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Posts Tagged ‘officework’

Considering how much I dislike authority figures, I have had surprisingly little trouble with them in my working life. Maybe the fact that I am habitually polite in person helps – although it can also give rise to charges of hypocrisy if I criticize someone later in an article. Maybe, too, the fact my acts of subversion are usually covert has something to do with it, too. But whatever the reason, I only remember a single reprimand – and then it was without any intent on my part.

The incident happened when I was working for a small company that was being slowly ground under by its CEO. He was new and. while he was learning as he went along, he lacked the empathy to understand that repeated purges of the staff might have an effect on morale. I mention this background because worry among the top management might have been responsible for my reprimand.

At the time, I had the habit of entering small jokes into the screensaver banner – wry, mildly amusing one-liners of the sort you often see today on Facebook and Twitter. Most were so trivial that I no longer remember them. One might have been “Common sense isn’t,” and another (borrowed from Doonesbury), “It’s tough being pure. Especially in your underwear.” If I didn’t use either of these, the ones I did use were similarly innocuous.

So, too, I thought was the one that caused me trouble. It was a T-shirt slogan that I had first heard about at a Garnet Rogers concert: “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?”

I changed the banner after a morning of editing a manual for publication when I reflected that I was lingering over changes that probably no one except me would ever notice or care about. To me, the expression was a comment about how overly-punctilious I was being and how close I was to losing my sense of proportion. I posted it, and went for lunch.

When I got back, the fourth highest executive in the company accosted me with a look so grim that I thought another company purge had come. Instead, with lips quivering with disapproval, he insisted that I take down the banner.

“Why?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.

The lip quivering increased. “I shouldn’t have to tell you. Some things are simply unacceptable in the work place.”

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that comment,” I said, secure in the knowledge that I had a consulting contract with a kill-clause. “What’s the problem?”

But finally, after the executive made a few vague efforts to talk around the issue without being specific, I relented. All I really understood was that he thought I had overstepped and that, more in sorrow than in anger, he had to correct my behavior.

“No big deal, if that makes you happy,” I said. “But you’re making a fuss over nothing.”

To this day, I am still not sure what he thought I was saying. I doubt that he was suggesting that I was making a comment on micro-management, because, if anything, the company management style was too remote.

The most likely possibility, since he was a fundamentalist Christian who had read little outside the Bible, was that he was unfamiliar with the term “anal-retentive” and jumped to the conclusion that the expression was obscene. Maybe he just felt that a phrase whose meaning he didn’t know should be deleted on principle.

But, whatever the reason, I not only felt that the matter was hardly worth bringing up, but that he had over-reacted. I had no point to make, and would have removed the comment at a simple request.

For a month after the incident, I had little to do with the executive. Technically, I was reporting to him, so matters might have been strained, but since his supervision consisted of approving the task list that I wrote for myself and collecting my time sheet so he could initial it before sending it off to payroll, the main difference was that we talked less.

Finally, he decided he had to discuss the matter with me. He claimed that he was the main reason I was hired as a consultant, and insisted that he had done the right thing, and expected me to agree.

However, I was in no mood to give him much satisfaction. “You over-stepped your authority,” I said, “But that’s in the past, so I’m willing to forget what happened.”

That wasn’t good enough for the executive. He tried to get me to apologize, but I simply continued to insist that we move on until he gave up.

We never did return to the relatively friendly relationship we had before. But, a few weeks later, I put in my notice, and the issue ceased to matter. Since then, I’ve thought more than once that the real sign of how anal-retentive I can be is that I’ve wondered occasionally since exactly what he thought was happening.

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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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One of my pet peeves about business is the constant consternation among executives about employees doing personal business on company time. Even if the transgression is just a few minutes browsing on the Internet, it’s viewed with the greatest concern. Business experts talk earnestly about what such loss of productivity might mean to the nation, and devise ways to spy on employees, or to block web sites that employees might like to view. Doing business on company time, they gravely explain, is the worst sin of our secular age – stealing from your employer. What annoys me is that such concerns are a grotesque hypocrisy.

I’m not talking, you understand, about the extreme cases, where a middle manager spends five or six hours a day on a gambling site, or a system administrator watches porn all day. Such behavior is obviously unacceptable to anyone. I’m talking instead of people who take five or ten minutes a couple of times a day to read a news or hobby site, or to dash out on a family errand.

Of course, even this behavior was unacceptable thirty years ago, when people worked regular hours and rarely deviated from them. After all, the lost time quickly adds up.

