This essay has taken 50,000 hours of my life to write. From wasted and misspent time come perspective and wisdom.
Networking can be and should be a wonderful thing. In theory, you meet people, share ideas and grow richer for the experience. Indirectly, it enhances the climate in which business is done.
Ostensibly, all participants benefit from the synergy.
If one is growing from networking and all parties benefit, it works well. Unfortunately, one can get caught in a trap of being on the short end of the equation. One can wake up, realize their energy has been zapped and experience setbacks in their business because he-she was spending disproportionate time on networking.
These pointers are offered to help manage time and resources. Business organizations are like trees. They seemingly look the same from day to day and will live forever. To the untrained eye, most resemble each other. After all, they are just trees (companies)!
This essay is not to discourage networking. It stimulates questions about your own wants, desires, experiences, gains, losses and changing perspectives in the game of ‘give and take’.
By curbing old behavior patterns, you may feel less-used and get more out of future networking. By analyzing the true motives for networking (yours and other people’s), one can avoid hurt feelings and letdowns. By approaching the process with a realistic attitude, positive outcomes of future efforts will pay better dividends.
Categories of Networking
Professional Networkers. For some people, it is their job to network, on behalf of their companies. They are given salaries, expense accounts, support staff and a company machine which sees business development and lobbying value in their work. These people jockey for favor with the power structures and are accorded community standing based upon the reputation-value of their company. People defer to them because of the wealth of their companies. They regularly squire stakeholders to charity events at corporate-purchased tables. None of their community stewardship comes out of their own pockets. Some of these people get the ‘big head’ and think of themselves as local celebrities. They get a rude awakening when they leave their job.
Hobbyist Networkers. These people want to get involved, partly for business and partly to interface with the community. When they network, it means dollars, resources and time out of their own pockets. They exchange ideas, swap cards, engage in base-level volunteer work and participate in several concurrent networks. They are also valued according to the reputation of their companies, directly commensurate to how much money they give to charities and business organizations. In-kind donations (especially their time) are not valued as highly as money. It is unfair to stack them against professional networkers, but the community does. Since many are small business people, solo practitioners, sales force members and entrepreneurs, they make great sacrifices to network… usually much more than the payoff.
Niche Networkers. These people may have started with the shotgun effect but have narrowed down. They network through trade associations, chambers of commerce, leads groups, conventions and other sources which are primarily devoted to business. They staff committees and events, hoping to generate more leads. The longer they network, the better they get at niche marketing. They cannot be all things to all people.
Social Networkers. Business networking receptions became the ‘singles bars’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Breakfast clubs carved their own niche… a balance of business, community and social networking. The same holds true with the ‘rubber chicken circuit’ (clubs, associations and coalitions of networking groups). Just like the 1970s night club scene, people went into situations indiscriminately looking. They wanted to get something but were not quite sure what. Some really believed a chance meeting in a bar would produce Mr. or Ms. Right. They came out unfulfilled because they didn’t really have clear objectives going in. The same is true with networking. The ideal customer doesn’t ‘discover you’ across a crowded room.
Wanna-Be Networkers. These people try to network anywhere and everywhere. They are in your face, at every turn. Their sense of accomplishment is in the quantity of business cards collected, lunches arranged and referral calls generated-completed. They network for the sake of networking… rarely with targeted purpose. Their opening line is: “What do you do?” Sizing you in terms of immediate benefit to them, they either probe further or move on. Usually, they are selling something and focus upon one of the niches listed above.
The Kind of Networking That Should Exist. This is the category that rarely exists. Senior executives do not really have networks of our own. Our junior staff members populate the trade associations, chambers of commerce and service organizations. Top executives isolate themselves from people with differing opinions. They say they crave roundtables with fellow seasoned executives but rarely attend. Inevitably, when high-level forums are organized, the juniors, mid-managers and self-marketers infiltrate and take over… which chases us away. Veteran executives meet on the charity party circuit, in board meetings and sometimes socially. Some commercial programs cater to this market but are usually populated by entrepreneurs on the way up. In the main, the top corporate strata is without an effective mechanism to network, share high-level ideas-experiences, get stimulated to overcome burnout and move toward higher plateaus. That’s why many senior business leaders wear down or retire earlier than they should.
