THE BLOG
06/14/2013 02:33 pm ET Updated Aug 14, 2013

The Sanctity of LinkedIn Contacts

As a business professional, what is your most valuable asset: Your MBA, your years of experience or the awards on your shelf? Or maybe it's the profit your business made last quarter or the last successful projected you delivered? Each of these is important and each is valuable, yet none are your most valuable asset. A business professional's most valuable asset is his or her contact list and the relationships fostered with each person on that list.

You may be the top operational, marketing or sales exec at your firm today, earning the big bucks and lunching with the CEO. One buyout, restructuring or economic downturn and you're out pounding the pavement. Your key to the executive washroom no longer works.

It's at times like this that you realize the value of your network. Can you turn to your LinkedIn contacts to ask for referrals in your efforts to gain another job?

You Are Who You Connect With.

Growing up, my father often shared this nugget of wisdom: "Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are." We tend to associate with those who have similar personalities, culture, and/or points of view. In fact, we're highly influenced by those we're maintaining a relationship with so it's no surprise that our personal and professional contacts often reveal quite a bit about us.

Professional contacts are similar. On LinkedIn, your network is there for the world to see and says as much about you as the details in your profile. What does yours say? What is the quality of your contacts? How aligned are they with your personal brand and professional experience?

The LinkedIn Rules of Engagement

Do you have a strategy for connecting with others on LinkedIn? Given the importance of networking to business professionals, having a clear strategy here is more important than on other social media channels, such as Twitter for example. Twitter is truly a mass communication tool where we can follow and engage with a wide audience, eavesdrop on others' conversations, and engage with people we've never met or hope to meet.

Do you connect with anyone who sends you a request? Many do, justifying the connection to a person they don't really know or have worked with as "community building." However, LinkedIn is not Twitter. The purpose of LinkedIn is professional networking. There's an unwritten rule that your professional contacts are those you know or have worked with. People that you can either recommend or not -- and provide a reason for in either case.

Arguably, what wasn't planned by the founders of this growing social network is what your connections -- and your engagement with them -- say about you. A large LinkedIn network of people whom you don't really know is counterproductive and a poor reflection on the quality of your network and networking skills.

The Value of Referrals

I'm often asked to refer a colleague in my LinkedIn network. The assumption is that if I'm connected to them, I know them and can either make an introduction or make a recommendation. If my response is, "Well, I don't really know that person," what does that say about me? Why am I connected to them? What is my standard in relationship building?

If I don't know the contact well, but make an introduction anyway, what is the likelihood that the recipient of the introduction will respond? What does it say about me if they don't? Or if they do, but turn out to be a poor contact, and I didn't warn the other person because of my lack of relationship with the person they thought I knew, what does that say about me?

One of the most important facets of business and business networking is the referral. Referring one colleague to another says much about you. A quality introduction and referral to someone who delivers is a credit earned, a reputation verified. Conversely, a referral to someone who doesn't deliver is as much a slight on you as it is on them.

Beware the One-Click Recommendation

The same applies to those I "recommend" via LinkedIn's latest scheme to increase activity and users -- the one-click recommendation. Your recommendation is your word; it's a declaration that you vouch for this person's ability on a specific skill set. Businesses take those recommendations seriously, although I fear those granting their one-click endorsements are less conscious of the importance of the act.
If you recommend someone who is then hired or recommended by another colleague -- in part based on your recommendation -- and that person fails to meet expectations, it's a poor reflection on you. How skilled and knowledgeable are you? What's the integrity of your network?

The Sanctity of LinkedIn Contacts

There is sanctity to the contacts you foster on LinkedIn. They represent your social graph and who you do business with. They are a reflection of you.

Unfortunately, social media has trained us to value quantity over quality. The more connections you have, the more popular you must be. The more connections you have, the more influential you must be. We've lost the old-fashioned principle that less is sometimes more.

Your contact list is your most valuable asset; build, nurture, and protect it. Before you accept that next connection request blindly, think about what it says about you.