Two e-mails I received this past week: "I'm a career coach living in Malaysia. I saw your book What Next?. It looks great but I'm too busy to read it. I'm coming to Toronto next week. Can we have a mutually advantageous meeting? I would love to discuss the ideas in your book."
Even better: "I'm a member of the same professional association as you [along with 5,000 of my other closest friends around the world] I have just developed a great workshop on networking. I understand you have great connections. Who are your clients? Can you send me a list of their names?"
Although networking is a central part of everyone's career vocabulary today, it still provokes consternation in many people. Some wonder about the basic mechanics. "What am I supposed to do? Go up to everyone I meet and say: 'Hi. My name is . . . and I'm a customer-service-driven, team-building financial professional.' " Others are uncomfortable because they feel like "they are using people."
Only a small percentage of the professional managerial population feels completely at ease with networking, and even fewer could be described as skilled. Instead, they are awkward at best, and obnoxious at worst.
What does networking mean to you? For many of us, networking conjures up an image of slightly wooden-looking professionals in business attire aggressively passing out business cards and madly trying to impress those in a position of influence -- as if most people ever look at those cards again. While trying to get your name in front of decision makers is certainly one aspect of networking, it actually accounts for relatively little of the activity good networkers engage in. Indeed, good networkers are often status blind.
Another popular image is meeting as many people as possible and asking them for assistance in some way, whether it be information about their professional field, or the names of people who might be interested in their services. Notice how only one person's interests are being served in these scenarios. Yet, when I look at the great networkers I know, most of them spend far more time helping others than intentionally seeking personal benefit.
I asked people who receive a constant stream of requests for networking meetings what puts them off most. I heard a chorus of complaints. Liz, for example, a vice-president of learning, was at a garden party where a management consultant glued himself to her "telling me about the most banal programs he'd developed as if they were rocket science. On Monday, he called my office and insisted on getting through, telling my assistant he was a friend. I finally agreed to see him to get rid of him, but I was so pissed off at his pushiness that no matter what he said, I wouldn't have been interested."
Others had similar stories of people who agreed to meet a networker out of duty or as a favour to a friend, but were resentful about it and of no help to the networker.
Other common complaints included: people who act like robots spouting their sound bites; have no idea of who you are and then lecture you on stuff on which you are an expert; think networking with a senior person is better; and use the name of someone you know and assume it's an automatic door-opener. (One person recently called me up, mentioned a friend's name, and asked for some private information about my company. When I said it was confidential she replied: "Well, I will have to tell Jeff about this.")
And then there is the sheer ingratitude of many networkers: You meet someone and are generous with your time and helpful in terms of passing on ideas and sharing contacts. Not only do you not get a thank-you note, but several months later you learn through the grapevine that one of your contacts led to the person finding a job.
But to my mind, the infomercial is the worst sin of all. Someone asks you for help and then goes into excruciating detail about every job they have had in their 30-year career and how amazing they are. When you're about to provide some advice, they repeat how great they are "You know, I'm really good at . . .", just in case you didn't get it the first time.
Good networking is a two-way street. Skilled networkers don't think of themselves as networking but rather as exchanging information. Whenever someone tells me about a great networking experience they had, I ask them two questions. "What did you learn from them?" "What information did you pass on?"
In good networking there always is a mutual connection. Done well, networking is like the most graceful dancing. Both parties are stimulated by the interaction. No one feels used. At its best, there is a deeply satisfying emotional and intellectual connection. Done poorly, nothing is more off-putting.
Good networkers are "wired," with broad connections that range beyond their own professional boundaries and into all walks of life. They cultivate relationships with people who know how to get things done. Like good mentors, they are genuinely curious about people and what they are thinking, and like to make things happen for others. They like to bring together interesting people and ideas -- and they are as proud of making things happen for others as they are of the number of names in their personal organizer.
But networking is as much a cognitive skill as an interpersonal one. Adept networkers are huge information synthesizers who can see connections between people, things and ideas that are not obvious; identify a higher level idea, which goes beyond the presenting issue; and often make creative referrals that the other person wouldn't otherwise have identified. So, next time you are at a networking event, "ask not what your network can do for you, but what you can do for it."
Barbara Moses, PhD, is an organizational career management consultant, speaker and author of What Next: The Complete Guide to Taking Control of Your Working Life.
Getting over networking angst
Do you feel awkward or think you are being pushy when networking? You're part of a large group of managers and professionals. Here are some tips on how to reappraise what you're doing.
Think of yourself as building knowledge networks of people with great ideas.
Network broadly with people from diverse backgrounds.
Be creative and bring together information and people from a variety of sources.
Make it easy for someone to say yes to a meeting. Ask if they prefer phone or face-to-face.
Get to the point quickly. Summarize what the other person needs to know.
Maintain the connection by following up on your contacts. Send a thank you note.
Develop a strategy that plays to your strengths. If you are introverted, for example, become known by presenting at conferences or stay in touch by sending an article or e-mail.Force yourself to participate in conferences and networking events. If you are extroverted, talk to people at conferences and networking events.
Learn what the other person values. Can you provide them with helpful ideas, information or content?
Show your personality - make a personal connection. Be charming. Display great manners.
Share an idea with everyone you meet. Pass on the information you have acquired in earlier networking meetings. Become an oral story teller.
Equate the number of business cards handed out or endless lunches with effective networking.
Assume a more senior person will be more helpful to you than someone more junior.
Confine yourself to people just like you.
Evaluate your activities in terms of whether they will pay off right away, such as a job lead. You are cultivating long-term relationships.
Try to strike a connection with the promise "I was wondering if we can get together to discuss something mutually beneficial" unless the other person really will benefit.