Gone, but Not Forgotten

No company likes to dismiss its talented employees because of a rotten economy. But there's a way to keep people working with you even after they stop working for you. Here is a five-point program on how to build a successful alumni network for your company.

Some ideas just keep coming back. A case in point: corporate alumni networks. A few years ago, Fast Company published an article on how to use alumni networks to stay connected to former employees (Hire Today, Gone Tomorrow? August 1998). The argument: Talented people have so many opportunities that you can't keep them forever. But even if they stop working for you, they can work with you.

Companies continue to say good-bye to star performers -- only now, parting ways stems from the pain of recession rather than the lure of startups. And what's the new tool in this boom-gone-bust environment? Alumni networks.

"The goal is not to retain employees," says Cindy Lewiton Jackson, director of global career development and alumni relations for Bain & Co., a pioneer of the concept. "The goal is to build lifelong affiliation." Katie Weiser, global director of alumni relations at Deloitte Consulting, adds, "Our people will be movers and shakers wherever they land next. We're planting seeds for the future."

The alumni phenomenon is sweeping all kinds of organizations -- and for good reasons. First, once the economy bounces back, alumni may want to return to the company. Second, one way to maintain a good reputation in tough times is to cultivate positive alumni relationships.

But how do you build a network that works? Here's a five-point program culled from leading alumni networks.

1. There's more than one way to network. An alumni community can be either an official company initiative or a grassroots effort. It comes down to ownership. Many consulting firms either manage their own networks or outsource them to companies such as SelectMinds, a small New York-based outfit that helps companies create and manage online alumni portals.

Smaller companies usually prefer a hands-off approach. Forrester Research Inc., based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wanted less control rather than more. "We didn't want this network to be a Forrester-owned activity," says Tim Riley, VP of strategic growth. "The goal was to have something owned by the people."

Three years ago, Forrester partnered with Corporate Alumni Inc., a Boston-based company whose technology builds and manages online alumni communities that leave decisions such as content to a governing board of alumni. Forrester's role is to inform departing employees of the network and encourage them to join. So far, Forrester has paid about $10,000 and registered about 200 alumni.

2. If you build it, they may not come. Erik Gilberg, the managing director of Deloitte Consulting's Bay Area practice, learned that lesson the hard way. At first, he says, the firm's alumni network "felt like the program was for Deloitte's benefit instead of theirs. We realized that we can formulate all kinds of ideas, but unless we ask our alumni what they want, they'll lose interest." Today, Deloitte has a global advisory board of alumni and a local equivalent for many of its offices.

3. Membership better have its privileges. Alumni networks need to create explicit reasons for people to join and stay -- like landing new jobs. Publishing a regularly updated alumni directory is the number-one benefit. Some companies are even equipping their job-seeking alumni with how-to books, training classes, and job-referral programs. "There is a greater demand for jobs as opposed to bodies to fill them, so we've adapted," says Jackson, who is helping about 200 Bain alumni find jobs. "Their needs change, but the focus is the same: How can we help?"

4. Don't be surprised if your alumni surprise you. Consider the case of a former senior manager at Deloitte: Five years after leaving the consulting firm's San Francisco office, Jim Sayre was named president of Cargill eVentures, a Web-based unit of the agribusiness giant. He was strapped for office space, so Deloitte allowed him and three colleagues to camp out for a few months. Once the unit got up and running, it wound up generating more than $1 million of new business for Deloitte. Says Sayre: "The presence of an alumni network effectively invites you back to renew old relationships."

5. What are you waiting for? These days, companies are churning out alumni at a depressingly rapid clip, so "now is the time when our alumni need support," says Tracy Keogh, senior vice president of people strategies at Sapient Corp., a business-and-technology consulting firm whose alumni population hit critical mass last year when it laid off close to 1,000 employees. Sapient launched an alumni network, and nearly all of its former staffers have signed up. "As more people left the company, we felt a greater sense of urgency to stay in touch," says Keogh. "We invested a lot in them, and they invested a lot in us. Eventually, we would like to bring many of them back."

Contact Katie Weiser by email (kweiser@dc.com). Click here for more smart moves in tough times.

Sidebar: Plugged In

So how do you get a bunch of former staffers to keep working for you? Cem Sertoglu, CEO of SelectMinds, works with clients such as Accenture, Agilent, and Ernst & Young to answer that question.

Make it personal. People leave for very different reasons and with different levels of experience, so craft different messages. "The network has to be a compelling channel for everybody who participates in it," Sertoglu says.

Not just for job postings. One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is to treat its alumni network solely as a rehiring tool. "Such an agenda will immediately devalue the network in the eyes of alumni." What truly drives successful alumni programs, he says, is the belief that keeping in touch is the right thing to do.

Balance the global and local cultures. Companies with multiple locations need to strike a balance between the presence of the corporate entity and the personality of individual offices. Incorporate local components in the design interface and include office-specific content for targeted groups.

The human stuff matters. People care about how they are represented. Once alumni register, usually their first move is to look up their own record, then their closest friend's record, and then their biggest rival's record. "Naturally, we're curious about how we measure up to former colleagues," says Sertoglu. "It's a kind of progress report."

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