Updated on 09.17.14

Building Work Relationships: When Networking Doesn’t Work

Trent Hamm

“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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  1. Your Firendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    Great advice! I find that all connections in life, outside of your best friends, family, and spouse, are all about providing value. Networking just for the sake of networking is missing the point. You want to create relationships with the few key people that you can connect with based on the value you give eachother. I can go on, but Trent explained it all so much better than I could.

  2. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    Great advice! I find that all connections in life, outside of your best friends, family, and spouse, are all about providing value. Networking just for the sake of networking is missing the point. You want to create relationships with the few key people that you can connect with based on the value you give eachother. I can go on, but Trent explained it all so much better than I could.

  3. prodgod says:

    I guess I see the point, if we’re talking only business contacts for the sake of profit. But, I respectfully disagree. I’m one of those people to which Caleb refers. I rarely initiate contact with friends, family, or even clients. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy hearing from them, I just don’t tend to be the first to make contact.

    That being said, I personally really enjoy it when someone contacts me solely for the sake of contact; just to see how I’m doing. I enjoy going out for coffee for a no-strings-attached visit. However, I do have a host of contacts who seem to only contact me when they need something from me and I often find myself resenting that. Don’t they think of me when they DON’T need something from me? Or is our relationship (friend, family, business) only a means to an end?

    Unfortunately, it’s almost predictable when someone asks me to coffee or lunch, they end up wanting to try to talk me into some MLM scheme or similar. I consider THAT a waste of my time. And theirs.

    Just another perspective.

  4. Shanel Yang says:

    Great post, Trent! What’s even worse than just contacting folks without offering anything of value to them or any interest in developing a true friendship with them is just contacting them when you want something from them. This is the worst way to “network” or “keep in touch.” And, yet so many people do it this way. I let go of one-time close contacts whenever their communications with me dwindle to nothing but their (group!) emails to me asking to support their latest special interests.

    I highly recommend the book Never Eat Alone for anyone who wants to learn how to network right. It elaborates on all of Trent’s excellent tips here and then some! Good luck, everyone! : )

  5. jake says:

    I dont want to admit this but I am the guy that people email and I dont respond and I dont answer. When pushed for a drink or so I make some excuse not to go.

    Why? Similiar to what Trent mentioned. A lot of the time its just to talk. i dont want to be mean but i rather do something else.

    The emails I answer are the ones that say hey I want to hit you up on an idea for so and so. Or we should get together I have something I’d like you to help me with, and they are specific about it.

    The point is I want to know exactly why I am meeting up and what for. There has to be a good relavent reason for me. I have no problems helping, but be specific. I have no problems talking but it should be about something tangent, and idea for a project, a possible career advacement etc.

  6. A Dawn says:

    Although we are living in the digital age, face to face networking is still the best. Technology (via internet, phone, video) will not be able to replace the importance of physical networking.
    A Dawn

  7. LC says:

    Excellent advice: avoid the empty contacts. There is nothing wrong with genuine caring for another person. This translates into seeing how the other person is, instead of hoping for personal benefit in the long run. In other words: it has to be about them, and not about you.

  8. Philip says:

    I agree with many people and being in sales I network with everyone I can. I ensure that I have substance in my discussion because I find my next opportunity usually comes from the person’s network. To ensure I do not make “empty” invitations…I always add them to my LinkedIn.com network and/or extend an invitation to another event that I am attending. This way if the person does not wish to just network with me..they can with others.

  9. KJC says:

    Good advice, of course.

    One other point: as you progress in your professional life it won’t be difficult to figure out who the networkers are, and which coworkers aren’t. The networkers will frequently mention old colleagues and industry contacts; the non-networkers NEVER will.

    Hook up with those networkers…. stay in touch with them. Some of my best contacts and resources are people I’ve met through networking friends and former colleagues.

    Absolutely, try to bring something of value to your contacts. And please, if a contact should put someone in touch with you who needs help, please help them…. it can pay you back in spades and besides, it’s good karma.


  10. Aaron says:

    Nice post Trent. I actually just finished a book along these very same lines called Love Is the Killer App by Tim Sanders. I think you’ve actually done a review on it which is how I found it. I must say I really enjoyed the book, an it (like this post) is all about adding value to your relationships.

