About 3 years ago, I was sitting at my desk at work, minding my own business, when I got an e-mail from a colleague inviting me to join LinkedIn. “What is this LinkedIn thing anyway,” I asked myself, “some sort of pyramid scam?” I thought highly of the person who sent me the invitation, so I went to the LinkedIn Web site to see what it was about. At the time, I didn’t see how it would help me, so I didn’t join.
A few months later, a summer intern who was working with me sent an e-mail inviting me to join his LinkedIn network. When I failed to respond after a few days, he confronted me. I admitted that I was not using the service. “I have spent years developing a professional reputation and building a network of colleagues and friends,” I told him. “Why would I want to show all that off to the rest of the world?”
More invitations came in. Eventually, one came from a very senior executive I regarded very highly. I could not refuse his invitation. I had no clue how a tool such as LinkedIn (or Facebook, or other social/business networking sites) would help me. I was now committed to finding out.
Your e-persona: It’s more than just LinkedIn
Even if you refuse to sign up for any social-networking sites, there is information about you on the Internet. Are you familiar with the term “vanity Google”? If not, search online for it, then search for your name. It’s interesting what comes up, isn’t it? This is your e-persona: the record of yourself as preserved and presented on the Web. Every employer considering hiring you will likely search online for your name. I do it with everyone who makes my shortlists.
Online social-networking sites can be a part of your e-persona, and unlike the Internet as a whole, you can control what is in your profile on these sites. For this reason alone, actively managing your e-persona through use of an online social network is a good idea. Like a well-composed résumé or cover letter, a well-constructed e-persona reflects a measure of thoughtfulness, professionalism, and competence. Whether it’s a personal Web site or your LinkedIn or Facebook profile, putting forward a consciously conceived professional image can’t hurt.
The corollary is also true: Sophomoric, sarcastic, or inappropriate material can be a lasting liability. Many stories circulate about employers who checked out a prospective employee’s Facebook page only to find embarrassing photos and comments.
Three good uses (and one really bad one) for online social-networking sites
Professional networking: Even when you are not looking for a job, you can use online social-networking sites to scan for opportunities. Connecting with people in different organizations and understanding who knows whom within your network are very powerful assets for professional advancement. I’ve found it interesting to observe how my network connects to those of my friends and have discovered several independent mutual acquaintances. In a few cases, this unexpected link has led to new opportunities. Many social-networking sites have an array of functions and features that allow you to search for people: past friends and colleagues, people who do interesting work at interesting companies, and so on. Some of these sites allow you to post and respond to questions, get recommendations, or get introduced to other experts.
Collecting links and friends for the sake of high numbers (hint: a bad idea)
So, whom should you include on your list of links or of friends? If the person called you at work, would you take his or her call? If so, then he or she probably would be appropriate for your LinkedIn network. If this person called you on Friday evening, would you take his or her call? If so, accept their offer of Facebook friendship. Do you send out Christmas cards to 500 people every year?
The warm contact always wins
The power and sheer multitude of Web-based networking tools underscores a fundamental fact: Your real network, not a bunch of names in the “Friends” column of Facebook, is your most important professional and personal asset. Your network will be the source of your future employment, many of your future friends and colleagues, and, quite often, your spouse.
Online tools expand the ways you can connect to others, but they cannot substitute for face-to-face encounters. Whether in an informational interview, a professional mixer, or a social gathering, personal contact imparts momentum to your job search and professional life. If you have a choice between adding five more connections to your LinkedIn list or going out to lunch with a member of your network, choose lunch.
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Image (top): Kelly Krause