By Alan Collins
Let me make a confession.
Networking is a pain.
And if you’re like me, you’re probably horrible at it.
So, I don’t do it anymore.
But that doesn’t stop me from reaching out to meet new people who can help me advance my career and interests in HR.
Hey, wait a second, you might say....isn’t that networking?
Not at all, and I’ll explain why in a moment. But first, a little story.
Dinner and networking
A few weeks ago, I had dinner with a former colleague, Ken (not his real name), who was frustrated about his career in HR.
He’s currently a senior director in Organization Development at a well-known national car rental company. He’s in the #2 role and reports to a vice president who heads up the department.
After five frustrating years, he’s ready to move into a #1 role. And he’s prepared to jump ship to do it. He’s also thought about hanging his shingle out as an independent OD consultant. Confused over his options, he asked to meet me over dinner to talk things over.
Personally, I absolutely love having these kinds of conversations. I can brainstorm for days and love exploring career alternatives with HR folks and seeing if I can help them out.
The fact that he picked one of the best restaurants in town and covered the tab for the steaks and wine, didn’t hurt either.
Anyway...Ken’s current position is not in jeopardy, fortunately. He doesn’t need to find a new job tomorrow. He’s doing well. He’s cool with his pay package. And his clients love his work. But deep down, he’s pissed because he was passed over yet again for a VPlevel promotion that was filled by someone less qualified (his words, not mine).
One suggestion I offered was, if you’re hellbent on leaving the company, start getting yourself out there. Get out of the trenches. Start meeting people. Get involved in your local HR association. Reach out to your existing contacts. Set up coffees.
Before I could go on, Ken interrupted by blurting out: “I’ve tried all that crap.
It doesn’t work. In fact, I’ve been networking like crazy for the last three months. I meet people. I give them my card. We hook up on LinkedIn. And I even follow up reminding them to contact me if they hear about any opportunities. Most people are nice and cordial, but they’re busy as hell. I get a few thank you emails and texts back. But none of this has produced any new opportunities for me.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, raising my hand like a traffic cop and bring him to a halt. “Ken, let me get this straight. Networking to you means meeting people, giving them your card, telling them that you’re in the job market, connecting with them on LinkedIn, then following up.”
“Sure, that’s it in a nutshell. And none of that has been effective,” he said sadly.
“Well, Ken,” I said, “Lots of people do what you’ve done. I used to do that a lot too. That is. until I discovered...
...The huge problem with networking.”
”The problem is people do it incorrectly and they come across as selfish jerks. That is, I meet someone new...I give them my card...I connect with them on LinkedIn...I follow up with them to remind them that if they know of any opportunities, they can contact ME.”
“There’s only one issue with all that...
There’s a lot of “I” and “me” in those statements.
“What’s the benefit for the other person? Unless they have an immediate, unmet need for the services you provide –– which is a long shot – there’s little benefit they gain by connecting with you. And you’ve just become another person they’ve met who’s looking to get ahead.”
“To be blunt, you can’t approach networking with that kind of mindset. It just screams: ‘I gotta go meet some people who I might be able to get some job leads from’ or ‘Are there going to be a lot potential hiring managers at this event,’ etc.”
“That mindset is all wrong. And it’s absolutely arrogant and self-centered.”
“Ken, that’s why your networking attempts are failing and have been fruitless so far.”
I went on to offer some suggestions on a different approach. And, over the next hour, we had a great discussion. It was a learning experience for both of us. Here are the highlights of our talk.
1. Stop networking and start... helping!
Stop thinking of what you’re doing as “networking” and start thinking of them as opportunities to help people.
Be a giver, not a taker.
Change your mindset from a selfish one to an unselfish one.
Think about it this way: If you can provide a benefit or helping hand to someone, they’re a lot more likely to remember YOU down the road when they actually need your services or can make a referral.
For example, who do you think will remember Ken first?
Person A, who got Ken’s card and heard him go on and on about all the terrific OD skills and experience he has.
Or Person B, who shared information when Ken asked about their business. Who then disclosed their difficulty in finding the right organization to help in managing their employee engagement survey process. And in return got a helpful article a few days later from Ken on selecting the right survey firms along with his offer to introduce them to some of his contacts who do that kind of work for Fortune 500 companies?
My money’s on Person B.
People will send job leads to contacts that they know who’ve helped them out in the past. They don’t provide them to the guy who wants to meet for coffee, then gives them an uninterrupted 15-minutelong sales pitch. (Yes, that’s happened to me.)
So stop aiming to get job leads and contacts.
Just aim to understand and help people.
2. Put this new mindset in practice.
Based on our discussion, Ken decided to swap out his OLD mindset for a NEW one.
Gone is his OLD mindset and approach that went something along the lines of: Gear up for “networking” – an opportunity to drum up some job leads or contacts. Approach, say, an SVP of HR at an SHRM event. Shake hands with her, swap cards and talk about himself a bit. Then, a day or two later, follow up with an email that comes across as, “Don’t forget about me – I’m a great OD person. Give me a job!”
His NEW mindset and approach will be more like this: Gear up for an opportunity to learn about other people’s interests and challenges – don’t even think of the word “networking.” Approach that SVP of HR – but this time, introduce himself, shake hands, then ask questions about her business and what they do. (It sort of goes without saying that you need to be genuinely interested, but I hope you are – there’s a lot of interesting stuff to learn out there.) Get their card and later reach out to her on LinkedIn.
Then, a couple of days later, follow up with an email with something actually helpful to the HR SVP’s business or that directly addresses one of the issues she discussed. Perhaps that’s an article on executive development you stumbled upon; maybe it’s an eBook on cutting costs in HR; maybe it’s new HR strategies for volatile times. Ken will repeat this last step here and there, and importantly, he has ZERO expectations from her in return.
Here’s the bottom line...
Meet people and look for ways you can help them.
Understand their business, their pain points and their challenges – keep them in mind. Then, when you come across a helpful article, eBook, contact, resume, referral or so forth, send it to them.
Don’t expect anything back in return. Be genuine.
Let the principle of reciprocity that underlies this approach act as a powerful catalyst for you.
This principle says that anytime someone gives you something you weren’t expecting, it naturally inspires them to look to return the favor in some way...and support you because somehow they feel indebted and obligated to even the score. Putting this compelling principle to work for you as you meet people can be very effective.
But again, it’s critical that you expect nothing in return. Most people won’t spring forward to reciprocate immediately, if at all. However, the “good karma” you’ve generated will cause this favor to be returned to you down the road – maybe not from this person – but from places you might not expect. At least, that’s been my personal experience. That’s the biggest reason why I don’t “Network” anymore. Yes, I’ll screw up and use that word occasionally (old habits die hard). But today, mostly I simply try to meet and help people.
And for those thousands of people I’ll never meet, that’s why I set up this blog and write articles like this one.
If you genuinely do the same thing, opportunities will follow.
Count on it.
About the author:
Alan Collins is Founder of SuccessInHR.com and specializes in helping HR professionals take their careers to the next level. He has authored three best selling books: Winning Big in HR, Unwritten HR Rules and Best Kept HR Secrets - all available on Amazon. Alan was formerly Vice President - Human Resources at PepsiCo, where he led HR initiatives for their Quaker Oats, Gatorade and Tropicana businesses.