Strategically managing your network, vs. damaging your network

“If people like you they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you they’ll do business with you.”– Zig Ziglar

We are providing a tool kit on this site to manage your network strategically. However, we acknowledge there is a clear tension between managing your network strategically, and managing your network successfully.

Let us say you meet someone at a conference:

You: “Hi! I’m Fran Greensmith with SFA Software. How are you?”
Wai: “I’m fine. I’m Wai Ching, with ENC Corp.”
You: “I sell sales force analysis software. I noticed that you’re a salesperson. Are you in a position at ENC to make buying decisions about software?”
Wai: “Go away.”

When you make it crystal clear that you are only interested in someone because they can help you, you damage the relationship. You first have to take some basic steps to build a relationship with that person.

This is why the best relationship building does not take place at “networking” functions; it happens at meetings, conferences, online communities, and other venues where the people are united by a common goal other than meeting one another. A common problem with self-described “networking functions” is that most attendees are explicitly focused on meeting new people to achieve immediate professional goals: a sales lead, a new job, an executive to hire, and so on. When people are primarily focused on, “What’s in it for me?”, and “How can you help me?”, they are usually so self-centered that it is difficult to build a strong relationship with them. They are so busy listening to radio station WII-FM (“What’s In It For Me?”) that they cannot hear you.

By contrast, an event or online venue that brings together people with an altruistic goal and a common interest other than themselves may be more effective. Conversations tend to focus initially on the common charitable endeavor, rather than “What do you do for a living?” Once you make the bond—you both care about raising money for orphans in Africa—the conversation will naturally evolve towards other topics that are of business interest.

How can you resolve this tension between strategically managing your network, and not being perceived as exploitive? We think that the resolution is first, having the right goals, and second, sincerity.

For example, you are a car salesman, and you meet Nina, a new college graduate who just moved to town. You will be a much more effective salesperson if you sincerely like and want to help Nina. We suggest: offer to help Nina find a good deal on an apartment, mention in passing that you are a car salesman, and say that you would be happy to give her a loaner for 2 days while she looks for an apartment.

If you are insincere, Nina will sense it. But if you are sincerely looking out for her best interests, you can be explicit about your (legitimate) business goals, and you have a shot at selling her a car.

The best way to avoid the smell of insincerity: build your genuine desire to help people. Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” If you lack the character trait of lovingkindness, the sincere desire to be of service to others, then the best way to overcome it is simply to do it. Be kinder to people, and you will be a kinder person.

As Stephen Covey observed in Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, much of modern success literature is focused on the superficial, e.g., how to appear friendly. You will do better to focus on building your character.

What do you think? How can you manage the tension between strategically and pro-actively managing your network, while at the same time not making people feel “used”? We would very much like to hear your feedback.