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Archive for the ‘networking’ Category

You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money,

Love like you’ll never be hurt,

You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching,

It’s got to come from the heart if you want it to work.

– Kathy Mattea

Sometimes, I find myself rediscovering the obvious. When that happens, I’ve learned to pay attention, because it always means that I’ve forgotten something to which I need to pay more attention. A few days ago, I made the thirtieth or fortieth of these rediscoveries in my lifetime – this one to do with networking.

Most of my income these days comes from journalism, but I do pick up the occasional tech-writing, communications, or graphical design work on the side – especially since the rise of the Canadian dollar has reduced the converted value of my pay cheques in American funds. Consequently, like any consultant, I am constantly networking to keep my name out there.

The only trouble is, most networking events are at the end of the day. After eight to twelve hours of work, going out is often the last thing on my mind. I often feel like I have to drag myself out to the events, when, instead of meeting a room full of strangers, what I really want to do is sprawl out on a futon with a parrot or two.

Then, when I get there, I have to get into persona. Regardless of how I feel, I have to look and sound outgoing, and bring out my best small talk. I never have been one of those who believes in speed-networking, counting the evening’s success by the number of cards I collect, but I have usually felt that I ought to circulate when I was really more in the mood to find a good conversation with two or three people in some quiet corner.

Yet over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more than the typical networking event was becoming less and less worth my while. Part of the reason was probably the tight economy, and another part that many of the same people keep attending the local events. But it was only this week that I accepted that most of the problem was my attitude.

The revelation came because I was out at an altogether different gathering. It had nothing to do with work, or even technology – it was just a group of people with a common leisure interest. And there, when I wasn’t even trying, I got the first piece of consulting work I had picked up at public event in over a year.

If that had just happened once, I would have attributed it to serendipity. But the next night, under the same casual conditions, it happened again, which makes coincidence seem less likely.

The difference, I think, lies in the image I project. I like to think that I talk a good line of piffle, and can make myself likable when I make an effort, and to judge by how people respond, that is not completely my imagination. But when I am going against my inclinations and maybe trying too hard, I suspect that I am projecting – not falseness, exactly, but an impression that is less than completely genuine. Even if most people are unable to explain why, something about me does not seem right.

Should I be in the position of needing work, this lack of authenticity is compounded by desperation. Most people, I find, are made uncomfortable by the slightest hint of desperation, and will avoid people who show signs of it. A few will even try to take advantage of it, although that’s another issue.

By contrast, at genuine social events, people are more likely to be relaxed and able to enjoy each other’s company. Our attitudes create an atmosphere in which actual connections can be made. Although the contacts we make may be fewer than those made at a networking event, the ones we do make are more likely to run deeper. Paradoxically, the less we try to connect, the more likely we actually are to connect.

I’m thinking now that much of how we’ve been told about how to network is inefficient, if not a waste of time. When I consider how I react to most of the people at networking events, I suspect that I’m not the only person with authenticity problems in attendance. Many, perhaps most, I suspect have the same problems as I do to a greater or less degree.

Under these circumstances, is it really so surprising that so few of us connect? We all want something from such events – a connection, a lad, a job – and we are all trying so hard that most of us are being less likable than we could be. Moreover, if some of us do have something in common, we may never realize the fact, because we are too busy with our false fronts.

To suggest that we stop worrying about making impressions or collecting business cards may sound counter-intuitive. To go out and simply enjoy ourselves, trusting that we will make connections without really trying might sound irresponsible, and trusting too much to luck. And almost surely it will result in far fewer connections than a networking event. Yet the connections we do make when not trying too hard are likely to be ones that are meaningful to us. Best of all, they don’t result in hundreds of business cards that we keep in drawer for a few years before we throw them away wondering who exactly all these people might be.

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(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 connections

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.

Spamming requests

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.

Conclusion

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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