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Strategy

Five networking missteps to avoid 

Published 26 May 2023 in Strategy • 8 min read

 If you want to network well, you need to work at it. Here are five things that might be killing your chances and what to do instead.

While we may not know the history of the word “network”, in the sense of building professional connections, presumably there is a reason for it, including “work”. In some parts of our lives, networking comes naturally and effortlessly. But when we’re connecting with people to find a job or to meet professional objectives, it often requires effort.  

Based on our survey of 425 managers in November 2022, and building on a large body of knowledge gathered since 2007 in doctoral research and through conversations with executives, we highlight five things that really grate when people try to network– and, importantly, what you should do instead.  

#1 Reaching out to someone with no clear goal  

What is your objective? First, clarify it in your own head, then communicate it to the person you want to meet in whatever form is appropriate. This will help you, and the person you’re reaching out to, to figure out whether connecting is worthwhile. Having a clear objective increases the chance of someone responding to you by 27%, according to the results of our survey. You’ll both know why you’re meeting or connecting, or why you should not. And whatever you do, don’t get lazy and ask to “pick brains” or “jump on a call” (see sidebar). 

#2 A lack of personalization in your LinkedIn invitation to connect 

Personalizing your LinkedIn invite doesn’t require a huge amount of effort. It may even be a way to show that you have actually looked at someone’s LinkedIn page, and know what they do, and what is of interest to them. (See #1, are your goals aligned?)   

Personalizing your LinkedIn invite doesn’t require a huge amount of effort

Yes, there is a large percentage of the population who will not accept your invitation, whether you personalize it or not, but among those open to new connections, personalization increases your chances of success by a significant 32%, our survey found. The personal rule of one of this article’s co-authors is to only reach out to, and accept invitations from, people he has met in real life, or worked with extensively online. A successful serial entrepreneur and computer scientist who responded to our survey agreed with this personal policy, but added that he would also accept an invitation from someone with whom he had at least 100 common contacts. 

#3 Not making an effort because you’re uncomfortable  

Just because you are junior and feel uncomfortable networking for purely instrumental reasons, don’t assume that this lets you off the hook. You still need to work at connecting. Many of us feel “dirty” or impure when we’re trying to meet with someone with purely a professional goal in mind. Yes, you might eventually come to like this person, or be able to do them a favor one day, but right now your objective is to get something from them, and you don’t like the way that makes you feel. Unless you’re trying to break the law, or do something that will somehow injure that person, dispense with these thoughts of moral purity. It will require energy and effort on your part to overcome your discomfort, but that’s just work. 

#4 Not making an effort because you’re comfortable  

Just because you’re senior and comfortable with networking for purely professional reasons, do not assume that others feel the same. You’ve probably told your junior employees: “My door is always open”. That’s not enough. If you think someone three levels down in the hierarchy is going to knock on your door, then you really are out of touch. You need to make an effort and approach them, not assume it’s easy for them. Consider inviting the new hire for coffee; sit down at lunch with a group of junior employees or people from a department that you don’t work with regularly. If you wish, don’t think of this as networking, but simply good management. 

#5 Believing it’s too hard 

If you’re in a minority group, such as a woman in a corporation, and you’ve always been told that networking is harder for women, dispense with this thinking. In some ways, it’ll be different, and it will require more energy and time. For example, in a job search, both men and women engage in schmoozing, reaching out to as many people as possible. However, women also engage in scouting, aimed at learning specifically about gender dynamics and support for parenting within companies. Putting in that extra time and energy will yield positive results.  We asked nine questions related to networks and networking, and there were no differences in the responses from women, compared to men. Yet previous research has shown that the networks of the most successful senior women are different from those of less successful women, by being both a central node in the tight core networks of their organizations, and also by having unique links to dense networks outside the norm of their companies. 