But the workplace is different today. Instead of receiving an hourly wage, the average office worker is on salary – a ploy that forces them to work hours of unpaid overtime. Especially in high-tech, the norm is to take advantage of this situation, putting heavy pressure on those who leave after eight hours and implying that anyone who doesn’t devote evenings and weekends to the company are not being good team players and letting everyone down. More than once, I’ve encountered supervisors who had a habit of starting meetings ten minutes before the end of the day and forcing people to work overtime, knowing very well that the social pressure would keep most people from objecting.

And only rarely does anyone get a day off to compensate for their extra hours. Rather, unpaid work has become the norm.

Under these circumstances, how dare employers complain about the loss of half an hour or an hour a day when they are averaging twice that in unpaid overtime from their employees? If anything, they ought to be glad that employees are taking short breaks. Otherwise, productivity would decline steadily after about nine hours. By taking those breaks, employees are actually making better use of the time actually spent working, because they are more refreshed than they would otherwise be.

An employer with any knowledge of human nature should be glad that employees know how to pace themselves. Otherwise, employees risk falling into the unproductive habit of a resident doctor I once knew. When I asked how she handled the thirty-six hour shifts that are part of the hazing ritual for new doctors, she explained, “I try to make all my decisions in the first twelve hours. After that, I just try not to make any mistakes.”

Anyway, what choice do employees have except to conduct personal business on company time? When employees are working long days, often the middle of the day is the only time they have for errands or personal business. Very few stores are open at 10PM – assuming that someone staggering home after a fourteen hour day even has the energy to stop to shop.

At any rate, employees are doing nothing that many executives haven’t done for years. Despite all the pep talks about the importance of leadership, the average manager works far less strenuously that the average employee. The exceptions are those who have a hands-on approach, and lend a hand in anything that needs doing, and they are usually in a startup. The average manager thinks nothing of doing exactly the sort of thing that annoys them when employees do them.

And perhaps that’s the problem, Maybe the executives who worry about productivity are simply irked that average employees are claiming perqs that used to be reserved for them alone.

When companies pay overtime or don’t cajole and threaten free work out of their employees, and managers set an example of dedication, then they will have a right to complain about what is done on company time. Until then, so long as employees put in the number of productive hours listed in their contract, they have every right to reclaim some of their free time.

So far as I’m concerned, the employees aren’t the ones who are stealing.

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Considering the number of jobs I’ve worked at, I’m surprised that I’ve only been fired once. I use the word “fired” deliberately, since I dislike euphemisms like “laid off” or “made redundant”and consider them inaccurate. It was experience that I found humiliating and unfair, and my wish not to repeat it helps to explain the fact that I’ve usually worked freelance or as a consultant ever since.

At the time, I was working as a technical writer. I had a job at one company that bored me to tears, so I hired a sub-contractor to do that, taking a modest hourly cut from her salary and showing up there one day a week. The other four, I worked at another company that wanted my services.

My four day a week job was everything that the other was not. It was new, and I was learning Unix, and I shared an office with two other people who were intelligent and shared a cynical sense of humor. Best of all, I was laying the groundwork for the company’s documentation, recording for the first time much of the information on which the company ran, which was a creative challenge as I struggled to understand the software system and to pry information out of the brains of uncooperative developers (this was before my knowledge of free and open source software made me tolerated in the world of programmers).

All seemed to be going well. The manager to whom I reported wanted me to turn full-time after my first week, and we had a mutual interest in birds (in fact, most of my initial job interview was spent talking about parrots). Elsewhere in the company, people were talking of me as someone who was dong the impossible, since I was the third person to try to give the company some documentation, and I seemed to be succeeding.

Then, one day after I had been working at the company for several months, I heard that the company had lost a major customer. I made the expected solemn noises when I heard, but didn’t think too much about the news, even when rumors of staff cuts started circulating about mid-morning. After all, I thought myself a star employee, so they couldn’t be about to fire me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had forgotten what passes for wisdom among executives – the idea that the last hired or those on contract should go first, regardless of how irreplaceable they might be.

Early in the afternoon, the manager of my section called me in and told me I was being laid off. My first reaction was a wordless sound of disbelief. In my naivety and self-conceit, I had been taking the praise I had received as an indication of how the company regarded my work.

My second was to find a reason for the event. After a moment, I remembered an incident in which part of a printing job needed redoing because of a mistake in the address. Hesitantly, I asked if that was the reason for me being fired.

