Some people line up lunches and coffee dates because they’re in search of a job, venture funding, or clients for their company. But if that’s the reason you’re having a networking meeting, you — and your invitee — aren’t likely to get much satisfaction. As Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and her colleagues have noted, “transactional networking” — i.e., “networking with the goal of advancement” — often makes participants feel so bad about themselves, they feel “dirty.”
That doesn’t mean you should never initiate meetings if you have a specific, immediate goal in mind. But that shouldn’t be confused with “networking.” If you’re honest with your intentions upfront (“I have a new startup, I’m seeking angel funding, and I think you’d be a great partner”), then the other person can make an informed decision about whether to connect. But networking — meeting with the goal of building a robust set of connections over time — is a different process with its own set of best practices. Here’s how to do it successfully.
Research in order to find a commonality. How do you build an immediate connection? According to psychologist Robert Cialdini, the answer is to find a commonality with the other person as quickly as possible. If you happen to meet someone at a conference, you can steer the conversation and try to dig for possibilities (perhaps you might live in the same neighborhood or have kids the same age), but with a pre-planned networking meeting, you have an edge that surprisingly few people take full advantage of: the ability to research the person online beforehand.
Using LinkedIn, Twitter, and other online search results, you can almost certainly find something you share that will serve as a conversation starter. A shared alma mater, hobby, or professional interest can quickly get the person to see you as a peer and someone “on their team.” Starting with a commonality, and then branching into some thoughtful prepared questions about them and their business, will ensure the discussion gets off to a good start. (And help you avoid painfully hackneyed queries like, “What keeps you up at night?”)
Meet in person if possible. In a globalized world, geography often intervenes. Last week, I had an initial call with a friend-of-a-friend in Singapore, and we’re not likely to connect in person anytime soon. A phone call is a good start (they’ll at least remember your name and know something about you), but it’s a much weaker form of connection than the alternatives. Video conferences are slightly better; as I describe in my forthcoming book Stand Out, my friend John Corcoran, a Bay Area podcaster, makes sure to conduct his interviews with Skype’s video feature, even though he only uses the audio tracks, because he wants to establish a face-to-face connection. But wherever possible, find out when the person will next be in your city (or vice versa) and make a plan to connect then to cement your new tie.
Arrive with a hypothesis on how to help. It’s a sweet gesture, but I’m often flummoxed when people conclude a meeting with me by asking, “So how can I help you?” Often, I have no idea (I don’t know enough about them yet), and feel bad when I’m left with nothing to say. There’s also the lingering suspicion that in some cases, it may be a quid-pro-quo offer and that if I respond, “I don’t know, how can I help you?” they may unleash a torrent of requests.
Don’t make your colleague do the work. In advance of the meeting, formulate a hypothesis about how you can be helpful to them, and throughout the course of your conversation, test it with subtle questions. Then, at or near the end of the meeting, you can ask them explicitly whether your idea would actually be useful. For instance, if you’re meeting an entrepreneur, it’s a pretty safe bet that they’re looking for new clients, so if you know someone who could use their product or services, they’d probably appreciate an introduction. Similarly, offers of publicity are likely to go over well (perhaps you know the program chair for the Chamber of Commerce or your professional association). Even small gestures, such as sharing someone’s social media posts or commenting on their blog, are thoughtful forms of giving that are likely to be noticed.
Don’t ask for favors – for a very long time. I recently received a LinkedIn request from someone I didn’t know (or barely knew – his message mentioned meeting me, but I have no idea where). I accepted, and within minutes, a message flooded into my inbox. “This is totally asking a big favor,” he began. But, he went on, he’d like an introduction to an editor at a high-level publication I write for. Hint: if you have to use the phrase “this is totally asking a big favor” with someone you hardly know, you shouldn’t be making the ask.
I learned this the hard way early on in my career. I’d connected with a woman who had recently spoken at a major conference I was eager to break into. Shortly after meeting her, I followed up with an email, asking how she’d managed to land the speaking engagement. I was genuinely curious about the process; I wasn’t asking for an introduction. But I subsequently realized it may have come off that way implicitly, and she never wrote me back – then or ever again. My new rule of thumb, which may sound draconian, is to wait at least a year to ask someone for a favor of any magnitude. It’s fantastic if someone proactively offers to help you before that – and people often will — but it’s essential they feel it’s their idea, rather than something they’re coerced into doing.
Of course, there are exceptions to the “rule” and if you’ve become fast friends with someone to the point where it’s clear you’re not using them, then ask away. But it’s far better to err on the side of waiting and establishing trust early on by helping them, rather than extracting a short-term payoff that damages the relationship.
Networking meetings can be the start of intensely fruitful relationships. They may lead to business deals, connections to other great people, job offers, and more. But those are side effects of relationship building, and your meetings will be far more successful if you don’t go in explicitly seeking them.