THE BLOG

Ask Not What I Can Do for You

02/11/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015
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That Sinking Feeling

I'm certain that all parents, particularly of teenagers, will be familiar with the scenario I'm about to describe. It's the moment one of my daughters appears looking guileless and hesitantly ventures: "Um Dad? Can I ask you a question?"

And instantly, here's that familiar sensation, a Pavlovian lurch in the pit of my stomach that says I'm not going to like what I'm about to hear, and that it's definitely going to cost me money. In fact, so well conditioned am I that, lately, even the simple inquisitive, 'Dad?' can make me reach for an antacid.

I was reminded of this today when I got a message from an old acquaintance, Ralph. Every quarter like clockwork, I get a call from Ralph. Ralph will be calling to say hello, shoot the breeze, to check on my kids and bring me up to speed on his. Of course he's never met mine and I don't know the names of his. Toward the end of the chat, Ralph will manage to work in that he's looking for another job. It's a fishing expedition of course, for a phone call, a reference, an introduction. By spending five or so minutes fumbling through the social niceties, Ralph believes he can now get down to brass tacks -- what can I do for him?

And in just the same way my daughters believe that their forays into my office are subtle, Ralph actually genuinely believes he's networking. Unfortunately for him, what he's accomplishing is far more poisonous and self-sabotaging, he's systematically spreading distaste and ill feeling through an ever-expanding network of victims. He's creating a trigger in the minds of everyone he calls once a quarter -- that sinking feeling of dread we all experience when we know we're about to be hit up for something, again.

So in this world teeming with networking tools designed to assist in the making of my buddy Ralph's mistakes, I'll offer a few pointers on job networking.

First, it's important to know that only a small fraction of senior level positions are filled via electronic postings. The lion's share come through referral, whether through search firms or individuals referring in.

However, even if you are gainfully employed at the moment, there is no better insurance policy and hedge against the future than networking well. Artful networking is a way to always keep your options open and your perspective fresh. Most successful high level executives understand this intuitively. Networking in the hands of a master is deft and strategic, a fast moving game of connectivity. Favors extended, new connections made, and the ultimate benefactor -- the long-term thinker who facilitated it.

Here's the bottom line: The more people who know you, have a positive opinion of you and feel predisposed to doing something for you the better. It's critical to cultivate these people and create hybrids between them.

1) Connecting. As you think about all the people who know you, consider them with one objective in mind (hint: it's not you!) Now, thinking of connecting them two at a time in a way that's helpful to both. To do this, you must have enough knowledge of each individual in your network to determine who might be helpful to whom. Each time you make a connection, you have been helpful to both, and, here's the important part: you have reminded people that you exist.

Bottom line: Effective networking is never obvious, it is never self-serving; it is never, ever immediately quid pro quo.

2) Helping. Now think about simply providing something helpful to an individual in your network. Offer someone information they'll find useful, whether it's a conference they may want to attend, an article that pertains to their interests or the name of a new restaurant that prepares some exotic food they mentioned they like.

Bottom Line: In doing either of these things, don't mention yourself at all. Not once. Let what you're doing speak for itself. You are creating a bank of goodwill, but remember: the penalties for early withdrawal are high.

3) Withdrawing. Before you even consider this you need to have already done a whole bunch of 'helping' and 'connecting.' In fact, withdraw as infrequently as possible -- if you can, avoid it like the plague. Because if you overdraw you will become the Ralph of your network. Withdrawals are asking someone to do something for you when there is no obvious benefit to them. Remember, a withdrawal doesn't just have to be asking for something, it can simply be the call from Ralph, taking up a person's most valuable resources -- time and patience. And once you've lost that goodwill, that willingness to take your call, it's likely gone for good.

So your network is a group of people you constantly expand but only as fast as you can keep up with what's important to them in their work and personal lives. That's why it's ludicrous to see people working night and day on online networking sites, thinking that when the time comes to make a move it will be helpful. It may have benefits on paper, and it may make you feel warm and fuzzy to have seven hundred virtual 'friends' or 'associates', but do you really know these people? Do they know you? Is there any accumulated goodwill between you?

Bottom line: The measure of success of your network is the number of people whom you have introduced for their mutual benefit, plus the number of people for whom you have provided a service or favor. And if you find yourself making requests even ten percent of the time -- cease and desist. Seriously.

Effective networking is no different in the digital age than it was in the Bronze Age -- relationships are personal, and need to be cultivated, managed and ultimately beneficial to both parties. The farsighted networker realizes that the time to nurture relationships is not five minutes before you need something. In networking, the long-term payoff is always the goal.

Take five minutes a day to think about your network and what you can do for someone in it, then do it. The benefits may astonish you -- when you least expect it and most need it.

And above all, don't be Ralph -- ask not what your network can do for you but what you can do for your network.