“Let’s just say that it made the decision easier,” the manager said, suddenly stern.

I pointed out that, while the final responsibility was mine, both he and the president of the company had proofread the job, and so had some of the blame for that mistake. The manager sputtered for a bit, and I realized that all I had done was give him an excuse where he hadn’t had one before.

I could recall far more costly mistakes, including a couple by the manager.
But the excuse didn’t matter. The manager told my office mates to make themselves scarce, and stood over me while I cleaned out my workstation.

To give him credit, he did say that he thought me unlikely to steal or sabotage anything. But he treated me like a potential troublemaker anyway, and I had one of my first direct insights into how expectations and policy could make a basically decent but courage-deficient person act like a stranger to someone who was a friend.

Full of resentment, I packed my things and left, so quickly that I forgot a little plaque with a Northwest Coast design on it. The office manager left a phone message about the plaque, but I never did retrieve it. I didn’t want to return to the place where I had been treated that way, or to face my office mates after what I considered a public humiliation. Never mind that three of the other recent hires were also fired; I took the action personally.

A couple of years later, I met one of my office mates on the Skytrain, and he said that they had all been hurt that I hadn’t kept in touch. A touch icily, I observed that they had never tried to contact me, either.

In the end, I wasn’t largely unaffected financially by the incident. The other company had enough work that needed doing that I could return full time there, while still receiving the stipend for supervising the sub-contractor. But the incident left me more cynical and less trusting, and at some level I promised myself never to endure the situation again.

The next time it looked like financial troubles meant that a company at which I was a long-term consultant was about to lay off people, I bailed a week before the staff was nine-times decimated. The company’s president had promised me a job as long as I wanted one, but I decided not to put his character to the test; instinct told me that he would have failed.

Very quickly, too, I decided that I would not worry about full-time employment and stay freelance. To this day, I dislike people have the power of judgment over me, especially when they are under no restraints to use that power responsibly or fairly.

Even now, I avoid situations where someone might exercise that power over me. Some people might say that shows a bad attitude, but, in the end, I’m glad to have it. If I hadn’t learned to feel that way, I might not be doing almost exactly what I want for a living.

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The other week, I heard that a former employer had gone out of business. I reacted with the same pleasure that an octogenarian might feel on reading the name of an unpleasant former colleague in the obituaries. I was glad to see the company go, and my only surprise was that it had crawled along as long as it had. I had been expecting to see it go under for years.

As you might guess, I was not particularly happy there. I used to take long walks at lunch, regardless of the weather, just to get away from the place, and would amuse myself by composing words to a parody of “Chantilly Lace” that I called “Genteelly Bored.”

Part of my unhappiness was the circumstances. It was my first full-time position since the dot-com crash. After being one of the powers at two different companies, I felt demoted to be working as a technical writer again, no matter how often I told myself that no honest living was shameful. But I felt massively under-challenged, and chafed at having to take directions, although I remained polite.

But a larger part of the problem was that, having been a leader (of what quality I’m not sure), I knew that the company officers and executives were border-line competence at best. The CEO was not only fond of purges, which inevitably included people with key knowledge, but also of inflicting the latest management fads on the company. He was fond of regular, excruciating company meetings at which he kept showing the same slides over and over. When I left, he was trying retreats at which select members of the company would discuss a book on the management best-seller lists – a move which instantly divided the company into the privileged and the under-appreciated. He never did seem to understand that he was sending mixed signals, and, when I briefly shared an office with him due to overcrowding, he used to wonder why no one was passionate about the company.

The other executives were no better. The vice-president of toadyism, as I called the CEO’s right hand man, was infamous for making decisions without bothering to gather necessary information.

Another executive, a fundamentalist Christian, tried to take me to task for using, “Does anal-retentive have a hyphen?” on my screen saver. He thought it obscene, and was put out when I suggested that he had better things to do than chastise me over trivia and I refused to apologize on the grounds that I had done nothing wrong.

Then there was the testing manager, a little man who decorated his office in unread books and inspirational posters, and would spend hours designing spreadsheets with the largest color palette that I have ever seen. He worked long hours, and like to call meetings with me just before I was leaving for home. But at least he didn’t last as long as his probation.

“Blind leading the blind” was the phrase that kept occurring to me when I had to deal with any of these characters. But although interacting with them was bad enough, what was especially hard to handle was the fact that I had enough experience (and enough memories of my own incompetence) to know that they were mismanaging the company, and making what could only be a marginal business at best a loser. I discovered that to see incompetence that you know how to correct, yet to be able to do or say nothing is one of the most uncomfortable mental states possible.

