Last week I read a blog in the Wall Street Journal that, on first glance, made a lot of sense. But something nagged at me and the more I thought about it the more the blog actually made me very angry.
The blog by 'serial entrepreneur' Gary Vaynerchuk suggested in its title that the secret to networking is leverage. This last word should perhaps have set the alarm bells ringing straight away but, as I teach a programme on 'Leveraging the Power of your Network', I read on, untroubled.
The majority of what Mr. Vaynerchuk wrote is absolutely correct, and very similar to my own philosophy of networking. He is "baffled by the number of people who think 'good networking' is predicated on the distribution of business cards"; he suggests finding out who else is attending the same conference as you and inviting them out for dinner; he states that "effective networking is about patience and build up, not the close".
That's all great advice and I can't fault any of it. In fact I wish more people showed the same level of understanding of effective networking.
In fact, Mr. Vaynerchuk demonstrated his recognition of one of the most important principles of networking when he said "I could tell you all those things from a tactical standpoint but what I want to focus on is the why. Why are we networking in the first place? Why would someone want to network?"
I had no problems at all to this point; in fact it was refreshing to read a blog by someone who really seemed to 'get' the principles of networking.
But then the blog took a turn for the worse. All of Mr. Vaynerchuk's 'tactics' were in place with the view of reaching one goal. "Because at some point, you want something from this other person" (his emphasis).
I don't deny that most of us, me included, network for personal gain. After all, why would you invest your time in meeting new people, developing strong business relationships, learning about others and making connections if it's not, at some point, going to help you advance your career or build your business? Many of us have plenty of friends socially; we don't necessarily need to seek more through our business.
Equally, you should be clear about what that gain is and how your network can help you achieve your goals. That helps you to develop your network in the right areas, connecting with people who are well placed to provide you with the advice, insight, ideas and connections that you need to move forward.
But the relationships you build and the support you offer to people in your network should be genuine and borne of generosity. A spirit of abundance lies at the centre of the best networking strategies.
Mr Vaynerchuk also advocates giving to your network. But here lies the big difference between our approaches. In this blog the advice is to give solely in order to get back.
"By giving first, you have established that the relationship will always be a minimum of 51:49 in your favour", he says. "You now have leverage for your counter-ask." In fact, Mr Vaynerchuk goes further, stating that "You give and you provide until ultimately you reach a point where you can guilt someone into giving back."
So close...and yet so far. Let me ask you this question, how do you feel when someone in your network offers you help and support unprompted?
Now how do you feel when they come back to you to extract support for that help? Particularly if they use the support they have given you to 'guilt you' into giving back?
I hope that you are naturally inclined to help those who help and support you. But sometimes you may accept from one direction and give in another, that's just the way networks operate. As long as everyone is willing to give, then the wheels turn smoothly.
But when people start 'guilting' each other into giving back, then the nature of relationships change. They become more transactional and trust is dissipated. The person giving help or support does so from a position of obligation rather than desire, and the 'give' becomes less powerful as a result.
For sure, if you know you want to ask people for help, understand whether you are deserving of that help first and look to build the relationship before going in cold with your request. But don't give to individuals in your network solely because you want to use those favours as capital in the future. Be willing to give without expectation of asking for anything in return.
People who see networking as manipulative do so because of the type of approach that Mr. Vaynerchuk advocates. I don't know the author and don't want to be unfair, he may just have worded his blog clumsily, but such advice is dangerous. Particularly for those who follow it.
In my talks and blogs I have often quoted the words of Elizabeth Asquith Bibesco when speaking about the right attitude to have when networking and those words always seem to strike the right chord. I think they do so again here.