“History is a vast early warning system.”
~ Norman Cousins

I’m out for my morning walk. We’re on vacation in Traverse City, so my path takes me along the shoreline. If you were with me you’d feel the breeze blowing off the bay and hear the seagulls squabbling on the beach. The autumn colors are starting to blush in the trees and a green flag stands by the water.

Wait, what was that? What’s that flag doing there?

Upon closer investigation I find that this pennant is to indicate the safety of the water for swimming. The state apparently checks the water for E. coli levels once a week. A green flag means it’s safe. Yellow means dangerous. Red is hazardous. Don’t ask me the difference between these last two. After doing a quick search online regarding the symptoms of E. coli infection, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t show up for anything other than a green flag!

Wouldn’t it be great if someone could do the same service for us when we are exploring possible new groups to join? I mean, if you walked up to a registration table and saw that red flag flying, you could save yourself the time, money, and energy that you might waste walking into a dead end organization. At the very least, you would know what you were getting into.

While there is no networking equivalent of the Parks Service who will fly the flags for us, we can be on the lookout for tell-tale signs that the group isn’t where we need it to be. Watch for these danger signals when you attend the group for the first time.

Red flag #1: Fewer than 20 attendees. Whether it’s a regular meeting or a special event, if a group can’t muster at least twenty people to show up, it is in serious danger of evaporating. Of course, if you should happen upon such a meeting, ask the organizer if this is normal. There might be some extenuating circumstances which have kept the majority from attending. It also might be a brand new group which is still in its growth phase. If the program started up in the last year, it might still be finding its legs. If it has been around a while, however, and especially if those numbers are in decline, then all it takes is a few more people not showing up before no one shows up because “no one goes there anymore”.

Red flag #2: No guest process. When a new visitor shows up at the door, is there someone to greet them and show them around? Does the group hand out information about becoming a full member? Is there some indication that they are new to the group and could use some extra attention and acknowledgment? Other than getting entered into the group mailing list, is there any mechanism to continue the connection? Groups that have a First-Timer process are groups that recognize the value of these visitors becoming regular attendees. Every group loses three to ten percent of its membership on an annual basis. What are they doing to renew the membership to replace those losses?

Red Flag #3: No guests. Even if they have the best visitor process in the world, it does them no good if no one is coming to visit. Are the regular members getting so much value that they are inviting guests? Has the leadership developed a marketing plan to encourage visitors?

Red Flag #4: Absentee leadership. Regardless of the group structure, are the members of the leadership showing up at every meeting and special event? If they aren’t, that sends a powerful and negative message to the membership — even if they don’t realize it. A lack of leadership presence says to everyone “Don’t bother showing up. These gatherings aren’t that important anyway.”

Red Flag #5: Irregular or infrequent meetings. Contrary to the old saying, absence makes the heart grow — not fonder — but more forgetful. If there is too long between meetings, or if the meetings aren’t on a regular schedule (at least once a month), then it’s too easy for even enthusiastic members to forget when they are supposed to attend. If the group in question has an infrequent or irregular meeting schedule, they need to be raising a heightened awareness to when the membership is actually supposed to show up.

Be aware of what’s happening with any group you are considering. Unless you enjoy  the opportunity to help an organization recover from a downward spiral — which can have its own benefits — don’t waste your time showing up for a group where you aren’t going to have the chance to develop a long-term presence. Heck, you might even take a look at the groups to which you currently belong to see if they might be in danger of evaporating in front of your eyes.

Before you dive in for a long-term networking swim, make sure the green flags are flying.