Building Work Relationships: When Networking Doesn’t Work

“Caleb” wrote in recently with a concern about building connections with people in the workplace:

One thing that comes in your blog from time to time is building and expanding professional and personal network. What about people who are at it but still seem to be going nowhere? For example, I have worked in a lot of places and met a lot of people. Once I leave the work, I try to keep in touch with people but it seems like every time it’s me who initiates the conversation (or the email for that matter). If I send them an email, they will reply back – after that nothing happens unless and until I send them an email again. Same goes for catching up for a coffee – I initiate the meeting but I never find other people inviting me for a coffee. I also tried calling people (not in weird time) just to keep in touch but I think people get a bit annoyed. So, it’s always one-sided and I really don’t want to be the one to initiate the conversation / email / phone call every single time with every single person as I feel like I’m pushing people just to be in touch with me.

The worlds network by saschaaa on Flickr!I believe Caleb’s intuition is telling him the right thing here. I don’t believe the kind of contacts Caleb is making with his former coworkers are worth is time at all. He’s pushing for contact with people who simply aren’t reaching back – and that’s a completely ineffective use of his time.

What’s the problem, you ask? Value.

In the interactions that Caleb describes above, in which he seems to just be contacting people simply to touch base with them, the participant sees little or not value in the exchange. From their perspective, Caleb’s communication or attempt at arranging a meeting doesn’t offer any notable value, so why should they bother? They might respond simply out of politeness, but they see no real value in it, so they don’t bother to follow up.

This is the key lesson that many people miss out on when they try to build and maintain professional connections. Keeping in touch alone doesn’t add value, and without value, there is no real connection. Real relationships, real friendships, real connections are based on exchanging value with each other.

Think about your closest friends. They provide companionship. They provide help when you need it. They give you a shoulder to cry on. They offer advice when you ask for it. In short, they’re valuable to you – and you keep coming back to them.

Then, think about the people you really value at work. Who are the people that always come through in a pinch for you? Who are the ones that offer great suggestions when you need it and are seemingly always there to point you in the right direction? Those are the people that add value to your workplace – and they’re the ones you’ll be glad to help out if they need a hand.

Making irregular empty contact doesn’t provide any value at all. You’re not building a regular pattern of companionship, nor are you providing anything of value aside from a quick friendly greeting. You’re no different than the guy down the block that you recognize and say hello to out of familiarity, but not out of closeness. Putting effort into these contacts is like knocking on every door on your block just to say hi – people will say hello back to you, but you’re largely wasting your time and theirs, and won’t build anything of value out of it.

Instead, you should still seek to make those contacts, but they should have some value embedded in them. Here are some tactics to follow.

Ten Ways to Build Valuable, Lasting Professional Relationships

1. Never make contact unless you can contribute something of value to their situation. There’s really no point in contacting someone that you’ve never had a strong bond with unless you’re giving something of value (or requesting something of value). So don’t do it. Don’t ask someone you only lightly know to go out for coffee unless you have a genuine purpose in doing so – and saying “hi” isn’t that purpose. Don’t waste your time, and certainly don’t waste theirs.

2. Get a grip on who these people are and what they value. Of course, that means you should contact someone if you can pass along something of value to them. A big part of that is simply knowing who they are, what they’re doing, and what they’re passionate about. In my previous career, I found it useful to collect business cards from people, then later on jot down a few notes about the person on the back – what were they working on, what were they passionate about, and so on. Today, I largely do it electronically using an address book, where I use the “note” field to jot down notes about people so I can remember them later. Then, later, if I know I know someone who’s really into, say, golf, I can just search the “notes” field for “golf” and find that person.

3. Knowledge is often the best thing you can offer – so offer it. If you have a useful piece of information that you’re sure someone else could get value out of, share it (unless, of course, sharing it would get you in trouble). Just send it along, no questions asked. This could be anything from how to solve a particular problem in your industry to knowing where an upcoming trade meeting is going to happen so you can schedule flights and hotel rooms early. By sending along something actually useful, you add value to their lives – and their connection to you becomes stronger, because they now see you as more valuable.

4. Pass along opportunities every chance you get. Similarly, whenever you’re offered something of value, don’t turn it down just because you won’t use it. Instead, accept it happily (making the person offering it feel good), then pass it along to someone who could genuinely use it. Be sure to let the person you got the item from know this, though – “Hey… I know someone who could really use this! Mind if I pass it along? Thanks!” I had the opportunity once to pass along two NFL playoff tickets to someone who was ecstatic.

5. Pass along genuinely useful items you discover online, with your own commentary. On an irregular basis, it can be useful to pass along links that you find to be exceptionally useful. For example, if you find a great technical reference for something important in your field, passing a link to that reference along to people who also work in your field is the definition of passing along value. Not only could it have a profound positive impact on the recipient, it takes little effort from you. Be careful with this, though, because overdoing it means you’re not sending out truly quality items. Keep it less than once a week and focus on the truly great stuff, and you’ll be seen as someone providing actual value. They’ll pay attention to what you send if it’s always good.

6. When you pass along some value, let them know what you’re up to – and also ask about what they’re up to. A quick paragraph saying “What are you up to?” and perhaps referencing the last big matter that you’re aware that the person was involved with is a great way to find out what they are currently up to. While you’re doing that, tack on a few sentences saying what’s new with you. This encourages the other person to let you know what they’re up to – and keeps the relationship open and the communication flowing.

7. Make mutually beneficial connections whenever you can. If you observe that one person’s need is met with another person’s assets or skills, connect them together. It only takes you a minute, but if that connection provides mutual value for both parties, you’ll strengthen your relationship to both people, plus you will have helped solve a problem. It’s a win all around.

8. Suggest that if they’re in a bind, they should let you know. And when they do, try to solve the problem. Be sure to let people know if they’re having a problem or are seeking some sort of help, they should let you know. Even if you can’t help them, listening to their problem is useful. Sometimes, though, you can help – or you know someone who can help. In those situations, you can be very beneficial to them and really cement your relationship.

9. When you’re in a bind, tap all of the connections you can. So when does all of this effort pay off? When you’re in a bind and you’ve put effort into helping others, they’re much more likely to help you when you tap them back in your time of need. Lost your job? Have a project that’s beyond your skill level? Looking for a great deal on a major purchase? Getting ready to move? Those are great times to tap your network of connections.

10. Use social networking tools – Twitter is particularly useful for this. Those nine things listed above are exactly the reason social networking tools were invented – and how some people use them successfully. I find Twitter to be very useful in this regard, enabling me to quickly and easily share things with a wide group of people and also follow the ideas, thoughts, and activities of many others.

In short, pass along value and you’ll get value in return. Caleb’s problem was that he wasn’t passing along much value to begin with.

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