If you read business books or take professional development classes, you’ve undoubtedly been told about the power of networking—handing out your business card at social luncheons, showing up at key events, and promoting yourself. But just because that’s a widely accepted practice doesn’t mean it’s an effective one. It’s smarmy and manipulative, and usually pretty transparent.
Instead, don’t network at all.
If what you’re really doing is trying to buddy up to people you think are on a higher plane than you are in order to get help from them, then it’s a lecherous relationship you’re after, not a genuine one. There are expert networkers who succeed at whatever they’re trying to promote. Even so, when I go to sleep at night I’m glad I’m me and not them.
I’ve heard several cautionary tales of people who’ve overstepped the privileges of acquaintance. Never pretend that you have a relationship with someone that goes beyond what’s really there. An opportunistic person might say, "Joe Smith suggested I contact you," when in fact Joe Smith said no such thing. When this gets back to Joe, can you guess what he’s going to say? Don’t assume it’s OK to use someone’s name to get in the door, even if you consider that person a friend. Ask first, or it’s likely to backfire.
Life is not about using other people as you climb to the top.
Stay real instead, and build friendships. Too many people are afraid to mix their business lives with their personal lives, and I think that’s sad. That came to me once when I was talking with Jean and Georges, who’d worked together for years, and I realized they barely knew anything about each other. They’d never been in each other’s homes, and they didn’t know anything about each other’s spouses or children. What a waste. Don’t be afraid of real human relationships. They matter.
Some people have bad experiences working with their friends. Yet there are many examples of lifelong friend/work connections. My colleague David Kelley realized, when he was still a Stanford masters student, that it was fun to work with his friends. He formed a company called Intergalactic Design with several of his classmates. Three companies and over 40 years later, some of the same friends are still working with him.
It is common wisdom that if you lend money to your friends, you will lose both your money and your friendship. I guess that is the case if you have the wrong friends. I have always found it a great pleasure to assist friends to fund their projects or meet temporary needs, and I have never lost my money or my friendships.
When you forge these kinds of real relationships, the word "networking" doesn’t even come into play. You naturally think of each other when opportunities arise. You ask for assistance and they show up, because they are friends and that’s what friends do, not because you gave them a fake smile and a firm handshake at a luncheon.
Let people see you as human. Be real. Ask yourself: Who would you rather see at your door, a friend or a door-to-door salesman? Be proactive in making friendships wherever you land. Invite people out to eat or over to your house. When you hear that a loved one of theirs is sick, follow up and ask about it the next day.
Do you have co-workers you don’t know much about? Take time to get to know some of them. Make a few casual lunch or coffee dates, and take time to have a social (not business, or office gossip) conversation. Find out about their lives, and if they are interested, share information about yours.
What it comes down to is that if you want people to assist you, you should (a) ask them, because not everyone is that attuned to what you need, and (b) be a decent human being. Do not pretend you know more than you do. Most people are flattered when you have a genuine need and ask for their expertise. When you’re offered assistance, respect others’ time constraints—don’t call every day, or expect them to write responses to a hundred questions—and be appreciative.
This article is adapted from The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, And Take Command Of Your Life by Bernard Roth, founder and academic director of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (the d.school) at Stanford University and the Rodney H. Adams Professor of Engineering. It is reprinted with permission.