Networking as we know it first took shape 15 or 20 years ago, when entrepreneurs and consultants started meeting up with people for the sole purpose of cultivating business relationships. It makes sense that self-employed folks would jump into the networking mosh pit ahead of corporate types, who didn’t need big or robust networks to prosper in their careers. Today all job categories have grown less secure than ever, and virtually everybody—from college students to Greatest Generation business emeriti—makes time for networking coffee dates and LinkedIn (LNKD), Facebook, and the whole social networking gang. And nearly everyone has run into an unfortunate networking scenario at one time or another.
As a columnist and media commentator on the changing workplace, I get networking overtures all the time, and luckily most of them are appropriate and charming. From time to time, though, an unclear-on-the-concept networker makes a major misstep, reminding me that not everyone was as well-steeped in the Golden Rule during childhood as we might hope. Here are eight of my favorite cautionary tales, plus tips to help you avoid becoming a networking outcast yourself.
What Are the Odds?
I met a woman at a business/social event, and she suggested we get together for a networking dinner in Denver. As we sat down at the restaurant, three ladies stopped by our table. "Melinda!" said one of them. "What are the odds?" It turns out that the three women and my networking buddy were friends in high school 20 years ago. When Melinda invited her three BFFs to join us in our booth, I knew the evening had morphed from business networking to girls’ night out. Vowing to be more discriminating in accepting invitations ever after, I left as the first round of margaritas arrived amid shrieks of laughter over old-crush stories. Moral: When you suggest a networking get-together, give that meeting its due. Don’t compel a brand-new business acquaintance to socialize with your buddies.
Oh, Were You There?
Nick the Web designer cold-called me to pitch some Web projects. "Let’s have coffee," he said, and we picked a coffee shop halfway between us, 20 minutes away. I parked myself near the front door, inspecting each person entering the premises so I could grab Nick on arrival, since he hadn’t put a photo on his LinkedIn profile. Half an hour later no solo men had entered, so I made two circuits of the whole place, asking every guy, "Are you Nick, by chance?" No dice. I left. As I arrived back at my office, Nick called. "I’m here at the coffee shop," he said. "Actually I’m around the corner at an outdoor table at the café next door." "Er, I was by the front door for half an hour, and then I canvassed the coffee shop twice," I said. Nick asked, "Can you come back?" Wrong. Moral: When you make a networking invitation, get a physical ID and make it your business to find her. Don’t force her to hunt you down.
So, What Do You Do?
A budding entrepreneur reached out to me, and we scheduled a lunch date. Her first question to me as we sat down was, "So, what do you do?" "I am curious," I said. "You were avid to meet me, but you don’t know what I do or anything about me. How did I get on your list of people to meet?" "Oh, people told me you know a lot of people, and I figured you could get the word out about my business," she said. Moral: It’s fine to have business objectives driving your networking, but the central good-networking idea is that you value the people you’re meeting, and not just their Rolodexes. Take the time to learn about people before you ask them to invest a lunch hour with you.
That Information Is Classified
A young woman, Erin, called me. "I found you on LinkedIn," she said, "and I need your help." "How’s that?" I asked. "I’ve got an idea for a reality TV show," she said, "and I don’t know anyone who could help me get it on the air." "I’m not sure I do either," I said, "but if you run down the idea for me, I’ll look through my LinkedIn contacts and make an introduction or two." "You’ll need to sign a nondisclosure agreement before I can tell you the idea," said Erin. "Gee, I don’t have much incentive to do that," I said. "You called me, and I don’t know you and I’m offering to give you free counsel and introductions." "Well, I can’t tell you my idea then," said Erin. "That’s wonderful, and I wish you all the best," I told her. Moral: When you reach out to strangers, keep in mind that they don’t owe you a thing. Be gracious, and don’t put conditions on your interactions.
Late, But Not Sorry
I was in Chicago on business. Both the Windy City and New York are complicated for me, because having lived 20 years in each place, I find it tough to schedule meetings around social obligations. But Meg, whom I hadn’t met, was persistent, and we made a dinner date. I got there at six p.m.—no Meg. At a quarter to seven I figured Meg was a no-show and I ordered sesame noodles. Five minutes later a lady matching Meg’s description came in the door. Not wanting her to feel guilty for her late arrival, I told a white lie of omission. "Forgive me for ordering," I said. "I was starved." "That’s fine," said Meg. "I was an hour late." That was it—no apology, no explanation. "You know how it is," she said. I actually didn’t know, and I made a quick exit. Moral: When you extend a networking invitation, be on time. If you’re running late, call and say so.
The Kid in the Corner Said It Best
A sales guy pursued me for weeks, and I finally agreed to a "networking" lunch. My son Declan, 5, was home with a minor cold, so he came with us to lunch. Amid profuse apologies for bringing the little one with me, we sat down. For 70 minutes, Declan and I were subjected to a machine-gun-style sales pitch: no pause for breath, no checking in, and no opportunity for comment. I didn’t speak except to order my salad, try as I might to get a word in edgewise. Declan munched silently on his mac and cheese in the corner. At the end of the spiel, I chose my words carefully. "I must say," I began, "I’ve never heard a one-hour, nonstop sales pitch before." I was about to tell the sales guy that in sales-training courses they call his technique Throwing Up on the Customer, when Declan suddenly felt sick to his stomach and, well, demonstrated the aforementioned technique, literally. While I was apologizing for the mishap, it hit me that the kid got the message across more eloquently than I ever could have. Moral: Networking is a two-way affair. It’s not an opportunity to send an aural blast across a table at an unwilling recipient.
Let’s Meet Halfway
I lived in the suburbs north of Chicago. A gentleman wrote to me from a town 50 miles away. "I’m dying to meet you," he said. "Let’s have coffee." "O.K.," I said. I told him where I was. "Oh, good," said the gentleman, "we can meet halfway." I didn’t have any reason to make that drive, and I begged off until fate should bring me out his way. Fate hasn’t found a reason to do that, right to this day. Moral: Observe the Happy Life Rule, which tells us that the person you’re approaching with your networking overture has been leading a perfectly happy life even without having known you thus far. When we reach out to people who don’t know us, we should offer to meet wherever it’s convenient for them.
You Could Write About Me
A gentleman reached out to me through a professional association. "I’m really anxious to meet you," he said. "I am about to move across the country," I said. "I am packing up a semi truck tomorrow. We could talk by phone." "It’s urgent," he said. "I will come whenever it’s convenient." "Fine," I said, "but we’re heading out at noon, so you have to be here by 10 a.m." "No problem," he said. I tried to look businesslike while sweeping up the dust bunnies left behind once the furniture was gone. The doorbell rang. A man in a business suit stood on the porch. I invited him to have a seat on the double porch swing, the only place to sit. "Do you have something to drink?" he asked. I stared. I thought about saying, "Well, there’s the garden hose." Moving men groaned past us, breathing hard under the weight of a piano. "I’m sorry, I’m not at my hostess-y best at the moment," I said. "Let’s talk about why you wanted to see me. What are you working on?" "I am excited about my latest project," he said. "I’ll tell you all about it, and then you can write an article about me." I apologized for having misunderstood his purpose, gave him the name of a great PR person, and took the kids out for ice cream. Moral: Networking is about two people meeting and sharing ideas and perhaps finding enough relationship "glue" to want to continue the association. It’s not a way to get what you need professionally on the backs of other people. If your approach is me-centered, you’re missing the networking boat.