Our 4-part series on Building Your Network focuses on these key areas:

This article is part 1 in our Building Your Network series: Focusing on the engine.


Goat’s Milk Against All Odds: The Power of a Strong Network

A strong network is a powerful professional asset. We often think about this in terms of new jobs, promotions, or sales, but I’m constantly amazed at the diverse returns from a strong network.

Recently, I was at a gathering of entrepreneurs where a business owner shared her story. She owned an artisanal cheese-making business. Her most popular cheese was made with specialty goat’s milk almost exclusively found in a rugged region in the Middle East. This super-special cheese had landed her a test order from a nationwide retailer – a huge opportunity for her young company.

But she had a crisis: Her long-standing goat’s milk supplier had had a fire that disrupted supply, and she was scrambling to find a back-up supplier. So, she asked her network of Dallas-based entrepreneurs: anyone have any connections to goat’s milk producers in this very specific region of the Middle East? Turns out one of her contacts had an uncle who knew the U.S. ambassador to that exact country. He connected her with a producer and she was able to get the milk in time to meet her commitment to the big retailer. All on the power of her network.

In our EWF Executive Forums – as well as in our Emerging Leaders Program – we do a “resource exchange” at every meeting, where we ask: “What do you need?” It could be an introduction to a hard-to-reach prospect, openings for a new role, educational resources, a technology solution, expertise in a specific area; what it means varies depending on who’s asking. There’s rarely an ask that can’t be met by someone in that room, or their networks. That’s the strength of the community EWF International builds – and it also speaks to the exponential power of networks.

Professional Networking vs. Building Relationships

There’s a crucial difference between professional networking and personal relationship building: clearly articulated outcomes and goals. If you’re not clearly setting goals, you’re simply building personal relationships. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it will not build your professional influence as effectively as approaching it as an intentional, professional activity.

Build a networking plan with clear goals. What are you trying to accomplish? Do you want to be known as an expert in your industry? Pave the way to a new role inside or outside your company? Be or ask for a mentor? Give back? Extend your influence? Make connections so people can refer or buy your products or services?

How you define success depends on where you are in your career and where you’re trying to go. If you’re confused about how to define success for your networking, start with where you are. Where do you want to go from here? How can networking advance those goals?

Lest all this sound selfish, let me be clear: good networking is about building intentional, reciprocal relationships that are good for everyone. But in order to do it effectively, you need to understand the kinds of relationships you’re wanting to build, why, and what you can offer in that ecosystem.

The Power of Reciprocity: Mastering the art of “the ask” and “the offer”

Displays of generosity and the idea that we can all help each other succeed are crucial to good networking. In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Dr. Robert Cialdini wrote about the power of reciprocity. Humans tend to want to give something back when something is received. Our brains are wired to do so.

Authentically leveraging this can build a strong, engaged network. Take note: The keyword there is “authentically.” The fastest way to short-circuit reciprocity and relationships is to be entitled or exploitative.

In my own practice, I use what I’ve dubbed “the ask” and “the offer.” I always use them in tandem, proactively setting up the principle of reciprocity. Here’s how it works:

The Ask

Recently, I was having coffee with a young professional who had been introduced by a mutual colleague. Mostly, I’d met with her as a courtesy. For nearly an hour, we’d talked about a great number of things, but I still had no idea why she’d wanted to have coffee. So I asked: “How can I help you?”

Protracted silence. She squirmed and smiled at me uncomfortably. I see this a lot – people getting together, hoping to connect, and believing that that alone will lead to…something. Somehow. Exactly what is often pretty nebulous.

Don’t do this. Just don’t. Not only does it undermine your credibility, it also makes the entire encounter a waste of time. Women can be powerful networkers because they’re adept at building relationships. Where they stumble is in leveraging that talent to meet a specific goal. While I enjoyed my time with her, I was annoyed because I’d made time in my very busy schedule for an hour of what amounted to social chit-chat.

I go into every professional networking meeting with a clear sense of what I’m trying to accomplish. Sometimes it’s to close a sale. To get the next meeting. A referral for a prospect. Introductions to someone I want to connect with. A sounding board. Whatever my ask is, I know it going in. Why? Because I want to make the most of both our time. This honors the time the other person is giving me, establishes an appropriate value for my time, and sets clear expectations.

Clearly understanding – and articulating – your ask is a gift to the other person. It puts them in the right frame of mind, and sets them up to be successful in helping and connecting with you. Most people want to help – you just need to give them a clear way to do so. The specifics are your responsibility to decide and describe.

Pitfalls with your ask

  • It’s too vague. The more concrete your ask, the higher the chance you’ll get it. Don’t just ask “do you know anyone who’s hiring”? Clearly outline what you’re seeking.
  • It’s too big. Asking “will you be my mentor” or “can you help me get a job” or “do you know anyone who’s hiring” sound like a lot of work. Pare your ask down to bite-sized chunks.
  • It’s inappropriate. Remember that you’re relying on someone’s generosity when you make an ask. Make sure that what you’re asking for is something they’re comfortable with or have to give.
  • It’s entitled or too aggressive. Respect the other person’s time, expertise, and interest – you’re not entitled to their help, and they’ve already been generous by agreeing to meet with you. You want to build a trusting, reciprocal relationship – your ask is only one half of that. Balancing your ask with your offer helps keep this in check.

The Offer

I go into every conversation with some “offers” in reserve. I rarely know exactly what my “offer” will be – I know the kind of offer I’m likely to make, but not its specifics. To fill those in, I actively listen for something meaningful I can do for that person – sometimes it’s a resource, or a network connection, or expert advice. Knowing the kinds of offers you can make gives you a way to quickly define the basis of your relationship with a new connection, and to make it memorable.

Pitfalls for your offer

  • Overpromising. Those with generous spirits can sometimes overpromise (guilty). Go in with a reasonable offer that’s limited to what you have time for, what you have access to, and what you’re willing to follow up on. Looking back on my early networking, this was something I struggled with – making an offer while being willing to say “no” to things beyond my scope or desired engagement.
  • Giving your work away. If you’re a consultant or looking for a new job, it’s ok to offer to give them a sense of what you can do, but don’t give them free labor. This can actually devalue what you do and will build resentment on your part.
  • Promising to make introductions you can’t or won’t actually make. We’re all guilty of getting caught up in a moment, but if someone’s asking for a specific introduction and you’re not 100% sure you can deliver it, don’t commit to it. Tell them you’ll try and circle back to them on progress.
  • Making an offer on someone else’s behalf without consulting them first. Don’t commit for someone else – ever. Being “voluntold” to do something isn’t fun. Remember that introductions are a two-way street and need to be mutually beneficial. Don’t make introductions that are only good for one person.
  • Making an offer to a “dud” connection.  Networking is a highly personal activity – you will sit down with people with whom you do not connect well. That’s ok – you need to recognize that, be polite, and don’t waste time on something you’ve decided not to develop. Be polite, thank them for their time, and chalk it up to a learning opportunity. Don’t inappropriately set expectations to try to be nice and then ghost them.
  • Thinking you have nothing to offer. If you’re young in your career, don’t think that you have nothing to offer! You might have connections or expertise or a perspective that’s valuable. Listen closely and look for ways to give. You’ll be surprised by the value of your offer.

I often lead with an offer – and if it matches the contours of their ask, all the better! – and follow with my ask. As a package, it sets up the basis of a mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationship.