You probably have read or heard ad nauseam about the benefits of “networking”, of building and using connections. There is a lot of truth in that. But there is also a lot of boloney. Let’s try to separate one from the other.
These days so many success books for business and career tell you how crucial it is that you mine your personal network. Some of the material I read out there leaves you thinking that you must be plugged into the Corleone family to get anything done. There are simpler and more benign ways to be connected effectively.
Let’s first define what a network is. I see it as having four layers as follows:
- Your family
- Your friends and colleagues
- Everyone else
I listed those four layers in order of strength of the connection. I am assuming you maintain a good, non-hostile relationship with all of the layers. It is an ongoing challenge to build bonds with everyone. You need to keep in touch and basically be nice. If you do those two things then you have a network. With this assumption in place we can continue the conversation.
Obviously the strongest relationship would be with your family. Your spouse or significant other, parents, grandparents, in-laws, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins and so on. The bigger the extended family and the more you keep in touch with them, the more connections you have. This can be a very powerful network as you can imagine.
Your second strongest connections will be with friends and colleagues. These are like family. They are your “chosen” family. You were born into your real family. But you chose your friends. You know colleagues well because you worked with them. There were shared interests, there may be a brothers-in-arms (or sisters-in-arms) kind of bond there.
Acquaintances are people you met very likely through family or friends. They are a weaker link, only there because of the link you have with family or friends that interconnects you with them.
The last group are people that you met casually anywhere. It could be a receptionist in a building or on the phone, a person you met at the bus stop or someone who wrote an article and has an email that you can send to. They are the weakest link. But don’t discount them yet. I will come to them.
How do you build or maintain a network?
Be in touch. That’s all.
You can be in touch by physically meeting with these people, having phone conversations or electronically by email, messaging or whatever your preference is. You should do this on an ongoing basis limited by your time. In this day of electronic social networking there is a myriad ways to stay in touch.
So what can you use your connections for? There are really only two things you can use your connections for. They are:
Pretty much any group can give you information in varying degrees. I am talking generally here so I can’t get into too many specifics. However I can “generally” say that on the aspects of business or career, the stronger the bond the more detailed or key information you will be able to get.
At this point I can tell you that your weakest link, “everyone else”, can be a gold mine of information. You can ask for directions, ask about events that are happening dependent on context. At the very least, if you wanted to find out the name of the hiring manager at a specific concern, you can call the receptionist and just ask “what is the name of the Marketing manager, Sales manager, CEO, whatever”. That would be the start of your research on whom to approach for a position or a sale.
Asking for information is easier than asking for favours because it does not have a huge cost, again generally speaking. If you are looking for a good sales lead or information on upcoming open positions that you may be interested in applying for, quite a number of people in your network may be willing to help out. It does not really cost them much. At this level, think of your connections as your “intelligence network”.
Asking for favours is a different animal. I am not going to get into asking for personal favours. That is not the focus of this article or this site for that matter. I am only going to talk about favours that have to do with career and business. One word of advice: do not ask for favours that put your connection in an awkward position. That is, do not ask them for something that costs too much. For instance do not ask someone you know to go and pitch you for a position that you are obviously not qualified for. Instead ask for the information about the position and, if you still want to proceed, use the information to make the pitch yourself. That way, you are taking all of the risk.
Also do not ask people in your connection to give you services free of charge. Don’t ask your plumber friend to fix your faucet without pay or only charge you half price or something like that. Or your lawyer friend to examine your new business contract without charge. If your connections normally do these things for a living please pay them as you would anyone else and be grateful that you have such people in your network whom you can trust enough to hire for the things that you need done.
Also keep in mind that asking for favours is like borrowing money (I know sometimes the favour IS borrowing money). That means that the more favours you ask for, and get, the more you are in debt. And just like borrowing money, you have to make sure you can pay it back. If you don’t, people will resent you and feel that you are using them and then they will stop doing you favours. That’s very much like going bankrupt and not being able to borrow anymore.
By all means go ahead and ask a connection to give you a referral if that is perfectly within their means and won’t put them in an awkward position. It may even help them – they might be doing a favour for the person who needs your service or a candidate like you for that position. And be prepared to reciprocate when the time comes.
So to recap: your connections in order of strength are: family, friends and colleagues, acquaintances and everyone else. Be in touch. Exchange information. Exchange favours (sparingly).