Thatís an imperative that appears in just about every book about self-employment. And itís advice that spare room tycoons give each other and try to follow themselves. Itís good advice as far as it goes. Getting out and getting to know people is one of the best ways to become known. Yet this dictum can lead as often to wheel spinning and time wasting as to lasting, useful relationships. Networking works only if you keep in mind how others will benefit.
I recently had an encounter with someone who is clearly working hard at networking, but getting it all wrong. We met after a meeting of independent professionals, the sort of group thatís probably more useful for camaraderie and commiseration than making business contacts. He told me that he had just left a large company, and was now working as a consultant doing marketing and strategic planning.
Within the first few seconds of our conversation, I could tell that he didnít care to interact with me as another human being, or even as a professional colleague. I was a networking target. He wanted to know everything about the way I did business and who my clients were. He didnít want to tell me a thing about himself. As we spoke, I felt he was a mosquito, drawing blood before moving on to his next prey.
A few days later, I received a personal note from him following up on our contact. This is what all the books advise, and itís not a bad idea if you really feel that some rapport was established. But when I read the salutation, ďDear Bill,Ē any thought I might have had of communicating further with him vanished. The minimum requirement for a personal note is to get the personís name right.
The letter said he was glad to have met me, that he wanted to get new business through me and that he might be able to pass new business to me. I think that this is unlikely, given that I donít have a clear idea of either what he does or who he is, and he had shown little real interest in me.
A few days later he telephoned me. He said he wanted to know the secret of my staying power. I was willing to talk, but he still wouldnít tell me a thing about what he was trying to do. He had sent me a brochure that said he held an MBA from Harvard, but I had little sense of him as a person. I wanted to get off the telephone, but I did feel a certain pity for his cluelessness. Then, as I was in mid-sentence, he told me that there was another call he had to take, and that heíd get back to me. I was relieved. I didnít expect to hear from him again, and I was right.
This sort of behavior is stupid, but all too common. He is probably repeating his mistakes and wondering why heís not getting anywhere.
Being in business for yourself is an activity that feeds obsession. While developing your business is the most important thing in your life, it isnít the most important thing in anybody elseís life.
That means that you should not be a predatory networker, focused only on how other people can help you. Others can spot that attitude and back away from it fast. They donít want to waste their networking time with someone who is not going to listen.
Other people have their own preoccupations and obsessions, many of them quite interesting, instructive and possibly even profitable. The only way that networking can possibly work is if you can show others that you can offer them ways to solve their problems and improve their lives. The first step in doing so is paying real attention to what people say.
I often think that the very term networking confuses and misleads people who try to do it. Networking sounds like something cold and efficient, very different from the often slow and indeterminate acts of meeting new people, finding mutual interests and activities and, at least to some extent, opening up to them emotionally.
One of my clients once asked a Chinese executive whom we were visiting how to do successful business in China. The executive replied, ďMake friends first.Ē This was frustrating advice, because most business people donít have the time, patience or interest to follow it, particularly when they are dealing with people they perceive as very different from themselves.
Nevertheless, this is advice that works as well in Seattle, Sydney, or Stockholm as it does in Shanghai. Friendships are risky and open ended. You cannot tell where they will lead, and thatís whatís good about them. The uncertainty is mostly on the upside.
Itís true that you can do good business with people that you donít like, so long as one of you offers something the other needs. Networking, though, is something different. Itís really an exploration of other people, and its payoff is more likely to come later than sooner.
Dealing with those you meet as real people rather than networking targets might seem time consuming, but it is far more likely to produce good results. And itís much more fun.
Spare Room Tycoon, pages 114-117.
James Chan, Ph.D., President Asia Marketing and Management (AMM) 2014 Naudain StreetPhiladelphia, PA 19146-1317, USA