A distant acquaintance recently contacted me on social media to ask for a reference for a company she was applying to. I had met this person briefly in a class I taught five years ago and aside from the five-minute encounter (in a group of 100 people), I had zero interaction with the individual since that time.
Clearly I declined since there wasn’t any way for me to give a detailed or honest professional reference that would help her to land the job (in fact, my vague reference would likely have hurt her chances).
While most job seekers immediately understand that this person skipped a few important steps in the networking process, even if you’re following the best advice, you may still not be getting the responses you expect.
There’s no question that networking is part science and part art. So, simply checking all the boxes that you’ve been taught to follow may not be enough to yield helpful results. In that case, it’s possible you’re missing the part of networking that falls on the “art” side of the equation.
Here are some common networking mistakes and how you can fix them:
Asking for too much too soon. Although obvious in the example above, sometimes this mistake is more subtle. For example, many ask for a coffee meeting as a first step (well, pre-Covid), when a 15-minute phone call is usually more appropriate and yields a greater number of positive responses. An in-person meeting automatically means it will take more time and effort, so save that for later in the relationship. If you’re organized and do your research, you can learn a lot in a brief phone call, while also building the initial foundation of a longer-term relationship. Also remember, the longer your outreach message, the longer it will likely take someone to respond (if at all). Keep your email brief, and don’t attach a resume, article or other detailed information that requires an investment of time before responding. Three to four concise sentences, a clear email subject and your LinkedIn URL are plenty.
Being robotic. Preparing your professional introduction or “elevator pitch” is common advice, but delivery and timing may be more important than you realize. Research by former Harvard Professor Amy Cuddy shows people must trust you before they care about your skills or competence. Yet, many still jump right into their pitch in an effort to impress before they’ve taken time to build any good will. Be approachable and curious as a first step, looking for commonalities and shared interests. Then, weave in accomplishments and skills conversationally as the interaction progresses. You’ll likely find that it’s not only more comfortable and natural, but also more successful in creating a sustainable relationship.
Missing easy wins. Many people only think about networking when they need something, which means you’re likely missing several opportunities to deepen existing relationships or build new ones when they’re right in front of you. If you’re attending an event (live or on Zoom), research who will be there in advance and make it a point to touch base with key contacts (before, during or after). If there are breakout sessions built in, don’t drop off of the webinar or leave the event to avoid these informal conversations. This is often where the real networking happens. So, if you’re prone to show up for the main event, but skip the extras, you’re likely missing out.
Viewing meetings as one-offs. Even if only subconsciously, viewing a networking interaction as a “one and done” will have a negative impact. As your mind is thinking “this is my one shot to relay all my value and get as much as I can,” it’s impacting the flow of the conversation, especially if it’s a brief phone call. You’ll feel rushed and task-focused, which isn’t the best way to develop trust or demonstrate curiosity. While not every interaction will turn into a relationship and it’s wise to have one or two key goals for the meeting, being rigid can cause tunnel vision, which may cause you to miss valuable opportunities to go off topic and discover unique commonalities.
Failing to tailor your approach. Timing and context can make a big difference, so following the same model for every outreach will backfire. For example, if you’re reaching out to someone very senior, a warm introduction is likely necessary, which might mean you need to network for a while with others in order to get there. Also, recognizing that it’s busy season, the person just started a new position, the company is undergoing some challenges, or even that it’s a religious holiday or common vacation season can all be important when designing your strategy. Contacts will appreciate that you’ve considered the bigger picture and their current circumstances and have factored it into your timing.
Not assessing in the moment. While it’s good advice to create a next step when networking, such as asking if you can stay in touch or even requesting an introduction, you need to assess each interaction to understand what’s appropriate. If you really hit it off, your new contact may proactively offer to connect you with others. However, this won’t always be the case and there are usually signs during the meeting that indicate how things are progressing. Curt replies, limited curiosity, or signs of multi-tasking indicate your contact is disinterested. Positive signs include laughter, discovering commonalities, invitations to connect at a later point or candid, forthcoming responses.
Not reading between the lines. Actions always speak louder than words. So, although a contact may offer to pass your resume along or think about possible introductions, you may be confused when this doesn’t happen. The fact is, many people prioritize politeness over honesty, or some have the best intentions, but then don’t follow through. So be realistic with your expectations and keep the ball in your court. Follow up, but if you don’t get a reply, stop wasting more time on someone who maybe felt obligated to meet, but has no intention of doing anything more.
Networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships, preferably when you don’t have an urgent need. Even if you’re doing everything “right,” not everyone is inclined or able to assist, and frankly, getting something shouldn’t be the basis of any relationship. Trust, respect and admiration build over time, after which two people usually find joy in helping each other succeed.