Leveraging your company’s alumni

Maximizing a valued resource

Your former employees are out there at different jobs. Perhaps some have left the area or the workforce. Most are still in your community or your profession, sharing their views about what kind of employer you are and whether your company is on the upswing or closer to meltdown. How you manage your relationships with your alumni can have a big impact on your continued success.

Engaging Alumni

Alumni have long played an important role in the viability of universities. They contribute money, recruit their and others’ children to attend the school, and often lobby for the school’s benefit. Alumni provide career advice and networking for recent graduates, helping to make the graduates more marketable and the school’s degrees that much more valuable. In turns, the schools try to provide alumni with a range of benefits.

Despite the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship, responses from alumni are mixed: Surveys suggest that most alumni are apathetic and uninvolved, and estimates of the percentage of alumni contributing money to their alma mater hover in the teens and twenties. For example, the school with the highest percentage of contributing alumni among all public institutions in 2004 was Kansas State University at just 32% of alumni. Much thought goes into cultivating and maintaining alumni relations, and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), a Washington-based non-profit with a large division devoted to alumni relations, serves as a rallying point for research and strategy for cultivating alumni.

There are other entities that have alumni associations, such as military units and religious orders. Like universities, these institutions have advantages over business organizations in that they often have defined departure dates (graduation, end of service); have pomp and colors (uniforms, banners); and rich traditions and events. In principle, they stand for values (faith, patriotism) that remain important to alumni even after departing, so that supporting the cause and the institution are intertwined. They evoke nostalgia over shared struggles for non-monetary goals, are often tied to issues of life’s meaning or life-and-death struggles, and thus pull on deep wellsprings of loyalty. Perhaps most important, they are not in direct competition with current employers.

In comparison, former employers would seem to have little to offer. Nevertheless, business organizations have gradually tried to capitalize on the idea that people would like stay attached, even to their former employers.

The Concept of Corporate Alumni

In the 1960s, numerous companies began to refer to their former employees as alumni. However, it was the rare company that had a formal alumni program, such as the Time-Life Alumni Society begun in 1976, and those were typically run by the alumni themselves. During the last ten years, however, a number of major companies have launched national alumni programs. At the forefront have been national management consulting firms such as McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company, and Deloitte & Touche, who recognized that their alumni were often employed by their current and prospective clients. Alumni began to be valued as a prime network to link the firm to its target market.

In order to engage alumni, some firms have even provided alumni with career management resources that will enable them to get better jobs elsewhere. They take the broad view that linking their alumni with their clients is a win-win-win proposition.

Obviously, large formal programs such as these are the province of large firms. Even small firms, however, can do things to keep alumni in the fold, such as periodic newsletters, invitations to holiday parties and receptions at professional conferences, and recruiting and recommending alumni for jobs. Just as in academic alumni populations, a significant percentage of business alumni will show no interest in their old firm or in maintaining any ties, but those percentages are subject to improvement. Unlike CASE, there is currently no umbrella organization for corporate alumni associations. However, there are companies that specialize in setting up corporate alumni networks, such as SelectMinds, a New York-based company.

The Value of Corporate Alumni

There are other reasons to cultivate alumni. When unemployment is low and turnover is problematic, one of the best places to find new employees is among alumni, those with a proven performance track record and a known ability to function within the company’s culture. There’s no need to guess if a new employee will get along with customers and clients or be able to weather personal life disruptions – they either have or haven’t measured up before.

A new idea in the realm of utilizing alumni is that ironically, those who have left the company may be precisely the people to help you improve retention of yourcurrent employees. Working with a segment of the US military, my colleagues and I have discovered that although former military may not actively encourage their current brethren to stay, they are happy to reflect their experience that the grass is not greener elsewhere and that there are many things to consider before leaving service. Naturally, your company may not have the cachet or all-encompassing lifestyle of the military. You also don’t want every disgruntled employee advising your current work staff. What you can do is screen your former employees and find those who can enunciate what, in retrospect, was uniquely positive about your organization. While these alumni may not be rushing to rejoin the company for myriad reasons, they may retain genuine fondness for your company. They may also have more credibility than your managers about the benefits of staying.

What Draws Alumni?

The reasons why alumni of a college, a seminary, or the military wish to stay attached are numerous – unique shared values, regret and sometimes guilt over leaving, and the desire to stay attached to a noble cause. The reasons to stay attached to company are more subtle. It may be a way to stay attached to friends from an earlier, simpler stage of one’s career when there was time to socialize with coworkers. It may be a way to network. It may even be associated with the company itself and what your company represents: its values, its culture, and its contribution to society. Especially if your alumni are running their own companies or are now part of larger, more impersonal organizations, you have the advantage of nostalgia on your side.

Most of your alumni want you to succeed, if only that the line on their resumes with your company’s name still has value. Best of all, they have the freedom to tell you the truth – about how you are doing and how you perceived- without fear of recriminations. That alone should make your alumni invaluable.

Fred Mael, PhD ( www.maelconsulting.com ) is an organizational consultant who helps organizations with talent retention, managing organizational culture, and performance management. He also provides executive and work coaching to individuals. This article appeared in the October 2007 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazines.