre-leave inventory-taking. Review your previous contacts and make a list of the people you know and trust and whose advice you feel could be useful. Drop them a line. Be honest and to explain that you have been out of action for a while – but you are back now and looking forward to a new chapter in your life. If you need a refresher in how to take the first steps in (re)forging a network, see my previous blog Networking for lawyers: the essentials.
The worst that can happen is that you hear nothing back or the person is unwilling to meet up. Neither is a fatal scenario, although you have to be prepared for them. Learning to deal with rejection is an essential part of growing and shaping your network – do not let it hold you back.