Red Flags in the Network
I Knew You When. They see you as they once did. They connect with the old commonalities and find it hard to see the evolution that you have made. Try to enlighten them, and they convert it all back to their old frame of reference, with questions like “Do you still talk to X?” or “Whatever happened to Y?” or “Remember the time when Z happened?”
Gurus of Networking. These are often the worst violators of the process. They want you to be there for them and those whom they refer to you. Yet, try to get something meaningful out of them. When you set boundaries to your free access, they cut you out of their network. That’s not entirely bad, since you were likely peripheral to it in the first place.
Who Do You Know Who… In networking, the person who wants something stands three or four steps away from their ultimate target. As a member of the network, you are usually one of several conduits in their quest. It’s tough to not be consulted as an expert, but rather as a step on someone else’s journey.
You Once Did ____. Now I Want ____. Just because you once spoke to their business club, attended a workshop with them or served on a volunteer committee, they keep coming back to you for free work. To them, there is no statute of limitations on free access to your time, influence, resources or abilities.
X Says I Can Pick Your Brain. X probably gave your name to get rid of them. X doesn’t really value your time or would have asked in advance if you could be periodically referred. Try referring callers back to X as really being the ‘best person’ for them to consult. Tell them that X is far too modest and is your expert in that area. That will stop X from referring unsolicited nuisance callers.
If You ____, It Will Lead to Business. They always say that so you will volunteer to help their pet cause or serve their momentary need. People wave any carrot that will help to get what they want, think they need or wish they had. Entrepreneurs and service providers are easy targets to entice with the promise or glimmer of future business. Tell the networkers that you will do what they ask but only in reciprocation after the business transpires. Request a ‘show of good faith’ gesture from them in the first place.
Adopt My Interests. It’ll Be Good for You. This is the previous ploy with a new coat of paint. These people couch their requests in terms of your benefit. They just know that supporting their interests will get you somewhere and quickly add that it will be fun, as well. Don’t be fooled. The same requests go out to all whom they approach.
Feeding Egos in Hopes of Getting Somewhere. Many people do things to get noticed by others, in hopes they can do something for us. So, we serve on their volunteer committees, convinced they will think well of us…enough to speak well of us to still others. The problem is ‘they’ want to be noticed by others and only want committee members to support their agenda. You will likely be perceived as a conduit or support mechanism to their causes and objectives.
Circuitous Routes to Get What You Think You Want. Many of us do things for reasons for which we are not quite sure. Spending time networking or volunteering for projects seems like a good idea at the time. Surely benefits will accrue. I’m not saying that people should create agendas for every act or action. However, one must recognize and curb patterns of doing things for nebulous reasons, from which nebulous outcomes always emanate.
Have You Got a Card? That means they will be calling you for their own networking purposes. If you don’t want to get their calls, either say you are out of cards or tell them the truth… that you’re trying to cut down on networking activity. They’ll move on to someone else. Most of the time, they’re not after you… any warm body will do. Being completely upfront about setting your boundaries helps you feel better and deters future unsolicited calls.
Hard Core Clueless. Some people simply don’t know or care where you’re coming from. They are self-serving networkers and offer nothing for you. There is no converting them to your more enlightened way of thinking and operating. Spot them and avoid them.
People Who Refer You for Freebies – But Not for Business
I once agreed to meet to discuss serving on a non-profit board with an influential business executive, whose account I sought for my company. He had been using a pale-by-comparison, low-expertise competitor, and I thought he surely would want to grade up to the best. By knowing and working with me, he would discern excellence, switch his business to my company and be better off for it.
In the get-acquainted meeting, the executive explained that he did not mix business with volunteer work. He stated that I was a good person to serve on the board and give away my time, yet the incumbent agency had his business. That was his belief, and he wouldn’t change it. Curiously, his own business was predicated upon community goodwill, and he owed his fortune to the public appearance of being a good citizen.
So why, then, should I waste my time serving on his board? He started dangling carrots of potential business from other board members. I fell for the bait and regretted it after the first board meeting. Other members had like minds to the executive who recruited me. They had their network of business resources and referrals, and I was not part of it.
I gracefully bowed out, citing the press of business and over-commitment to other volunteer work. The board member took it as a slap in the face, proclaiming that we would never get any work from him. After all, it was my job to curry community favor. How dare I meet to consider volunteering and then pull out? He found other warm bodies. Curiously, that charity has been clouded by public investigations of questionable ethics and dubious fund-raising practices. I sensed that at the time…which was the other reason why I walked away.
