Many of us consider networking a necessary evil of maintaining a healthy, robust career, but it doesn't have to be. In reality, it's more often than not bad networking that puts people off networking altogether.
At a time when nearly all of us are scrambling for opportunities and helping others to do the same, people are in networking overdrive. Not a day goes by that I don't get a few emails from friends seeking introductions to other friends. All that connecting carries a huge risk of mistakes and missteps. Here's just a sampling of the many ways that well-intentioned attempts at networking can go wrong, and some simple ways to do better.
1. Asking for an introduction when you are too busy to properly follow up. We've all been there. You learn that someone you know knows someone you want to know and you are champing at the bit. You shoot off an email without much deliberation, the person replies promptly (since you have a mutual contact), and because you're completely swamped, you find it impossible to make time to meet.
Solution: Next time you learn that one of your contacts knows someone you want to know, file that information away and tell your friend you might ask for an intro when you're less busy.
2. Sending a too-long email that asks no question. As an advice columnist, this is a species I know all too well. These emails usually contain some variation of "can you help?" as the header. The body of the email rambles on, hinting at some need, but never quite articulating a question. My first instinct is to delete these emails, and if they come from a stranger, that is often what I do (encouraging dialogue with ramblers can only lead to no good.) If I can see the bones of a question beneath the layers of fat (or if the sender is a friend of someone I know), I try to figure out what the person is looking for and answer the question I think is being asked.
Solution: When asking someone for advice, for an informational interview or for any other help by email, write a succinct note and be clear about what you are asking for.
3. Making introductions on behalf of people you can't vouch for. We all want to help people find new opportunities, but it can be damaging to your relationships and reputation to recommend people when you can't vouch for them. LinkedIn, which has automated the process of making introductions through mutual contacts, has made this problem more prevalent.
Solution: Next time a friend asks you to make an introduction on behalf of someone you don't know, instead of blindly recommending the person, ask your friend if he or she can provide a rave review. If the answer is yes, then you can tell your contact that while you don't have firsthand knowledge, someone you respect has given the person a strong review. If the answer is no, then your friend will certainly understand if you decline to make the introduction.
4. Making incorrect assumptions. This rule gets violated in many ways, but the most common is when you assume that you know what someone else wants -- in a job search, in building a business, in adding people to a network -- so you take some action designed to help without checking first to see if your efforts would be appreciated. Meddling relatives are experts at this.
Solution: Next time you have a brilliant idea for someone else's business, job search, or networking, ask first before you take any steps to help.
5. Using a social network without knowing how it works. Lots of attention has been paid to young people behaving badly on social networks. But what about middle-aged folks who join Facebook and don't realize that a wall posting is not a private message or that it is common courtesy on Twitter to acknowledge someone when you "retweet" one of their messages.
Solution: When you join a new social network, read up or watch an online tutorial on how it works and be an observer for a little while before diving in. If you make a misstep even when you know the rules, find an appropriate way to acknowledge your error.
6. Failing to properly follow up. If someone takes the time to help you in any way -- giving an informational interview, making an introduction, reviewing your resume, sending you a new client -- remember to follow up and give proper thanks. In most cases, a quick email, hand-written note or call will suffice. But what if you feel greater thanks are in order?
Solution: Send an Amazon gift card -- it's something practically anyone would appreciate and you can order it and have it delivered by email with a few clicks of the mouse. If you're strapped for cash, consider recommending the person on LinkedIn (assuming you're both on LinkedIn, and who isn't these days?)
7. Sending unwieldy attachments or too many samples of your work. If you're asking someone for advice and including samples of your work, make it as easy as possible for the person to review those samples. Rather than including attachments, which can be burdensome to open, try to include links to URLs. Free services like LinkedIn or VisualCV allow you to create an online version of your resume that includes a URL that you can selectively share. (I believe these new age resumes will soon completely replace the old-fashioned paper variety.) If you have a portfolio, set up a simple website to showcase your work.