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3 Ways to Make the Most of Your Alumni Network

Nov. 21, 2019 Harvard Business Review

Almost every professional knows it’s a good idea to leverage your alumni network. After all, attending the same college or graduate program gives you a shared history — and that commonality is a great excuse to connect with other interesting, accomplished people. But in practice, it’s more difficult. Beyond staying in touch with your pre-existing friend group, how can you build relationships with other alumni without it seeming awkward or transactional?

In my book Stand Out, I write extensively about how to expand your professional network, including through alumni connections. Here are three strategies my readers and coaching clients have found most useful.

First, there’s a basic step a shocking number of professionals overlook: provide an annual update to your alumni magazine’s class notes column. This serves three purposes. First, it makes you findable by other alumni in similar fields or with related interests. (This is especially important if you’ve gotten married or otherwise changed your name post-graduation.) If you’re launching a startup, for instance, a short update might well pique the interest of a fellow alum who’s now a VC. Second, it provides an easy opportunity for existing contacts with whom you’ve fallen out of touch — so-called “dormant ties” — to reach out again. These connections can be quite powerful, because you have the sense of familiarity and trust born of a long history, but your careers may have taken unexpected directions that have suddenly become relevant. Third, the most avid readers of alumni magazines are – not surprisingly – the alumni office of your institution. Their primary goal is fundraising, of course, so if you’ve experienced great success, you may find yourself on their prospect list. But it’s also in their interest to promote their relationship with illustrious graduates, so staying on their radar means the possibility of getting tapped for awards, special committees, or even delivering a commencement address.

Another important way to leverage your alumni network is to volunteer for a role that gives you an excuse to be in touch with other classmates. Marketing consultant Robbie Kellman Baxter, whom I profiled in Stand Out, doubled down on her business school alumni connections through a variety of strategies, including serving as a class reunion chair and launching an alumni breakfast speaker series in her region.

Those activities not only exposed other alumni to her name — she’d introduce the speakers at events, and send emails promoting upcoming activities — but gave her a reason to proactively reach out to people she’d like to meet (“are you planning to join us at reunion?” or “would you like to be next month’s featured speaker?”). Her commitment and stewardship built trust, and eventually, more than half of her business came from fellow grads. Universities are eager for graduates to serve on a variety of committees, because they know that alumni are more likely to respond to an invitation from a peer, rather than, say, a development staffer. If you’re unsure where to start, you can contact your alumni office and ask about opportunities to serve.

Finally, another great way to tap alumni connections is to share your professional expertise. Universities are desperate to keep their alumni connected, so they strive to offer resources that add value throughout one’s career. Alumni offices will frequently host professional development webinars; you could volunteer to lead one, exposing hundreds or even thousands of fellow graduates to your expertise (even those who don’t attend will receive promotional messages featuring your name and bio).

You could also offer to give a talk to your local alumni group, or serve on a panel as needed. When one of my books was released, I spoke to about 50 attendees at the home of a high-profile alumna with whom I’ve subsequently become friends. And once you’ve broken in one with club, you can often leverage that into additional speaking opportunities. Alumni club presidents are frequently connected with one another, and share recommendations for speakers. When I spoke for one alumni club in Charlotte, the former president proactively suggested that if I were traveling to other cities — including international destinations — he’d be pleased to help me secure other engagements.

It makes all the sense in the world to invest in cultivating your alumni network. Yet many professionals don’t make the time, or are unsure how to proceed. By following the strategies above, you can deepen your ties to fellow alums in a way that feels natural and comfortable – while creating the possibility for meaningful new business opportunities.

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