Like most people, I don’t enjoy “networking” for its own sake, but it’s not a dirty word to me. It’s a part of business and a key component of taking charge of your career. But as an introvert, it’s not something that comes easily.

So as any good engineer would, I’ve tried to find a model of networking that fits my beliefs and that I can live with.

Let’s get the basic premise out of the way: Networking is about giving.

Now let’s examine this giving and what forms it might take.

The Godfather Model: “with strings attached”

This kind of person says I’m helping you now, with the expectation that you’ll return the favor at a later time. bookshelf3

This person doesn’t help without calculating “what’s in it for me in the long run?” What’s worse, they make sure you know it too. The expectation may be explicit or just implied, but it’s there.

There’s nothing wrong with the expectation of reciprocity - some people might actually call it fair. But I have a problem with the score-keeping inherent in this model - hence the Godfather imagery. I’d like to help without keeping score, and I’d like people to feel free to ask me for help.

The Mother Teresa Model: “you need me”

This person says Of course I’ll help you! I help everybody! Because helping is what I do!

Someone who follows this model tries to help others regardless of how much it costs them, and regardless of whether or not the recipient is deserving.

This person forwards every résumé they receive to their company’s HR. They give to every charity that comes asking (usually the same, small amount). When they find out someone is in trouble, they put off everything else and make the other person’s need their top priority.

Helping others gives this person an ego boost. It energizes them. Even when it’s not asked for, they feel the need to intefere. Their ego is hurt if anyone tries to tell them that their help is uncalled for. They see themselves as “such a generous person,” but there’s a strong chance that the generosity is a way of putting off their own problems, or a way of creating dependence in the other person.

The Just-in-Time Model

During good times, this person says “I don’t have time for networking” or “I hate schmoozing.” Their mental image of networking is to exchange business cards while fake-smiling and small-talking. As a result, their level of active giving is minimal.

Cut to a time when this person needs help, and you’ll suddenly see a clamor of activity. They’re liking your FB posts, upvoting your LinkedIn skills, commenting on your blog, asking you to lunch. This is an actual LinkedIn message I received:

“I trust you are well. I believe I’ve updated your skills several times since I joined Linked In. I joined after ___ laid me off and am seeking new employment. I would appreciate any leads, contacts or recommendations you might provide.”

Would I like to help this person? Absolutely. But in addition to neglecting to network, they neglected to keep their skills updated, which makes it difficult to recommend them for open positions.

The other problem with the JIT mindset is that very often, as soon as the crisis is over, the person goes back to their old ways. Until the next crisis.

There’s nothing wrong with neglecting to network - we all get lazy from time to time. But like any relationship, a flurry of activity does not make up for long times of neglect. A crisis should be an opportunity to reflect and change old ways.

My blueprint for networking

Here are the rules of networking I feel comfortable working with. These are designed so that I don’t feel like a corporate shill, and sustainable so that I will do them even if disenchanted or cheated.

  1. Create value within yourself first
    • Identify & develop your skills so that you can be of use to others
    • Create surplus that might attract others to be a part of your network. This is the “honey pot” theory of networking.

  2. Stay in touch
    • Meet people in your network every 3-6 months at the least
    • When you meet, listen. Take an active interest. Listen without trying to fix or seek.
    • Keep people informed of what you’re doing at the moment, what you can offer help on, and what you need help with

  3. Give without seeking any return
    • As the philosophy of Karma Yoga says, “Do your duty without thinking about the outcome.”

  4. Leave something in the tank
    • Don’t burn out. Giving time and effort to one cause takes it away from your family, yourself, and even other causes that may need it desperately.
    • Be aware of the inadvertent costs you’re imposing on others
    • Never “give by proxy” - i.e. sign up someone else for a commitment they don’t want.

  5. Pick worthy recipients (aka “James, earn this..”)
    • Practice effective altruism when giving to charities
    • Before recommending someone to a job, confirm that they fit the role. When you connect someone to a job or another person, your reputation goes with it too.
    • Before connecting 2 people, get permission from both, and confirm that it’s going to be beneficial to both sides
    • Never knowingly make a harmful connection

  6. Review outcomes
    • When you’ve made a connection, follow up later to see how it turned out. If it didn’t turn out well for either party, apologize and ask how you can do better.
    • What impact did your work have 6, 12, 60 months into the future? Is your project for that non-profit still in use? Did the family you adopt have a good Christmas? Did your mentee grow in their career thanks to your advice?

  7. Measure the right things
    • If you want to measure anything, measure how strong a relationship is - and nurture it if it needs care
    • Avoid scorekeeping, but repay kindness whenever possible. You never know if others are keeping score - and you don’t want to be in long-term debt.

Footnote: in researching this article, I came across the book Give and Take by Adam Grant (who has recently been in the news for his book Originals). The premise is interesting and the excerpt ties in very well with what I’ve been thinking. I’m committing to a follow up article to review the book.