Question: “Now that I’m back on the job and working again on a full-time basis, I don’t see how I can possibly keep my networking efforts going strong and maintain relationships with all the people I’ve built up as contacts in recent months.  Do you have any suggestions?”

This is a great, great question and one I’m sure many readers out there also wonder about — or at least hope to wonder about in the near future when they’ve landed their next assignment!  On one hand, people hear incessant drumbeating from career coaches and other experts about the role that networking plays in ongoing career success.  On the other hand, there’s only so much time in the day, and most people don’t have the bandwidth to juggle hundreds of social contacts in addition to performing their daily job functions and engaging in that other item colloquially known as “having a life.”

So where do you draw the line?  How do you maintain a healthy balance and stay connected with people without overcomitting yourself and sacrificing your friends, family, and personal sanity?  For starters, I think it’s high time we all first admit that there’s an upper limit to the number of professional contacts a person can maintain, especially when working in a full-time capacity.  This number may be several dozen contacts for some people, who prefer more intimate relationships, or several hundred contacts for others who are able to maintain strong interpersonal bonds on a more casual, sporadic level.  Either way, you’ve got to start by knowing your own tendencies in this regard, the amount of socializing you can tolerate, and the number of relationships you believe you can comfortably maintain on an ongoing basis.   Got that last number in mind?  Good.  Now double it.  Because in today’s world, you’ve got to aim high in this regard and avoid getting sucked back into the trap of putting your job priorities first and your “social capital” second; otherwise you’ll put your future career prospects in severe jeopardy!

Once you’ve put this issue in proper perspective, and made it a priority, make sure you’ve then got an organized system in place for tracking and managing your contacts, whether this involves using a software program such as Outlook, Act!, or Salesforce.com — or simply tracking your relationships in a Rolodex or via good old-fashioned pad-and-paper.  Next, enhance this system by adding some method that allows you to “index” or “prioritize” your contacts in terms of their influence/importance to your career marketability.  I hate to say it, but all contacts aren’t created equal.  Who are the folks that deserve to be on your “A” list in terms of their decision-making power or access to other, wider networks?  Who should be on the “B” list and also be flagged for aggressive regular contact?  How about the “C” list?  Or the “D” list of people who you may like, and have enjoyed meeting once or twice, but who you should probably let drift away due to their fairly tangential bearing on your life and career goals?

Obviously, you’ll want to move heaven and earth to have lunch/coffee with your top “A List” contacts at least once or twice per year, if not more frequently.  These folks will be your first line of defense if your career should ever take a sudden wrong turn.  As for your more casual acquaintances, you’ll have to resort to some less time-intensive techniques for staying in touch.  Here’s a quick list we’ve whipped up of some creative “low maintenance” ways you can keep a large number of people in orbit around you:

— Make sure you’re connected to as many of your contacts as possible in the LinkedIn system, since this not only keeps your name in front of people in electronic fashion, but also allows them to ask you for small favors from time to time that will help keep your relationship fresh, meaningful, and relevant

— Practice the art of “being thoughtful” as much as possible; constantly scan for articles, books, leads, and other things that might be of interest to the folks in your network, then make a point to act on these ideas within 24-48 hours of the idea hitting you; otherwise, they’ll never happen

— Be diligent about sending everybody on your list a Christmas card each year, in addition to perhaps hosting a holiday party, summer barbecue, cocktail party, golf tournament, or other type of annual event; even if certain people in your network decline to attend or can’t attend regularly, the gesture of inviting them will still be noted and appreciated

— Invite people (gently and tactfully) to contribute to any charitable causes/events you may be involved with and make it clear that you’d be happy to contribute to their philanthropic efforts, in return.  Also, when given the chance to contribute to these causes, don’t be stingy — dig deep and write it off as a noble (and relatively inexpensive) investment in your networking efforts and career success

— Lastly, if there are certain groups of contacts who relate directly to your current job or business interests, consider inviting them to serve as an informal “advisory group”on your behalf and then host them for dinner, lunch, drinks, and the like where you can pick their brain on a regular basis; many of the best networkers we know practice this technique and swear by it!

In closing, I’ll confess that the “how do I manage a huge network of personal relationships?” question is one that I wrestle with all the time, personally, since I happen to work in a role that exposes me to hundreds of new people (clients, consultants, employers, recruiters, etc.) each year — and I’m paranoid that I’ll run into a familiar face at a local Starbucks one day, “space out” on their name, and stand there looking like a complete idiot!  And while I admit to having a built-in advantage over most people, in that I can send out my newsletter every month to maintain at least some semblance of contact, I assure you that I also practice each and every one of the five techniques I’ve listed above — and that they’ve been tremendously helpful in keeping my network in peak condition.

So while it may take a little more finesse for those of you who don’t work in networking-centric job roles, if you meet regularly with your core 10-20 allies each year, at a minimum, and then add one or more of the above strategies into your networking mix, you’ll be able to stay connected with a lot more people than you think — and your career prospects will be a lot better off because of it!