Fast Company

Time to Trim Your Network?

Guilt by association: the company you keep can help your career -- or derail it.

Brad Smith gave a decade of his working life to Andersen. Last year, he was a manager at the company's M&A practice in San Francisco, and he was just a few years away from becoming a partner. Then Enron and Andersen became a single headline, joined in scandal. Enron went bust, Andersen collapsed, and Smith, simply because of the firm he worked for, became a victim of the company he'd kept. Chalk it up to guilt by association.

Of course, it's never been good to be associated with crooks. But in the boom years, you thought about your network the same way you thought about your net worth: It could only go up.

What goes up must come down. These days, says Jeffrey Christian, chairman and CEO at executive search firm Christian & Timbers, "you have to be incredibly careful about who you associate with. Guilt by affiliation can kill a career." Smith says that he hasn't suffered because of the fact that he worked for Andersen -- but he knows of former Andersen colleagues who have been viewed as "tainted goods."

Today, networking is more about managing risk than about growing your Rolodex. Here are four tips from master networkers on how to make your network work for you.

Be clear about who's who within your network. We ask for different things from different categories of people, and we expect different things in return. A friend is different from a network acquaintance, and a network acquaintance is different from a colleague. "It's a simple distinction, but a lot of people get it wrong today," says career consultant Marilyn Moats Kennedy. Also, you need to be clear about who isn't in your network. Says Kennedy: "Only the people who remember who you are, what you do, and can physically recognize you are a part of your network."

Rework your network. "Now's a good time to clean out the closets of our network," says Susan RoAne, who has written several best-selling books on networking. "In this environment, where there's a general flight to safety and quality, the only relationships worth having are relationships based on trust." In other words, it's okay to cross a jerk off your contact list.

Know your end goal. Networking done right is a way to get from point A to point B the fastest, according to headhunter Christian. Your first step: Identify your goal, and work backward to build your network. For example, if your goal is to find a job, call the 10 most influential people you know and ask them to recommend companies and people you should get to know. Don't ask who's hiring -- that's the wrong question.

Do more due diligence. Whatever your situation, the corporate vetting process has been taken to a whole new level. "You can't be too careful," says Robert Strang, a former FBI agent and an executive vice president of Decision Strategies, a New York - based firm that does background checks. "You've got to ask more questions and ask tougher questions. And when you're answering questions, be up front about bad news. "Don't make it an afterthought," says Strang. "I've seen more people not get a job and more acquisitions not take place because of a minor incident that they didn't initially disclose. It's about trust."

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