Lesson Learned: Set boundaries up front. Tell them that you only volunteer on committees of people who have the willingness and actually do business with each other, if that’s your objective for participating. Let it be known that your volunteer time is a reward to those who support your company…not a prerequisite to being considered. Remind inquirers that you must be successful in your business first… in order to be in a position to give back to the community.
They Don’t Care What You Think – Just Do What They Want
Public officials are notorious for this. They make it clear that you are important to them. Once you give a contribution or volunteer time to their initial campaign, you are pigeon-holed on the solicitation mailing list. Then, it is hard to convert to another level in their minds.
Public officials spend your contributions hiring young, inexperienced staff members and rely upon them for advice. They pay great sums to so-called ‘political consultants’ but will not consider asking CEOs and seasoned business executives for meaningful policy advice. And the consultants with whom they contract are usually out-of-towners or those who have not ‘paid their dues’ to the community.
Try offering your advice-counsel, and it falls on deaf ears. Try to get them to open doors or somehow return the favors. You’ll quickly see how they aren’t available, forgot that they owed you a return courtesy and resent being asked for ‘quid pro quo’. Only money or volunteer time are wanted, thank you. Even though they decline or avoid you, the fund raiser invitations keep coming in the mail.
Lesson Learned: Set boundaries up front. Tell political candidates how you expect and are willing to be utilized. Give expertise on the front end, not money. If you want to be their advisor, tell them so. Don’t expect them to read your mind, after the fact.
Caring When Others Don’t
Some people will always go the extra distance for their organizations. They are consummate professionals and give their all to the company. They pursue professional development on their own time, bear personal monies to further the job, participate in community and volunteer activities and serve on committees. They have perfect attendance, rarely use all vacation days and don’t know what a coffee break is.
Yet, many of their colleagues do the bare minimum to get by. These people learned the Peter Principle and enjoy the same pay and benefits as those who knock themselves out. And they always take more days off. The system allows them to continue, without accountability or the stimulation to try harder.
The active few say they are setting an example by which others will follow. Who? When? Why should the non-involved join the active few, at this late date?
Those of us who have been the ‘active few’ in our organizations did not understand why the ‘non-active many’ did not behave accordingly. We sometimes begrudged the others for not doing their share. Yet, we kept on being active… as if it were a mission to the death.
Lesson Learned: Understand your true motives for going the distance. If you’re really doing it for your own enjoyment and fulfillment, you’re rare. Realities dictate that we all do some things for the good of the company, the job, the community and others. Keep it in balance. Don’t cheat yourself because you are spending energies on the ‘non-active many,’ mostly people who could care less.
Community stewardship – for the right reasons – is wonderful. Every executive must devote quality time toward volunteer work, service on boards and community involvement. It builds character, helps their career, showcases their company and pays dividends to the community.
Service in community activities is one of the few win-win propositions. It should be nourished and cherished. Senior executives must mentor young people on their obligations to give back to the community in classy, meaningful and definable ways.
Leadership programs exist in every major city. I went through one and followed with six years on their board of directors (their longest tenured board member). I innovated programs which brought acclaim, prestige, fund-raising, community collaborations and more to that organization.
It was one of the most important things I ever did. It also provided material for this essay, as well as my earlier chapter, ‘Has Beens, Never Wases and Wanna-Bes.’ That was because of the intense jealousy, inflated egos, unrealistic images and ill-planned projects of many of the members.
My reflection and analysis of the leadership program to which I gave 1,700 hours of my time (and covered all expenses out of my pocket) includes the following:
- Professional Networkers dominate the organization. They are generally mid-managers from corporations, who use the name on the letterhead and the carrot of corporate donations to be treated royally. Most seek from leadership programs what they do not have at the office: prestige, name recognition and power.
- People who work for non-profit organizations also populate leadership programs. Again, they’re getting what they may not get from their own boards, employees and employees.
- There are plenty of Hobbyist Networkers…some just for the resume credit and others to troll for business.
- Political wanna-bes use the organization as a launching pad. They use the mailing list as a fund-raising strategy. Members pressure others to host coffees, attend fund raisers and donate pro-bono time to campaigns. Heaven forbid that you ask for a networking favor in return, because, once elected, they quickly forget you.
