Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Don't Sell Your Friends Up the Network River (A Featured Post on Brazen Careerist)

By now regular readers will know I don't do things as most people do them. Much of the advice I get about what I "have to" do in order to be successful just doesn't apply to me.

One of them is networking in the traditional sense. I don't believe in it, as defined by most people today. I don't go to many events for same, and when I do go, I don't behave as most do.

This isn't to say I don't network. In my own slow, subtle, introverted way I meet people and make friends. Furthermore I do try to help people around me when I can. It just so happens that many of the people I encounter can't really be helped by those people in my network at this time.

Yet there are still occasions that would allow me to refer someone to either one of my contacts or even one of my friends. This has happened. But just as often, (if not more often) I have refused to acknowledge that I know people who could be of use to someone's efforts.

I realize this is networking heresy. Most would say that you should try to help anyone you encounter. If you think a referral could do so, you should make it, they say. Then both you and your friend now know more people. Basic Network Building 101.

Yet to me, we shouldn't try to help just any old person with whom we come into contact, even if they ask for it. The few network connections I have made are important commodities. Even more so when those connections are my friends. So I am not about to refer new people to someone I know in their field without a rather rigorous vetting process.

Whether it be a friend, or just a networking acquaintance, nobody wants to be saddled with dealing with a random goon that may or may not know what they want. Or somebody who ends up just trying to sell a used car, (literally and figuratively.) Nobody appreciates having their time wasted by someone who is neither an interesting person in private, or a particularly productive person in the professional realm.

When I make my infrequent personal references, I want to make sure that the person seeking help or advice meets several criteria. Even if they have not asked for particular help, if I happen to encounter someone in obvious need with a great idea, I might suggest they talk to some people I know, if I have determined that...

--They are trustworthy and discreet.

--The help they seek is genuine, and difficult to obtain without my connection.

--They are working hard to accomplish their goal.

--They are going to be grateful not just for my friend's help, but for the fact that I made the reference in the first place.

--Their idea or plan is realistic but worthy of a chance to succeed. 

When you think about it, doing this is just a matter of respect to your network connections. Sure it is easy to score superficial points in the "Network Game" by  running into someone with a need and instantly shoving them down the conveyor belt of your network, referral in hand. You give the illusion of being a mover and shaker for a while. You get to strut around and vomit forth the most overused and undereffective lines in all of networking history..."It's not what you know, it's who you know!"

But in the long run, if the people you keep pushing on your friends and colleagues end up being useless, or even counter-productive, what does that say about the amount of respect you have for said friends and colleagues? It says that you value them insofar as they are a cog in your half-assed network machine. Not as people whose time is valuable.

I have a perfect example to illustrate my point.

I count among my friends a college professor or two. Professors tend to know other professors, of course, as well as other influential types in various aspects of their field. The potential for networking is high. And one such friend of mine (Let's call him Dr. K.) has experienced first hand how certain people love to just feed on some of his connections.

There is a guy that Dr. K and I both know, who we thankfully have not seen in years. A fruitloop, and that is putting it politely. We'll call this guy Norman. Norman truly believes in his mind that he can cure cancer. (No medical background.) And that he is on the verge of coming up with the Unified Theory of Physics. (No background in physics.) By his own admission he almost never reads, except maybe comic books. (Which makes his aspirations to be a social relevant novelist even more baffling.) At best the man is comical. At worst he is certifiable, if you catch me.

Norman constantly approaches Dr. K in hopes of getting introduced to some of my friend's professorial colleagues at the university. My friend is of course smart enough to know better. Yet imagine if through Dr. K's connections and access, Norman would up with an appointment with a biology or physics professor to discuss his wing-nut "theories".

In jest, I actually asked Dr. K once what the consequences would be if he opened those doors to Norman. His answer was that he would be probably be denied tenure forever. I don't think he was joking, either.

Granted, Norman is an extreme example. (Though he is very much real.) Yet the lesson of networking with someone like Norman applies to everyone; don't burden your friends and colleagues with fools, slackers, and hangers-on just for the sake of saying you "helped" someone. Don't open doors for people just to say you have opened doors. Get to know someone and their work. Asks questions. And certainly ask your friends if they think the new contact is worth meeting before you ever tell the new contact about your friend.

The unworthy are still going to get through once in a while. Nobody can help that and nobody will hold that against you should it happen sometimes. But if every other person sent to you by John Doe ends up being obnoxious, maybe it's time to cut Mr. Doe and the poor product he is peddling right out of your circle.

How do you determine if someone you meet is worthy of being referred to your network connections? Has someone like Norman ever approached you as a result of a colleagues reference?


Jen Gresham said...

This is so relevant, Ty. Where I used to work, we hired a couple of people based on glowing recommendations by people we respected. The new hires turned not to be good fits and the credibility of the people who recommended them is now in the toilet. Networking without authenticity is counterproductive (as most thongs that lack authenticity are). I take it as a point of pride to never recommend someone I wouldn't consider hiring or working with myself.

Ty Unglebower said...

That is a good metric, Jen. If you would hire them, or use them yourself, they are probably a safer bet when it comes to sending them to friends of yours.