Have you ever sat at home, waiting by the phone for a call, but found that the call never came? Or what about waiting by the computer for an email, but no messages ever made their way to your Inbox? I have. In fact, many of us have. And it’s especially common after seminars and conferences, where people pass out their business cards but never hear back from the people they gave them to. Sounds disappointing, right? Well, wouldn’t it be even more disappointing if you found out that in a majority of those cases, the person on the other side was also disappointed that you didn’t reach out to them?
In my experience this happens all the time. Both parties pass out their business cards with the intention of staying in touch but then neither actually reaches out afterward. But the good news is that it’s usually not personal. Instead, it’s usually because the other party becomes too busy or is too unorganized, has too many people on their target list, or simply isn’t in the habit of following up with the people that they meet. And in all fairness, all these reasons make sense. But are they still actually good excuses for not staying in touch?
On one hand, most of us are subject to far too much information nowadays and so it’s easy to miss sending a couple of emails or following up with some of the people we meet. On the other hand, though, in a world where finding information and being connected is critical, sometimes it makes no sense why you don’t take the extra step to ensure you reach out to someone after meeting them. And so that’s the premise of the title of this article – a phrase dubbed by networking guru Keith Ferrazzi and not me – that following up is the key to success no matter what field you’re in.
My overarching conclusion is that personal contact matters. That’s because at a conference, you’re all there for the purpose of the conference – to hear the speakers, find a new network, meet people to connect with, and speak to employers; in sum, to make personal gains. For example, at my recent MLT conference in NYC, I was there to meet the new class of fellows, meet a few employers, see a few employers for a second time since I also attended last year, and mingle with staff members of MLT, an organization that I’m highly active in and intend to stay active in. As a result, I probably gave my card or email address out to dozens of people, if not significantly more.
But that’s just an initial connection, and my belief is that following up afterward is a chance to make it more personal – to reach out to someone you really enjoyed meeting or to an employer you especially liked. After all, why go through all the hours and trouble of meeting people, and spending significant time with some of them, if you don’t plan to really connect with them afterward? And that’s especially true if time and organization do become factors, because then people would still tend to reach out to the employers or the people the enjoyed meeting most.
Granted, sometimes it’s easy to follow up when the number of people you meet is low. On the other hand, you’d be surprised not only how many people forget when it is this easy but also how effective following up still is in these situations. And that’s because following up is a personal process, especially when you can reach out in a way that is creative or that jogs their memory. But that can be tough after a mega conference, where memories are abound and where you have too many business cards to be creative with all of them, or to even find all of them in all of your coat pockets. And this description is similar to what I just had in NYC, where a couple hundred people and dozens of employers showed up to mingle.
But despite the actual numbers, I believe that it’s still important to keep in touch with some of the people you meet. That idea is validated by dozens of management studies, one by Marshall Goldsmith for example, that discusses the effects of managers who followed up in an organization. The study showed that managers who were seen as not following up were perceived as only slightly more effective as a group than they were eighteen months earlier. On the other hand, those who did some follow-up experienced a very positive shift in scores, and those who had consistent follow-up had a dramatic, positive impact.
Fortunately, following up today is much easier in our super-connected world of texting, IMs, emails, and social media. I personally like to use these mediums to exchange the information that we talked about at the event. I often tell people I’ll send them URLs of posts here on my website, other URLs, relevant information related to their careers, or introduce them to someone else. In fact, I’ve got a couple of those lingering after my last MLT conference in NYC. On the other hand, though, it’s important to remember that, as you exchange information, following up is not about asking someone what they can do for you or what they might know that can help you. Instead it’s about what you can do for them, and what you can do to sustain a relationship with them.
That’s because the best leaders know that building relationships is critical. That none of us can make it to the top alone and instead that we can achieve a lot more working together. This is especially today, where business is more global, technology more complex, and as the economy steers companies to retain fewer employees. And so leaders must not only be able to focus on the day-to-day problems at their firms, but they must also focus on building the connections and networks to share information more broadly and as a result create more leverage for change. And in the end, I’m optimistic that doing that will help all of us reach our potential to solve some of the world’s biggest business and social problems.
But if that’s true, then I suspect I should stop writing now. I’ve got some emails to send and calls to make, since I just finished two conferences over the past 1.5 weeks. Check back for more details on my recent MLT conference in NYC. I’ll share some details of the actual events and meetings with employers.