What is the first reaction you have to the word, “networking”? Is it positive or is it negative? What about the word, “connecting”? Do you have the same reaction to it as you do to “networking”? If not, why not?
Perhaps it is just my own idiosyncrasy but more and more, I really don’t like the word “networking”. For some reason, it seems pretty cold and “me-focused” whereas “connecting” seems to be warmer and a whole lot more collaborative to me.
This article isn’t meant to offend those who love “networking”, fancy themselves as “master networkers”, or those who love “network marketing”. My goal is to take a closer look at the nuances and hopefully draw all of us into more introspective look beyond the semantics.
The “networking” call out of the blue that makes you wonder, “Why are you REALLY calling me?” I remember meeting a guy at church a long time ago when I was struggling to connect in a new city during a difficult time in my life. That same afternoon, I got a call from my new acquaintance out of the blue. For a moment I thought, “This is great. I just met this guy. It is nice to know that someone could sense my pain and actually cares about me.”
Unfortunately, after we got past 30 seconds of pleasantries, the REAL reason for his call became apparent. He had a “business opportunity” for me. (Actually, it was a “network marketing business opportunity” that was apparently more about how I and others in his “down line” could benefit HIM.) When I asked him if it was “insert your favorite multi-level marketing name here”, he finally came clean. It made me wonder, “If what you have is so great, why do you have to disguise the kind of company or even the name?”
Granted, not all network marketing “opportunities” are bad nor are all networkers or network marketers self-absorbed. It is just my experience that the vast majority of these “networking” calls are rarely altruistic or collaborative. They are often highly conditional. As long as I buy (or have the prospect of buying) what you’re selling, you’ll be there for me. As soon as it becomes apparent that I’m not buying what you’re selling, crickets…
But I’m in business development. Don’t I need to be networking? Even before I had an official role in business development when I was running companies or working within Fortune 100 companies, I was interested in building bridges, forging relationships, and looking for opportunities to collaborate. I think it is more fun to collaborate than to be a solo performer. (That’s probably another reason I’m a drummer. I think drums are at their best as part of a larger ensemble.)
People have often said I’m a natural networker. I used to embrace that term until I had seen the dark side of “networking”. Unfortunately, I’ve seen “networking” at its self-serving worst also destroy trust, relationships, and even a company that I really loved. As a result, my repulsion for that term continues to grow.
Because I’ve had (and still have) the responsibility of bringing in business for my company, I get the fact that dollars must still roll in as a result of my efforts to forge relationships and help others. However, I don’t believe connecting with others must be a quid pro quo deal where it is, “As long as you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” I also don’t believe it should be a zero sum game that says, “Only one can win so I must win and you must lose” or “If you win, that means I must lose.” I’ve worked with people who actually behaved as though that was an immutable law of the universe and frankly, I reject that.
Is it possible for me to genuinely seek to serve or help someone else and still ask for assistance without hiding “the ask” or making my assistance conditional? Call me naïve but I say, “Absolutely!”
Not that I’m a master at this because I’m ashamed to say that at times I’ve been pretty self-serving in my efforts to “network”. As I’ve reflected back on such times, the root cause of descending from “relationship-building” (or “connecting”) to a more self-serving, “networking” mode has occurred when I’ve been under pressure to perform, close a sale, or just make something happen quickly.
Even though I’m a natural relationship builder, I still have to be especially cognizant of my motivations when I’m under high levels of pressure to perform. I’ve found that in such times, I must be intentional and ask myself these two questions:
- “What is my motivation for making this connection?”
- “Am I willing to help and/or serve them even if they aren’t buying what I’m selling now or down the road?” (NOTE: That seems to be the fundamental question that separates “networking” from “connecting”.)
Once I know the answers to these questions, I find that I’m usually in the frame of mind that I can make it clear and honestly address why I’m trying to connect with them. If I am connecting with them in hopes that they can help me directly or help connect me with someone who can help me, I try to tell them that early in the discussion.
I think people value authenticity and often genuinely like to help others. I know I do. In such times of overt political correctness and sanitized language, we’re seeing a backlash against career politicians because clever sound bites and outright lies are getting really long in the tooth. I find myself respecting someone who just gives it to me straight (even if it hurts) far more than someone who tells me what I want to hear but either doesn’t follow through or even worse, does the exact opposite of what they told me they were going to do. Authenticity is refreshing. Seeing people unselfishly serve others without strings attached is beautiful.
