“Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.”Brené Brown

Those of you who follow my posts will probably know that I like to give examples of clients’ stories (anonymised, of course) to demonstrate a point. This time, on the subject of networking, I’m going to start with some stories from my personal experience that have also come up in my coaching clients’ experiences. It is important to surface and start a conversation around these experiences that give networking a bad name and can deter women from experimenting with networking.

Before I begin, I think it’s important to highlight that each scenario is likely to land differently for each reader and may evoke a different reaction and response. Whilst I do consider these all to be what I call ‘networking no-nos’, you will decide which ones loom larger for you. Regardless of where you fall, I believe it is important to recognize them so that you can find strategies to address them as part of building your networking acumen.

To demonstrate my points, I have gathered some beautiful examples of incidents that give networking a bad name. I thought I’d share these with you to shed light on bad practice – especially given how much I write about networking and its positive benefits. Let’s uncover some of the negatives, bring the dark side into the light, and – best of all – avoid inflicting those networking no-nos on other people, thus ensuring positive experiences for everyone.

1. The Less Than Transparent Request

Jenifer is someone I don’t personally know at all. She found me on LinkedIn and saw that we both do some work for the same client. She suggested that we get together for a chat, so we could “share”. Wanting to be a generous networker, I agreed. However, her purpose – or the result, at least – was that we spent the entire time talking about how she could get more work out of the client and build her own business. There was no sharing at all.

Problem: Reaching out is a great way to expand your network, particularly if networking is new to you. Kudos, for that. However, you have to be clear and transparent about what you actually want. This scenario was not about sharing: this was about extracting information from me to build her business. This would have gone down much more smoothly if it had been clearly communicated at the outset. She just had to be transparent – “I’m interested in your relationship with X… and how I can build my business with them.”

Golden Rule 1: Clear is kind. Unclear is not only unkind, but it is inappropriate and erodes trust. A lack of transparency makes people wary and suspicious. So, communicate clearly and honestly about your motives for meeting or making contact.

 2. Reaching Out Under False Pretenses

Julia is a friend and colleague with whom I worked 20 years ago. She was recently in a high-level position with a lot of prestige, and doing very well on every front. She seems to be the kind of person who is ideal to have in your network. She contacted me to arrange a meeting to catch up on old times.

As soon as I sat down hoping for an interesting, mutually beneficial conversation, Julia said, “I’m applying for [an even better position] and I thought you could advise me on my approach…”

The meeting was not about catching up – she wanted free coaching. I was slightly taken aback, but nevertheless, I tried to help her, under the illusion that we could still exchange news and “catch up” in some way. That’s not how this story ended: she picked my brains, said goodbye, and didn’t thank me. And when I later got in touch to ask if she could share a post of my for un upcoming event, she never responded.

Problem: Her reaching out was made under false pretenses. She wasn’t interested in catching up or finding out what I was doing these days – she was only interested in extracting advice for herself. She knew that I worked as a coach, and instead of asking for a discovery call to discuss the possibility of coaching (or even ask for free advice), she chose to take advantage of our history and misrepresent her desire to reconnect. I felt that I had been used, with a side-serving of lack of reciprocity. I did my best to help her, but once she’d got what she wanted, I never heard from her again (although I did later see that she’d got the brilliant, better job I’d coached her for).

Golden rule 2: Mutual benefit rules. Clearly Golden rule 1 – Clear is Kind applies here, too – there was a clear break of intention. But I want to introduce another important rule – that of reciprocity. Reciprocity is important in all our relationships. I am not taking about being transactional, but rather, the desire to help/share/give as part of building meaningful relationship. As I have written before, value-based networking is based on generosity and reciprocity, where we try to create value for all the parties involved. One networking strategy that many find palatable is actually to see how you can support the other person first, before you make an ask. When we view our relationships as opportunities to exercise give and take, we feel both empowered and in service – something that we all want to experience. 

3. The Ask Doesn’t Fit the Relationship

Lara is a professional contact, not a friend. We both work in similar circles, but we have different skillsets and market ourselves differently. I hadn’t been in contact with her for a while, but she got in touch with me via email and asked me if I could put a friend of hers (who I didn’t know at all) – in front of one of my biggest tech clients to pitch for work!

