Stay or Leave: How Veterans Can Know When to End a Professional Relationship

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(U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Krysten I. Gomez)

I’m a firm believer in the power of generosity and helping others, regardless of what you receive in return. Adults helping young people, civilians helping veterans, veterans helping other veterans and so on. When service is offered out of generosity, no expectation is made. 

Yet the point of strategic professional networking is to help others and receive direct benefit yourself. The rewards could be a sense of accomplishment, knowledge that your input helped someone or a more direct career benefit such as a referral or mentoring. Professional networking takes time, effort and work, and if there’s no return on that investment, it’s often unsatisfying and frustrating.

Imagine you’ve been out of the military for many years, and your civilian career is going great. One day, you meet a colleague who’s working in a related field, and you admire his accomplishments. He invites you to lunch, wants to connect and learn more about your career goals and how he can support you: Classic networking at its best. 

After several meetings and email exchanges, you realize you are feeding him more information than you are receiving value. He hasn’t coached or mentored you, given you any insight or information, made any introductions for you or endorsed you in any way. These were goals of yours at the outset. In fact, you haven't received any value from him so far. That’s a red flag. 

As a veteran, you want to be helpful and supportive of other people -- service is your nature -- and may not easily recognize the one-sidedness of this situation. Sometimes you need to walk away from certain professional relationships that don't reciprocate and don’t add value so you can focus your efforts on relationships that are more balanced. 

Before you end a professional relationship, make sure you’ve followed some networking basics: 

  • Clearly express your needs and interests, so the other person knows and understands how to support you. Ask questions of the other person, so you also know how to support them. A great professional relationship is a win-win relationship. 
  • Networking should be an active (not passive) sport. Stay in touch with your contacts, send them updates on your life and career, and share valuable insights with them.
  • Send a thank-you note or message when you receive value from them. Celebrate their accomplishments, birthdays or milestones. Let them know you care.

If you suspect the cost/benefit balance of the relationship is off, ask yourself:

  • Are you giving more value than you receive in return?
  • Does your contact appreciate you and your contributions?
  • Do you only hear from them when they need something from you?
  • Do you feel like you are being used?
  • Has anyone told you the other person tends to abuse professional relationships?

If any of those things feel familiar to you, it’s time to do a “gut check” and evaluate this professional relationship. If you determine that the balance is off, and don’t see a way to fix it, you may conclude that you’ll walk away. If you do, remember:

  • Always act with grace and diplomacy. It’s never advisable to burn a professional bridge.
  • You can disconnect from an online relationship by just clicking “disconnect” or “unfollow.” Most social media sites don’t alert the other person that you are no longer connected. 
  • Be respectful when ending an in-person networking relationship. Don’t just avoid their calls or emails. Politely explain that you are concentrating on your career, and that is taking your efforts into a different direction. 
  • Keep an open mind. Maybe the relationship isn’t healthy today but could be in the future. People can change, situations can evolve and if you act professionally, you’ll keep the door open.

Networking done correctly takes time, attention and strategy. Your friends and family have a different connection to you than your career contacts. It’s OK to be strategic and intentional with your professional relationships. You’ll still have the option to serve and be generous in ways that are personally meaningful to you without depreciating your professional clout.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty” (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication, and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for Military.com, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

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