The latest message in my inbox is not auspicious. "I started a company," begins the entrepreneur who's writing to me, "and I really want to tell you about it. You could write about my business, in fact. The business is this. It's that. It's the greatest thing since Google and sliced bread, combined. How about coffee next Thursday?"
I have the odd sensation as I read the entrepreneur's message that I don't exist for this writer, not as a real person; I'm a conduit to her public-relations vision, and a cog in her machine. I don't know the lady from Adam (or Eve) but I'm being summoned to have coffee with her and listen raptly as she fills me in on her new-business story. She's got a message to deliver, by gum, and she doesn't even mind taking up my time to get the word out.
Here's the best part: "I'll buy coffee." No, really? You'll buy me coffee? Well, at least we've established an hourly rate for my time: it's four dollars and fifty cents. Maybe the lady was planning to throw in a biscotti with the coffee -- her message didn't specify. My advice and sounding-board services might earn me as much as six bucks an hour by the time this thing comes together.
Reaching out to strangers to ask for their help falls into the bucket called 'human activity,' but it isn't networking. When you write to a person you don't know in order to say "I need your help -- now step on it!" you're doing something impolite, and way outside the bounds of the thoughtful relationship-building that most of us call networking.
Here are 10 examples to help you determine what's networking, and what isn't:
Inviting a person you don't know for coffee to further your agenda isn't networking. If you really wanted to network with this person, your email or telephone overture would focus on your networking target's needs, not yours.
Joining a LinkedIn group or another online community in order to post marketing messages to the group it isn't networking. I can't think of a faster way to brand yourself That Guy (a unisex term) than to wade into an established group and start up your spam engine.
Sending a stranger your resume or business plan with the instruction "please read, and send me your comments" isn't networking; it's a request for free consulting. If you're in school, you can write to older friends-of-friends and ask for their advice -- old people (that's anyone older than me) love to help young people. If you've got to ask a stranger for something, make it advice; there's an implied compliment in that request. It's the height of rudeness to meet a new person and ask "Can you introduce me to the people you know?" That's not networking; that's piggybacking on other people's relationships, without having earned their trust first.
Adding new acquaintances to your newsletter subscription list (because they trustingly accepted your LinkedIn connection request, e.g.) isn't networking. It's spamming.
Misusing other people's contacts a la "You and I are both friends with Stephanie, so you should talk to me" isn't networking. A bona fide introduction is one written by the mutual contact him- or herself, one that says "You two really should meet."
Sending your resume to a person who doesn't know you isn't networking. Sending a resume to a person you don't know and asking him or her to forward to everyone s/he knows is too horrible a breach of etiquette even to have a name (and yet it happens every day).
Calling a person you've found on LinkedIn to ask "So, are there any openings at your company? Will you refer me over to HR?" isn't networking. It's presuming on a relationship that doesn't exist.
Turning every business conversation into a pitch for your company ("Really, you haven't heard of us? Why don't I stop by your office tomorrow and give you a demo?") isn't networking. It's ice-cold cold-calling, and it's what turns non-networkers off from networking for years at a time. People who go to networking events want to chat with other humans, not be subjected to aural assaults.
Asking new acquaintances who they know at various organizations isn't networking. Networking doesn't involve trading our valued contacts like Pokemon cards.
Name-dropping isn't networking. When you mention the names of your well-connected friends to improve your own standing in a relationship, expect to find that the valuable contacts you're seeking don't materialize. If you don't have a relationship with someone, don't use his or her name to advance your agenda -- it's the height of non-networking, in fact.
It is important, and easy, to establish a community of well-wishers and networking contacts around you that will build your mojo and credibility (as well as theirs) in a collaborative way. People are networking successfully all around you right now, and they're doing it by treating the folks they're networking with as even more important than the agenda item (growing a business, or finding a new job) that got them to network in the first place.
You'll be amazed what happens when you show a sincere, you-first interest in a fellow networker's life and business. Wouldn't you rather have a few strong, mutually-supportive relationships than a bunch of people who grimace at the sight (or thought) of you?