Problem: This was too big of an ask for our relationship. There are different kinds of asks in level of effort: i.e. there is a big difference between asking someone for their favorite resource for CV writing, versus asking someone to review and comment on your CV. Similarly, asks vary by appropriateness – which, I am the first to agree, can be more difficult to navigate. One client shared this comparison with me. A friend of hers asked her to introduce her to her publisher. Despite being friends, she explained that for her, her publisher was also a source of her intellectual capital, which she has spent over 25 years building. It didn’t feel right that her friend, who was attempting to break into this space, made this request. For me, this request also lacked a certain sensitivity and sensibility of what is appropriate to ask someone. In Lara’s case, the ask exceeded our relationship and also had the potential to impact my business, which she clearly had not considered.

Golden Rule 3: Think about / prepare your ask – If you want to ask someone for a favor – like an introduction or a lead – it needs to fit the level of relationship you have, and it also needs to “do no harm”. Asking to be put in front of someone’s best/biggest client – which could have negative consequences for that person – or asking for an introduction to someone like a publisher or agent that takes years to acquire – is generally not good form. Again, if you are planning on making a big ask, build the relationship first. In addition (an extra rule!) – poaching a contact’s clients is never ok. And that’s not just my opinion – business thinker, coach and consultant Dorie Clarke also says this is a big no-no.

4. Ask Don’t Tell

I know Miguel from a company I worked in some years ago, who is in a very senior position now. I’ve reached out to him in the past to keep in contact, and at one point I had even asked for an introduction to one of his contacts. He didn’t reply. Yet, years later and out of the blue, he sent me a message asking for my email address. He said he wanted to give it to an ‘amazing woman’ so I could guide her progress in my industry.

Problem: This is a real bugbear for me! It didn’t feel like a request – it was more like a command. He is in a very senior position now. Yet, from his previous disdain towards me and my business and his current enthusiasm about this new person and her career, I felt like a subordinate being told what to do. It also wasn’t clear what I was actually expected to do – whether I was to connect with and support this woman for free as a favor to him, or sign her up as a paying client.

Golden Rule 4: Ask, Don’t Tell. No one likes being told what to do, especially as an adult, and it goes down even worse from someone who is an unknown and/or distant teller. When asking for something, especially a favor, it needs to sound like an ask – not a demand. Asking gets a bad rap, and women (and men) often struggle with it. The research tells us that we significantly underestimate people’s willingness to help, so, make it an ask. Again, building a  relationship is key, so reach out to contacts, by all means; don’t ignore their messages, and think about how you can benefit them: make them an offer before you ask them to do something for you. 

5. “What do you say?”

Claudia is a former client. She asked me to weigh in urgently on something she needed. And of course, it came in on a Friday evening before the holidays! It required me to make time beyond working hours to read a document and prepare a written response. I did this for her. Much to my surprise, she never acknowledged my input, nor did I receive a thank you.

Problem: This one feels like a no brainer. However, you may be surprised how many times I ask my clients if they thanked or sent a thank you note for a favor extended. For my part, I complied with her request, wanting to be helpful to her given her urgent need, and I expended my time and effort to give a considered response within a short timeframe to meet her deadline. In return, there was no thank you or acknowledgement. This is always a big faux pas, since it leaves a bad taste.

Golden Rule 5: Thank you is not optional. Just as we probably heard, growing up, and instill in our children: “What do you say when someone gives you something? – Thank you!” It’s a way of acknowledging the other person’s gift: their time, attention, thoughtfulness, resourcefulness… and the list goes on. You know how appreciated and seen you feel when receiving a thank you – the same goes for everyone else. These two little words mean a lot! When someone in your network has done something for you, especially giving of their time, regardless of how you assess its worth – the least you can do is acknowledge this generosity, work, or effort by saying ‘thank you’. Gratitude and courtesy always sweeten an experience, and help build relationship.

 

Naturally, there is some overlap between these problematic situations, and as you have seen – as in life – several golden rules may apply to a single scenario. Whatever your situation, bear in mind that the honesty of a well-prepared approach that offers your contact some value and mutual benefit makes for a positive and productive networking experience. And – remember, too, that gratitude and appreciation are key.

In short, to avoid networking no-nos and to make networking a positive experience, remember the Golden Rules:

  1. Clear is kind – unclear is unkind.
  2. Mutual benefits rule.
  3. Think about/prepare your ask.
  4. Ask Don’t Tell.
  5. Thank you is not optional.

If you’d like more, please feel free to download Designing Your Leadership Self-Reflection Practice – Guided Writing Prompts – packed with tips, tools, and guided prompts to launch your leadership self-reflection practice as you continue to strengthen your leadership.

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