Here’s a recent example… This past spring, I had just finished a several-month consulting assignment in Cleveland. While we appreciate the relationships formed and many experiences we had during our 13 winters in Chagrin Falls, OH, my wife and I were itching to return to Carolina blue skies and move back to the city we love, Charlotte, NC. The only problem: My unconventional career path and my level of experience (age) made it rather difficult to turn my online resume submissions into interviews eight hours away from our residence in OH. If I had any hope of finding employment back in the Queen City, it became clear that I needed to head to Charlotte and spend at least a couple of weeks meeting with people, reconnecting with friends, and forming new relationships.
I didn’t think I was really in a position where I was able to meaningfully serve someone in my position as I needed to find a job relatively soon. I began my “connecting adventure” back in Charlotte by merely asking friends if they could help me make some meaningful connections. Before I knew it, my friends made connections for me with other people who were more than willing to help a stranger like me. I am humbled when I think about the grace and generosity that others unselfishly extended to me.
I didn’t go into any of these meetings with the expectation that my friends or their referrals were going to give me the job I was seeking. However, I was hoping to:
- Make meaningful connections across the city of Charlotte that might result in long-term friendships regardless of whether or not they led me to the right job.
- Serve as a conduit or connector for these old and new relationships so as to help someone else along the way.
- Find the right professional fit with a company that needed my skills and had compatible values with mine.
To my surprise, all three of these things happened. My job hunting trip to Charlotte resulted in a six-week adventure filled with 90 meaningful meetings. The bulk of those meetings happened because I had friends who were willing to connect me with others who met with me, heard my story, and thoughtfully connected me with others who they thought might be able to help me in my quest.
Along the way, I met some AMAZING people who genuinely fascinated me. Once I got to know a bit of their story, I was even able to connect some of them with friends of mine who I thought they would click with professionally and enjoy a “win-win” relationship.
Sometimes, when we seek to serve others ahead of ourselves, magic happens. During my Charlotte job hunting journey, a friend recommended that I meet with someone at RGP, a global management consultancy. Even though I initially thought there would never be a fit for me there, I went to the meeting primarily to honor my friend’s introduction.
Shortly after I first met some of the RGP team members and learned more about their company and culture, I introduced two of my friends to RGP because I thought that both RGP and my friends would benefit from knowing one another. I honestly didn’t connect my friends to RGP with any thought that I would benefit from the intro. I did so because I genuinely love connecting great people. It is a blast to connect great people with one another, step back, and watch the magic happen!
In spite of my desire (and need) to land a meaningful role and the harsh reality that my need was seemingly unmet at the time when I made some of these introductions, I remembered the advice that a friend and former business partner told me on a day in which we collectively received some depressing news about a business situation years ago. He said, “Given this news, there’s one thing I really need to do to help get my eyes off of myself and this pain. I need to go serve someone else.” He was known for routinely putting action to those very words and I’ve tried to do the same. His words of wisdom were burned into my mind and they have helped liberate my soul.
Much to my surprise, that “random” first meeting with RGP that was based on an introduction from a friend not only led me to connect two good friends to them, it ultimately resulted in a job for me! In my determination to honor friendships and serve others, I was blind-sided with a blessing that I never imagined would come from that initial connection – a unpublished position that had my name on it.
To “network” or “connect”? That is the question. Now that my current role is largely focused on business development and helping our team grow the Carolinas office of RGP (as well as the global enterprise), I must be deliberate and purposeful in assessing my motivations. Will I compromise and settle for a short-term, often self-centered “networking” approach to developing business relationships or will I choose a long-term, others-focused approach of “connecting” and serving?
Granted, impressive sales performance isn’t guaranteed with either approach. I know plenty of people who are known for churning through people and relationships who routinely get impressive sales results. Even so, I find myself believing that we can still enjoy solid sales results AND build lasting, relationships along the way by seeking to genuinely connect with them versus merely seeing these connections as a means to an end.
I hope that this article will encourage each of us to routinely ask ourselves, “What is my motivation and my approach to building this relationship?” coupled with, “Am I willing to help and/or serve them even if they aren’t buying what I’m selling now or down the road?” In doing so, we’ll likely experience the magic of “connecting” with one another versus simply relegating one other to just another member of our “network”.