(This article was originally published on the IT Managers Journal site in January 2008. Now that the site is no longer active, many of the articles are no longer available, so I’m reprinting some of the ones I wrote to give them a more permanent home)
Everyone knows that networking is an essential part of business. Done well, it can build partnerships for you, and tell you about jobs before they’re advertised. If you are a consultant, you can easily find — as I have — that networking is responsible for 75-100% of your income. Done poorly, though, it can handicap or even seriously set back your career.
The dangers of poor networking are especially high for IT workers. Many of those working with computers have poor social skills, and may be tempted either to indifference because of shyness or brashness because of efforts to over-compensate. Also, IT workers tend to be among the major users of LinkedIn, FaceBook, and other social networking sites, where the ease of use and casual atmospheres can encourage the wrong tone for business interaction, especially if you’re a novice at it.
However, over my 12 years as a consultant, I’ve seen problems in every sort of business. To help you avoid them, no matter what field you work in, here are what I’ve observed to be ten of the most common mistakes in networking:
Badmouthing other companies and individuals
Meeting people in the industry whom you don’t see everyday, you can be tempted to express feelings that you normally suppress about bosses, past and present, or about other companies. However, it’s rarely a good idea to make those feelings public — especially in a job interview. If you show too much enthusiasm for criticizing others, those with whom you are networking are going to wonder what you say about them when they’re not around. You can also create the impression of a negative, downbeat person.
If you meet the fellow survivor of a company or boss, you might not have to worry about such things. Yet, even if others start the badmouthing first, you should be cautious about joining in. After all, what are you networking for: To find an outlet for your frustrations, or to make useful contacts?
Name-dropping without permission or with exaggerations
Being able to claim a connection is part of what networking is all about. However, before you claim someone as an acquaintance, much less as a reference, check that you have permission to do so.
For one thing, it’s only polite to give your contacts a chance to think what they’ll say about you if contacted. Possibly, too, they would prefer not to be a reference for you, for reasons like office politics that are only peripherally to do with you.
For another, IT or any other field is a relatively small place, and your claims of friendship or support are easily checked. If they’re false, people will react as though you have lied to them — and, in a sense, you have.
Exaggerating your connection with someone can have the same results as mentioning a connection without permission. True, implying that you are a personal friend of Linus Torvalds or Andrew Morton may get you the job interview you’ve been angling for. But if your interaction is limited to a single email you sent two years ago, you’ll look either duplicitous or foolish when the truth comes out.
Begging for a job
If you are networking to find your next position, one of the unspoken rules is that you never ask directly for work. At first that tradition may seem like hypocrisy, but, if you think for a moment, it makes sense. Networking is an informal, personal way of compensating for the formal, impersonal habits of business. By asking for employment directly, you are mixing categories and creating a confusion that can only make you look crass.
It also makes you look as though you are only interested in networking for what you can get. While this attitude may seem efficient to you, it also signals to people that you are uninterested in them personally. You probably wouldn’t respond well to someone whose interest in you is selfish, so don’t be surprised if others feel the same way.
Networking is the opposite of the usual marketing techniques; it’s about the quality of contacts, not the quantity. Sending out general broadcasts for help negates that emphasis. Instead of being a one-on-one connection, you make networking an anonymous one when you contact everyone you know with a request — and few people enjoy feeling that you only see them as one of the crowd.
Moreover, any experienced PR flack can tell you that, although targeted requests take longer to put together, they bring better results than spam broadcasts. So, by honoring the intent of networking, you also tend to help yourself.
Participating passively on online sites
As the middle-aged discover social networking, sites like FaceBook are increasingly being used to maintain business contacts. Others, of course, like Ryze.com were designed for business networking for the start.
On all these sites, you’ll find hundreds of registered users who signed up a year ago, and have only a handful of contacts. And, although registration for such sites is hardly time-consuming, these users have essentially wasted their time. One such user regularly complains to me that these sites are useless, but what else can he expect when he doesn’t actually use them?
For any type of networking to be effective, you need to put some effort into it. It’s only when you have developed a large network that you’ll find that others will start coming to you with friend requests. You don’t have to let networking sites take over your life, but, at the same time, if you do the minimum, you’ll only get minimal results.
Networking Indiscriminately online
When you are registered for a social networking site, you may get requests to connect with people you don’t know, or to give recommendations to people you’ve never worked with. The temptation is always there to build your network by accepting these requests, but there’s little point beyond an unconvincing illusion of a broad network.
Whenever someone actually tries to use that network, its inadequacies will quickly become apparent. If you don’t know a person, then how do you know that you can be useful to each other — or that they’re the sort you want to be associated with? Nor can you recommend strangers without making them appear to exaggerate the acquaintance (see above).
Failing to keep up relationships
Contrary to what many people seem to believe, establishing a connection is only the first part of networking. The longer a network connection exists and the more exchanges of help that are made — in short, the more trust that is established — the more useful the connection becomes for both parties. For this reason, stopping at initial contacts is only slightly more useful than sitting back and waiting for contacts to come to you. If you want networking to work, you have to become involved with it.
Being unrespectful of other people’s time
When you network, you can treat as a given that everyone is busy with other things beside the connection. Try to avoid pestering others for favors, especially if you are hoping to use the connection to find work, and avoid asking a favor that is disproportionate to the connection. Asking a new acquaintance to send you details about an upcoming conference is appropriate; asking them to give you a private crash course in Ruby isn’t.
Similarly, just over a year ago, a colleague asked if I could help her fill a position at her company. I found several possible candidates, and introduced one to her company. A few days later, she told me that her company had decided to fill the position through a recruiting agency. The decision meant that I — to say nothing of the candidate — had each spent a couple of hours for nothing. Both the candidate and I agreed that we would think carefully before dealing with my colleague again. We both felt we had been treated with a lack of respect.
Hounding a connection
Last summer, I promised to let an acquaintance know when a position at another company was being filled. After a week, he began sending me daily emails, and phoning me every other day. Since I had no control over the job and was simply relaying information, I could do nothing about the delay and told him so. Once, I made inquiries on his behalf, but eventually I had to ask him to stop contacting me so often. He got angry, and I haven’t heard from him since. From another mutual acquaintance, I understand that he feels that I let him down.
Really, though, he let himself down. By hounding me, he lost his connection to me, although it was obviously useful to him.
Rather than producing the same results yourself, minimize your followups when you’ve requested help. Unless there’s a definite deadline, once a week is often enough to ask. And if the request goes unanswered for more than a couple of weeks, you can probably assume that it’s not happening.
Treating networking as one-sided
Effective networking is about an exchange of help. That means that, if you want people to help you, you have to be willing to help them. If you ignore requests for advice or references, or — like one of my acquaintances — always find excuses for not reciprocating, eventually people will start refusing to help you. The same can be true if you are constantly asking for large favors while only offering an equal number of small ones.
The exchange of favors implicit in networking doesn’t have to be spelled out. In fact, most of the time, it’s not. Instead, networkers simply assume that, if they help you out, at some unspecified point, they’re entitled to request a favor of comparable value from you. Ensuring that you honor that assumption is the main point of networking.
Perhaps the best way to avoid these mistakes is to keep in mind the image you would prefer to project around colleagues. For most people, this image would be professional, polite, and active. Ask yourself how your words and actions might appear to your colleagues, and you’ll not only be likelier to avoid these mistakes, but also to start networking effectively.
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