Still, I shouldn’t complain. If I hadn’t been so uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have started trying to write a book on OpenOffice.org. The book was never published, but my efforts over the fifteen months I was at the company have since repaid my effort many times over as I cannibalized the chapters for articles. I also started doing a couple of other articles per month, and I still remember the pleasure when I had earned enough from articles to buy my new computer. There was another short contract between my work at this company and my transition to full-time journalist, but if I hadn’t been so bored, I might never have done the ground work for a career change. So I can’t say that the company didn’t do me an unintentional favor.

Still, I wish there had been a wake. I would have attended, if only to dance on the coffin.

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Today, I was interviewing someone who stated that any company or free software needed a leader who was passionate about the work.

The idea was that, being a leader, they could quickly make the decisions necessary for the smooth running of the company, and that, being passionate about the work, they would make desirable decisions – or, at the very least, spare their subordinates the problem of making no decision at all, which the interviewee saw as often worse than making a wrong decision.

Given what I know of the interviewee, I wasn’t surprised to hear this belief expressed. All the same, I was amused that, shortly before the interview, I had read a new release announcing that a former employer, who also believed in being a passionate leader (perhaps he reads the same books on management as the interviewee) had just sold 95% of his company after five years of trying to make it consistently profitable. And if that is not a sign of bad leadership, what is?

As the interviewee expounded his theory, I couldn’t help thinking that you can passionately make the wrong decision at least as often as the right one. If anything, if you push logic aside in favor of inspiration, you’re probably more inclined to make wrong decisions.

Also, although I kept silent – interviews not being about me, I strongly believe – I couldn’t help thinking that, nine times out of ten, when people talk about leadership, they are viewing themselves as the leaders in question. What other people might think of the arrangement they are expounding hardly enters into their consideration. The assumption always seems to be that non-leaders will automatically follow.

I suppose that some people might exist who want a leader to make decisions for them. Or, at least, if they do exist, such people might explain neo-conservatism. But, I’ve never met them. The most apathetic and most obedient alike always seem jaded or cynical about their situation, if you can get them talking in a place where they feel safe.

For the most part, I suspect that people are not looking for a leader so much as a sense that their input into a decision matters. Nothing can be more irritating to someone with specialized knowledge than to find that their experience has been ignored in the decision-making.

I remember one long, hot summer when I was working on a design and writing project with a company. Whenever we held meetings, the CEO would arrive forty minutes late. He would then spend the next twenty minutes vetoing all the decisions the rest of us had made before his arrival – so far as I can see, simply because he felt like asserting his authority. Those of us who were consultants soon got into the habit of being late ourselves, and of not talking about anything to do with the project until the CEO arrived.

Needless to say, we were fuming, partly about the waste of time, but partly because our suggestions, which we believed were in the best interest of the company, were being ignored.

Very likely, we were sometimes wrong n our decisions, but, given our experience, we were almost certainly right more often than the CEO, who had no relevant expertise in the project – only a passion to have things his own way.

Such experiences explain why, whenever someone talks about visionary leadership, I start getting very apprehensive (at least when I have to endure it; when I don’t, I just shake my head). Somehow, business in the twenty-first century has got hold of the idea that leadership is some sort of natural trait or at least something that is an end in itself.

The idea reminds me of people who believe that a writer simply needs to know how to write, and has no need for expertise on their subject – in both cases, the odds of poor performance increase to near certainty, probably because so much time is spent disguising ignorance and inability.

Personally, I think leadership is simpler than that. These days, I tend to avoid situations where leadership arise, having decided that I have no particular wish to lead, and that I most definitely do not want to led.

However, in the past, leadership roles continually came my way – probably due the wrong-headed belief that if you are skilled in one area, you are somehow fit to lead. When I could not avoid such roles, however, I quickly learned that they were not about me, or making me feel good.

To me, leadership decisions were simply a matter of problem solving: I gathered what information I could in the time allotted, consulting people when I needed to, made a decision, then moved on to the next matter needing my attention. But, then, I’ve never thought that any leadership that wasn’t hands-on was worth a damn, anyway.

To this day, I have no idea how effective a leader I was. Nor am I likely to find out now. But it seems to me that there is far less to the role than those who aspire to it like to pretend.

Passion? Vision? So far as I am concerned, passion is for martyrs, and visions are for saints. I’ve always been aware that I wasn’t so exalted, and that I had a job to do.

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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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