  11. I think the big problem most people have is that they only take action once they need something. It’s kind of like boxing (or running a marathon, or any other sport really): you do all the work before the match. If you think you’re going to affect the result by something you do once the match begins, you are sorely mistaken. You don’t tap your network when you need it, you set it up and nurture it throughout and when you need it it will be there.

  12. Ryan McLean says:

    I think in the case mentioned above it is kind of “out of site out of mind”. They don’t email back because they are not in your everyday life so they forget about you

  13. Kevin says:

    I don’t know if I agree with this, Trent. I’ve heard somewhere before there are two types of people – those who chase and those who want to be chased. Sounds like Caleb is a “chaser”.

    Like other comments, it’s not that the people don’t enjoy hearing from Caleb, maybe they just don’t have time or anything important to share at that time. I would say as long as Caleb thinks it is important to keep his name in front of them, he should keep contacting them on a regular basis.

  14. The Comeback Kid says:

    In my profession, networking pays off even if you rarely stay in touch.

    Ive found myself needing new work from time to time, and just knowing people in the industry and having worked for them previously is all it takes to get a foot in the door.

    As far as keeping in touch with them, every time I eat out I try to hit a restaurant where I’ve worked with a manager before. You get to say hello, often get a discount, and get an idea of the situation they have with employees at the time and whether they are looking for someone they know they can rely on rather than taking a chance on a random new hire.

  15. jblee says:

    Of course there are people who contact you for their own sake; no intentions of helping you, or simply just want to chat on nonsensical topics. I tend to ignore these kinds of contacts. It’s just a waste of time.

    But that doesn’t mean I don’t think of ways to add value (or be of help) to my contacts. I usually initiate the first move of adding value to the relationship. Yes, there’s risk involve in doing so, but how will I know if that person is trustworthy if I always keep my guard up?

  16. goldsmith says:

    I would disagree. I do a lot of “just keeping in touch”. I do it only with colleagues whom I value as people. I work in a large and fairly hierarchical organisation, and I do it both with people who are or were my superiors by grade, and people with whom I was in the same grade and who I might have been promoted over (not to manage them, as that isn’t done where I work). My yardstick as to whether I am wasting anybody’s time is the speed and tone of their response. Based on that, I seem to have a lot of friends like prodgod. :-)

    Unlike what you write, Trent, I don’t always have something of value to offer them except human contact. But years from now, they might work on an assignment where they might have info that’s really relevant to me. They might be my boss. I might be their boss. Or we might be colleagues in the same division. Then the keeping in touch will really pay off. The other stuff you suggest also works, of course, when you have to offer it, but if you restrict yourself to contact people only on that basis, there might be too few opportunities for contact to even speak of a relationship?

  17. Alex C-G says:

    Very good points indeed. It’s a big problem here in China that people will send massive group emails to everyone they met at a networking event, requesting referrals immediately. These are the same people who thrust a card in my face without even getting to know me…

    In my case I send a customised LinkedIn invite to follow up, which automatically adds each persons’ name instead of a generic “Hi everyone!” Admittedly, it’s another group email but since my business is helping people network it generally adds value for anyone I meet from a networking event as well as letting them see who I know on LinkedIn, leading to potential referrals and co-op in future.

  18. Trent,

    What things you do if you want to create a network in a new field? If you want to increase your knowledge say, in SEO, how do you figure out who to contact?

    Thank you.

  19. Carol says:

    I, too, feel like Caleb in that I am always the one initiating the conversation with former colleagues (by e-mail). After reading this post, though, I was inspired to e-mail my former colleague with a question. I was happy he replied and feel like I would like to write back, but it seems there is some unwritten e-mail etiquette of “one question, one reply” without feeling like you are too much of a pain. Does anyone else feel like this?

  20. davey says:

    there is so much pretension and ulterior motivation in all of this. there is great value in simply helping people for the sake of helping – you don’t always need to “get something out of it.” it may sound hippy-ish (and i loathe hippies!), but being friendly is easy. KJC – you were spot on… it’s karma (ugh, more hippy terminology).

    and i love that “i just don’t have time” statement. yes. you do. get your priorities in order. the time that it took you – and me – to read this great post and the subsequent comments AND comment yourself says you have time.

    peace out.

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