- Public officials who were graduates of the leadership program henceforth use the organization as a bully pulpit for their ideologies, positions and initiatives. Members either support them or are ostracized by the program’s officers.
- Members besiege each other – with or without the official mailing list – for networking purposes. Someone who barely spoke to you in the program now wants to get you into their multi-level marketing program. Corporate lobbyists assume that you’ll support their initiatives because you are a fellow graduate of their leadership program. You’re on fund-raising mailing lists for everyone’s pet charity. People selling everything from stocks to used cars badger you… under the banner of the leadership program.
- Then, there were the handful of us who were there for meaningful dialog, relationship building, community synergy and leadership development. Oh, well!
Lesson Learned: All of this sounds like high school student council, doesn’t it? The same personality types tend to be attracted to leadership programs, along with the networkers. No organization is ideal or idealistic. Politics and hidden agendas are everywhere. If the benefits outweigh the negatives, then it was worthwhile. In my opinion, leadership program benefits are infinitely greater than the downsides. Learning stems from perspectives. My learning from leadership programs has far outweighed the other useless and wasted networking initiatives detailed earlier in this essay.
How Quickly They Forget
Some people are creative and innovative. They craft concepts and then turn them over to others to implement or perpetuate. Recipients of other people’s achievements will try to mold them as their own, injecting their touch. Often, it’s not as good as the original creation. The more that people tinker with the concept, it gets watered down. Egos of the latters won’t allow them to consult or involve the originator. In time, the latters will claim it as their brainchild and will not acknowledge the innovator.
I recall creating at least 30 such concepts that took circuitous and downward paths after turning them over to others. Sometimes, my only involvement was destined to be on the front end… giving concepts to fresh faces, with the chance to blossom and grow. Sometimes, the recipient organizations were so ungrateful for the innovation or clueless as to its value that I backed away. Sometimes, the concepts were only meant as one-time projects or to have short-term lives… though others chose to milk a good thing beyond its effectiveness.
It’s tough to create and watch others butcher your idea. That makes it hard to market the concept as your creation.
Lesson Learned: If you are creating ideas and projects and intend to use them as case studies and for business development, get written documentation from authoritative people concerning your creation. Ask for thank-you letters and send to others who will influence the benefits you seek to reap. Apply for awards, where appropriate. Be recognized at their board meetings and other public forums. A pat on the back or a congratulation after an event can be quickly rescinded, when they choose to forget your contributions. Get documentation in writing… acknowledging what you did, how you did it and the long-term implications for what you created.
Questions to Ask About Networking:
- Is the person making the request a true friend, a business associate or just an acquaintance? Who are they to you, and what would you like for them to be?
- Will there be outcomes or paybacks for the other person? Will there be outcomes or paybacks for you? If there’s a discrepancy in these answers, how do you feel about it?
- Are there networking situations which are beneficial for all parties? If so, analyze them, so that you can align with those situations, rather than the fruitless ones?
- What types of ‘wild goose chases’ have you pursued in your networking career? Analyze them by category, to see patterns.
- Is the person requesting something of you willing to offer something first?
- Are the people truly communicating when they network? Or, are hidden agendas the reason for networking? Without communicating wants, it is tough to achieve outcomes.
- How much time away from business can you take? How does it compare with the business you can or will generate?
Concluding Thoughts on Networking:
- Networking is a Two-Way Proposition. Associate with those who feel similarly.
- Show and Demonstrate Respect for Each Other’s Time.
- Be Careful Not to Pro-Bono Yourself to Death.
- Budget Networking Time. See your time for networking and volunteering as a commodity. Budget it each year. Examine and benchmark the reasons and results.
Set boundaries, and offer your time on an ‘a la carte’ basis.
About the Author
Hank Moore has advised 5,000+ client organizations worldwide (including 100 of the Fortune 500, public sector agencies, small businesses and non-profit organizations). He has advised two U.S. Presidents and spoke at five Economic Summits. He guides companies through growth strategies, visioning, strategic planning, executive leadership development, Futurism and Big Picture issues which profoundly affect the business climate. He conducts company evaluations, creates the big ideas and anchors the enterprise to its next tier. The Business Tree™ is his trademarked approach to growing, strengthening and evolving business, while mastering change. To read Hank’s complete biography, click here.