Just because you’re senior and comfortable with networking for purely professional reasons, do not assume that others feel the same

For those readers who have made it up the hierarchy into senior management, and who still plan or hope to make it into the C-suite, we suggest that you are aware of a trap you might fall into as you transition into the apex of the organization. In our survey results, between senior executives and the CEO/C-suite roles, we saw a significant drop in the willingness to connect with people, to help those who don’t have a clear objective, to get involved with quick projects, and to accept help. Perhaps this is due to a sense of self-sufficiency, that once you’ve reached the top, you don’t need others as much. Perhaps it is a question of age, getting closer to retirement and not feeling the need to continue to enlarge one’s network. Or perhaps now, with the reins of power in your hands, you might dehumanize and objectify others. Whichever, proceed in a knowing manner. 

We’ve all heard of the “small-world” principle, and many will be familiar with American social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment that gave us the “six degrees of separation” idea. Actually, the difference is between five and seven, not six. The difference between the best networkers in his study (those who reached their objective in five steps) and the worst (those who needed an additional two steps) is 40%. 

None of the items here is a panacea, but allowing yourself to wallow in excuses for failing to be a good networker is a sure way to give up that 40% network and networking advantage that others are working on. It’s your choice. 

How to be a bad networker 

 Use these phrases more than once and your entry into the Bad Networker Hall of Fame is assured, says Jim Pulcrano 

  • “I’d like to pick your brain.”  This is unspecific and lazy, and makes me angry. You can’t tell me what it is we’re going to talk about? Is that because you don’t know? Or it is so great and so top secret (in your opinion), you’re afraid I’ll take your email and make a trillion dollars? 
  • “Can I get 15 minutes of your time? You and I both know that those 15 minutes will become 45, even if I keep looking at the door. 
  • “I have a great new idea. Can we meet? What you really want is for me to invest or introduce you to someone who will. Why not just say so now? 
  • “Let’s catch up sometime. What you’re saying is:I have little to say, but I have a lot of time on my hands.”  Or: “I’m looking for a job.” 
  • “Let’s swap notes.” This is shorthand for: “I don’t bring anything to the table, but I’m clueless enough to believe that I can take your words, make them mine, and people will believe me.” Or: “I’m hoping you’ll teach me stuff so I sound smart in front of clients, startups, investors, etc.” The answer is no. Final answer. 
  • “I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee.” Really? You’re willing to spend $4.95 for an hour of my time? Wow,  big spender… can I get a cookie too? Will a double espresso break the budget? 
  • “Let’s jump on a call.” Why? Give me three bullet points in an email and we’ll then both know if any time together will be worthwhile. 
  • “I’d love to grab a beer with you.” I’m not sure if this is worse than coffee. The thing I’ve thought of doing is to invite four of my friends, then see if the person would pay for all of our drinks. That would make it worthwhile. 
  • “Can we have lunch sometime? Why? If you really feel I can help you, ask me the question now; maybe I can help you right now, right here. Or, maybe I’ll find what you’re asking so interesting that I’ll buy YOU lunch. Or, maybe the answer is no. 

Of course, some people might say stuff like: “I’d love to pick your brain about my great new idea over coffee, swap notes, and catch up.” Noooooo!!!

I am an overworked introvert, and I have difficulty saying no when someone asks me for help, but to assure my sanity, and to professionally do the work I’ve promised to customers and students, I must triage the many networking requests I receive. I may accept some of the lazy requests cited above because the person is of interest to me, and I think I can learn something from them, or they’re just so different from me that they might expand my horizons. Whether it’s me or someone else, make sure you bring something to the party, so that we both walk away feeling good, and that time together is something we want to repeat. 

And please don’t ask to connect with me on LinkedIn until we meet.  Seriously. 

Dr Jim Pulcrano, borrowed and adapted with pride from Anand Sanwal, CEO of CB Insights 

Authors

Jim Pulcrano

Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management

Jim Pulcrano is an IMD Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship and Management. His current projects include teaching in Lausanne, London and Silicon Valley, research on disruption, and various strategy, networking, customer-centricity, and innovation mandates with multinationals in Europe, Asia, and the US.

Jung Eung Park

Associate professor at ISG Paris

Jung Eung Park is associate professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at ISG (Institut Superieur de Gestion) Paris. Prior to that he worked for five years at IMD as a Research fellow for Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Data Analytics, and FB Governance.

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