The one thing people almost always get wrong when networking

mm Russ Finkelstein

You may think you’re not very good at networking, and you may be right. The “good” news is that most people are even worse at it than you. But by the time you’ve finished reading, you’ll be on your way to being a brilliant networker.

If networking pressure makes you want to withdraw into a professional hole, take comfort in the fact that there is one thing you can say that is guaranteed to position you well. I can guarantee it will change both your value in the other person’s eyes, making you stand out from others they have met professionally. It may even have a pleasant effect on the way you view your relationships with other people more generally. So this phrase will not only make you more professionally successful but also happier all around.

Is your curiosity building?

We’ll get to it in a second, but first I want to show you why most people are terrible at networking. There is someone I know who only ever reaches out to me professionally when she wants something. She’ll send me an email saying, “Hey, do you know someone at this organization? I’m about to do an interview there” or “I want a job here.”

That’s all she ever does.

She doesn’t even ask me how I’m doing first. There’s not even the illusion of a real conversation going on!

I have become slower, much slower, in responding to her. I have offered her some advice about not just reaching out when she wants something. I suspect our relationship is about to fade away. We all want to feel like people, not just tools, but I tend to often have professional relationships that cross over into the personal. That is important to me, but it may not be your focal point.

Therefore, the single best thing to say when you’re networking is: “How can I help you?”

Most people approach networking from a place of want or need. It’s actually best done from a place of curiosity. It’s about thinking that you’re better off in the world if you have a variety of meaningful connections with a variety of people and your goal is that they be better off too.

It’s worth remembering that you’re having a conversation not just with one person when you’re networking, but also with their whole network of people. So if you’re a jerk in that setting, it could be shared freely.

In my 20+ years of work I only have a handful of people who I might share unpleasant truths about, if prodded. However, I have been pretty lucky to work with some amazing people. I also don’t doubt that there are some people who have been less than delighted in me (although I would prefer that they not write in the comments!)

I do more for people than most. I spend time weekly chatting with those working at search firms to recommend prospective hires, reviewing new concepts that friends and colleagues have to offer up for critique, and no matter how busy I am I have a philosophy that I can be available on almost any day for 15 minutes for someone in urgent need. I also don’t keep score.

In my experience, once you start keeping track of who did what last and who owes whom what you can end up very bitter.  The same is true of expecting something in return for helping others. On the other hand, it’s worth thinking about how many favors you’ve done for people, and whether, if it came down to it, you’d be likely to see a favor returned when you asked for it. As with the case mentioned above, there are people who operate as though strip-mining, and you may never see a real effort to help.

When you ask someone how you can help them, it sets the following in motion:

First, it’s showing care and concern for the other person. Sometimes it’ll come out as you asking: “What are the challenges and things you’re facing in your workplace?” or “Is there a new project or concept that you are working on where you can use help?” or even, “Is there a kind of person that you need access to?”

It’s about expressing interest in the other person, and about you getting that information. It shows you’re not a total narcissist who’s only focused on your own stuff, but that you take a real interest in the needs and successes of others.

The next thing that happens is it positions you to follow up with the person in a meaningful way, which will deepen your relationship with them. What you do with the information they give you, and how far you go out of your way to follow up on it, embodies how you can get people to think of you, suddenly, as someone with whom they have a two-way relationship. For many it motivates them to help you.

Finally, it positions you as someone that this person will want to introduce to others. They know that you not only have expertise, but you are thoughtful and generous.

While networking can be very different from one place to the next, it often comes down to scarce resources — time or opportunity. In those high-pressure environments where everybody is seeking something from you, asking this question can be most powerful. By showing that you actually care about the other person, and by demonstrating that you’ll follow through, you differentiate yourself.

People I coach in the networking process are often very surprised at how warm the reaction is when they reach out to someone from high school, at how readily the person they knew in their teens is prepared to help them with a connection. The reasoning for that is all reflected in this magic phrase of mine, “how can I help you?” because when you’ve grown up with someone, you know them more authentically. As we get older, we tend to lose those deeper relationships with each other as our lives become preoccupied in other directions.  

In any career, networking isn’t a one-off thing. It’s about developing on-going relationships with people, and noticing that other people have needs. It’s about stewardship of resources, and recognizing that people choose to make connections for you, but that you have to earn that on some level.

Remember, too, that careers are often in an ebb-and-flow state. How you treat that person who formerly was placed somewhere that meant you needed their help but is now unemployed and looking for work may well be how you are treated when you situation changes. I know when I left my high profile job it was these authentic relationships that made all the difference.

Professor Adam Grant wrote a great book called Give and Take, where he says the people who give the most at work are both the most successful and the least successful. The ones who give effectively but also know how and when to ask for help in return are the most successful. The ones who give and give but never ask, they’re the ones who end up at the bottom of the proverbial pile. It’s about finding the right balance.

When I travel, I maintain my network by scheduling 90-minute to two-hour one-on-one meetings with people where I just say “hello.” I don’t have an agenda connected to those meetings. I want to be able to really check-in and an hour isn’t usually enough time to get past the veneer that people present when they’re talking about their lives, and I like to have enough time. I also say that I like to talk and, on occasion, listen.

Sure, it’s a luxury in my life to have the time to tend to these relationships, but it’s about who I am and the kind of relationships I want to have in the world. I think that’s the key to building meaningful networking relationships: asking, following through, and letting that become a natural part of who you are.

Simply begin by asking “how can I help you?” and you’ll be off to a great start.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >