The biggest networking mistake we’re making


At its best, networking is an intentional, genuine and organic path to connect, get to know each other and deepen our relationships.

At its worst, it’s contrived, manipulative and off-putting.

I can see your head nodding. You’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of networking, haven’t you? You know what it feels, sounds and looks like. You can smell that insincerity from a mile away.

But what if it’s not just others? What if you and I inadvertently do this too?

What if it’s as simple and well meaning as the words, “How can I help?”

I recently had an interaction with a well meaning “helper” which made me reevaluate those 4 little words – How can I help?

It started with a seemingly nice email from an old business contact. “How are you? How is the family? What are you working on? How can I be of help?”

Not bad, right? I’m sure I’ve sent similar notes. You probably have too. Good example of keeping in touch. Networking. Give-to-get.

I couldn’t be sure if his intent was similar to what mine would be in sending something like that. Maybe it was a genuine interest in me, and genuine desire to help, or maybe it was part of a networking strategy to reach out to a few contacts every day. There was only one to find out. And since I trusted his goodness and integrity, I decided to stifle my natural inclination to just quickly exchange pleasantries and move on with my day. I decided to actually answer his question, to see what might happen.

“Hey, it’s so great to hear from you! Thanks for reaching out. I’m doing well. Family is great. Continuing to build my business. So touched that you asked how you can help. You know how hard it is for me to put down my superhero cape and ever ask for help, but since you were kind enough to ask, here are a few ways…”

His response?

“Haha. I want those things too!”

Hmm. Did I say something funny to warrant the haha? Or was that nervous laughter in reaction to realizing that he just stumbled into an uncomfortable situation? The conversation ended there. Mission accomplished? Did he connect with me in a meaningful way and deepen the relationship?

Not quite.

And here’s the particularly painful part of that story… realizing that I’ve been on the initiating end of that unfruitful awkwardness. More times than I care to recall!

With really good intentions, yes. But achieving the exact opposite of what I wanted. Maybe you’ve been there too?

A few hours after the above exchange, I was reading an article by one of my favorite business authors who was encouraging people to reach out to 5 contacts every day and offer to help.

Here we go again, I thought. More good intentions. More well meaning advice. Might even work for some. But for most of us?

No. I don’t think so.

Why? Because there are many more reasons why this strategy will fail than succeed.

It will only succeed when… stars are perfectly aligned. When the recipient of the message is open to being honest/vulnerable with you and asking you for help. When your sincerity to help matches your ability to help. When the ask is relatively easy.

And it will fail… well, most of the time. Because the recipient won’t be open to it. Because it’s hard to ask for help. Because he/she won’t believe your sincerity (most of us have already had a bad experience with “how can I help?”). Because you probably can’t/won’t help.

“But wait!…” I hear you thinking. “I really do want to help!  I really will do everything in my power!…”

I know. I know. Me too.

So here’s what I propose for people like us. Let’s:

  1. Be choosy. Practice the A, B, C’s. Let’s know who our A-level, B-level and C-level connections are. And try to be helpful at the right levels.
  2. Be proactive. Let’s think about what we already know about the people we’d like to help. What do they do? What do they sell? What would they really appreciate? A referral of business? An influential connection? A helpful tool? An inspiring book?
  3. Be personal. Let’s think about what we know about the people we’d like to help, thank or connect with. What do they enjoy doing, watching, practicing, eating or drinking? We probably already know something that we could send them that would make their day. That. Let’s do that.
  4. Be sincerely curious. Let’s reach out with specific questions. Instead of the generic “how can I be of help?,” let’s dig a little deeper to come up with something that won’t be so easily dismissed as generic networking. Maybe mention a recent LinkedIn post or article written. Maybe mention a previous business focus. Maybe mention former clients or prospects. And then ask, “Is this who/what you’re still looking for? Should I refer folks like this your way? Or something else?”
  5. Be sincerely helpful. One of my favorite questions to ask is: “As I walk through the world, who or what can I send your way that would make your life easier or better?” And then work very hard to find those resources. Warning: I’ve learned the hard way that asking that question will usually add some to-do’s (often some challenging to-do’s) to my list, so I ask it much more selectively now.

That’s it. Just those 5 things.

Choosy. Proactive. Personal. Curious. Helpful.

If we can aim for those 5 things, we’ll do a much better job of connecting, deepening our relationships and being the kind of sincerely helpful people that we aim to be.

This is important year-round, but especially during this season of gratitude, giving and connecting. Let’s do it better.

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