When I first joined LinkedIn 10+ years ago, the premise of the site was simple and intriguing – connect with people I know, see their connections, and allow them access to mine. I could immediately see the utility of this for a wide range of professional pursuits in which having direct access to one’s professional connections, as well as a more expansive network beyond those connections, could be beneficial, e.g., when engaging in business development, or job searching, or event planning, or otherwise undertaking various professional projects and activities.
Back in those early years, before sending a LinkedIn invitation, we were asked to prove and categorize our relationship with the individual to whom we were reaching out: Were they a colleague? A friend? A classmate? Or if they did not fit into a pre-determined category, could we provide their email address? LinkedIn underscored that we should only connect with people we know and trust – and this made sense, as there was an expectation that users would be willing to facilitate introductions to each other’s connections and to implicitly, if not explicitly, endorse each other.
Over the years, something changed – no longer are we asked to prove our relationship with a potential contact. Instead, we are now encouraged to meet and exceed the 500 connection milestone; and it has become a fairly common occurrence to link with people we do not know.
While I can certainly see the advantage of having a more expansive network, I think something has been lost; namely, the ability for users to comfortably lean on their own connections, as well as each other’s networks, in moments when this may be useful. Of course this functionality has not been removed from the platform – we can still see all of our connections as well as their networks – but this no longer appears to be the primary feature that brings new users to LinkedIn, as the site has become more of a personal (and corporate) marketing and branding platform.
Given that many of us now have networks populated by a fair number of people we do not know well (or at all), it may seem that we are ships passing in the night as we read our LinkedIn feeds. Understandably we may feel reluctant to lean on people we do not know in our own networks, and similarly reluctant to help if we receive a request from someone we do not know and where the connection seems too attenuated.
So, notwithstanding my nostalgia for LinkedIn as it was, I am convinced that we can recapture some of that original spirit and utility. Here are five ideas:
Remember that the core of your network is still people you know well. Because the original focus of LinkedIn was connecting with those we knew and trusted, many of our networks are still populated with many people who fit into that category. In situations where those connections, or their contacts, could be helpful, do not hesitate to reach out, as this was the main reason you originally linked.
Identify contacts you would like to know better. There are likely quite a number of people in your network who you do not know but who you would genuinely like to know better. In the spirit of expanding your network in a meaningful way, consider reaching out to one or two people a week and ask if they might have 15-20 minutes to meet by phone. You can identify the elephant in the room, e.g., we are connected but have never had an opportunity to meet; I would welcome the chance to connect, as I know we have crossed paths before, or are in similar professional circles, etc. In addition to satisfaction that comes from making a new connection, this type of outreach is also an investment in your personal brand, as part of that brand includes the quality and breadth of your professional relationships.
Be willing to reach out to people you do not know even if there is a more immediate ask. Push yourself to reach out to contacts you do not know, in situations where there is a more concrete need and those contacts could be genuinely helpful. But keep the requests in line with the nature of the connection – e.g., it might be premature to ask them to introduce you to people in their network, but is there other information they have that may be useful to you?
Be open to outreach from people you do not know. I tend to find that if someone in my network who I do not know reaches out to me, they are usually asking for something that is in line with our less familiar relationship. For many, it takes a dash of courage to reach out to someone they do not know, and it is disappointing for them when they do not receive a response, particularly via a platform that was originally conceived of as a way to network professionally. Consider making a more regular habit of checking and responding to your LinkedIn messages. For many of us, it is satisfying to know that we are able to offer assistance or otherwise be a resource. Moreover, our networks and our brands are enhanced when we take an opportunity to be responsive and helpful.
Focus on posting content that will facilitate more meaningful connection with your network. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have redefined how we connect in our personal lives, and while “me-centric” content is a primary feature of those sites by design, the practice of posting such content has crept over to LinkedIn as well. However, with your professional network, the more powerful way to deepen connectivity is to focus on offering ideas and content that will be of service to at least one major constituency of your network. Sharing information that is useful to others then becomes part of your personal and professional brand, and further incentivizes people to be a part of your network and to have you be a part of theirs.