MINING THE GOLD IN THE ALUMNI ASSOCIATION
And Its Not Raising Funds For The Stadium
Few alumni associations offer as much as those of professional firms. That terrific accountant or lawyer who worked so hard for you until he or she either received a terrific offer from a company or another firm, or fell off the partnership track, is now an alumnus or alumna.
And while your college alma mater may see you as a source of contributions and endowments, you should see your alumni -- as do many professional firms -- as potential clients and referral sources. In fact, those firms that make much of their alumni do very well indeed in using them for new business development.
They've gone off to companies that will eventually change existing accounting or legal or consulting relationships, and if they think fondly of alma mater, and are kept up-to-date on what alma mater is doing, and the relationship is kept warm and cozy, then it obviously translates into new client relationships.
Rarely, though, do these relationships grow of their own volition. They must be nurtured. Unlike a college-alumni situation, the professional firm-alumni relationship is held together by a very fragile thread. If that relationship isn't identified, strengthened, and constantly supported, it breaks.
Why fragile? Because the employee may have been fired. Or caused to veer off the partnership track. Or not understand or appreciate the value of the original relationship before departure. Or have any number of psychological reactions to what you may see as a nest for the individual, but what the individual sees as a parental or punitive situation. We all know (or think we know) that in the workplace today, loyalty exists only from nine to five, and only until the last paycheck.
This seems to offer little hope for a firm-alumni future. And yet, for those firms that actively pursue it, alumni relations works well. Whether the warmth that parallels the feelings toward such alma maters as Stanford, Harvard or Wellesley exists is difficult to fathom. But ultimately, there is respect, knowledge, and most importantly, preference, for alma matter, regardless of the fragility of the thread.
The Values In Alumni Relationships
The values in sustaining alumni relationships would seem obvious, although the return on investment might not spring immediately to mind.
· Alumni -- former employees of yours to whose training you contributed -- become financial officers and executives of companies that could be your clients
· Sooner or later, they will be in a position to retain, or recommend your firm to work for their companies
· Sooner or later, somebody is going to ask, "Didn't you used to work for Smith & Dale? I'm thinking of retaining them (or I'm thinking of going to work for them). What do you think?"
· Sooner or later, somebody important to you is going to ask them, "You used to work for Smith & Dale. Do they do cash flow management?" Or, How are they on labor relations? And if you do those things, but didn't start to do them until after the alum left, how is he or she going to know that?
But if you have some kind of alumni program, no matter how small, then everybody who used to work for you, and remembers you even somewhat favorably, becomes a salesperson for your firm.
There are two simple objectives to an alumni program -- to keep alumni informed and involved in your firm, and to keep alumni favorably disposed to your firm. There is another objective, which is to establish the kind of relationship that impels the alum to hire or recommend you when possible, but that doesnt happen until the first two objectives are met.
If your college has homecoming games, and fund raising activities and, in some cases, university clubs, then you obviously can't compete for love and attention in that arena. But you can engender and foster a sense of alumni connection. The successful firms do it with everything from newsletters to annual dinners to job referrals. Some firms run simple inexpensive programs, some run elaborate programs that put some college programs to shame.
How To Do It
At the heart of the successful alumni program is long term commitment, planning and organization. Random, inconsistent activities cost as much as planned programs, with half the value. Some ways to look at it...
· Recognize it as a full, on-going project, and assign somebody the task and responsibility to oversee it and make it run. If you've got an in-house marketing department, your problems may be solved in this context. It only works if somebody has both responsibility and authority for it.
· Put a plan down on paper, no matter how simple or bare bones. How can you budget it, manage it, judge it if you don't have a plan beforehand, with objectives at one end and expectations at the other?
· Relate the size of your alumni body to the options for activities. An elaborate printed newsletter for a relatively new, small firm with 10 former employees is overkill.
· You can do some testing by the simple device of taking a couple of the alums to an informal lunch and picking their brains. You may find them wildly enthusiastic to keep in touch -- or you may discover that their experience with you was so bitter that you've got to rethink the project, and perhaps face up to a few other problems. The likelihood, for most firms, is that the feelings will be more toward the more elevated end of the scale, but you still will have learned a thing or two that you didn't know before.
The Alumni Program
One firm takes this so seriously that they hold annual dinners, issue a newsletter, maintain a job exchange, and generally nurture their former employees to a point short of issuing alumni pins. Ask anybody who used to work for such firms as McKinsey or Ernst & Young. Their alumni programs have become virtual fraternities and sororities.
Here are some of the things that successful firms are doing...
· A newsletter. People who used to work together like to keep in touch, but may not always be in a position to do it. A newsletter does it very well. It may be a simple desktop publishing job, or it could be much more elaborate. But it let's everybody know who's where, and doing what. It also keeps everybody informed about what the firm is doing -- new services, new clients, new offices -- the kinds of things you'd want ex-employees who are functioning as missionaries for you to know.
· A web site. At Ernst & Youngs web site, you can keep almost as closely in touch with the firm as you did when you worked thee. You can look up former EY colleagues, or you can participate in online seminars on topics of urgent interest. Its a highly interactive site.
· Job referral. Firms are frequently asked by clients to find financial people, counsel, and other executives, and make a point of drawing from alumni. Some firms go farther, and even function as job search firms for alumni.
· Special events. Firms invite alumni to appear in seminars, or at retreats, or even partner meetings. Some invite alumni to special celebrations, such as lunches for departing or retiring partners.
· Special consultancies. Some firms make a point of calling upon selected alumni to function as sounding boards for new firm ideas or services.
· Alumni are often put on mailing lists to receive firm literature, such as brochures, newsletters, and so forth, to keep them abreast of latest professional developments.
While these are just a few fairly obvious ideas, the basic concept is to keep alumni informed of the firm's activities -- to keep them aware and involved. Where it's appropriate, many firms keep alumni involved in continuing education programs.
The idea is to maintain a sense of professional family. It's the kind of family in which professionals care for one another, are concerned with the well-being of one another, and nurture one another.
It may seem like a practice that goes well beyond typical professional practice. But at the bottom line, it pays off. Ask the ones that do it.