Five Networking Mistakes You Don’t Mean To Make But Probably Do
On a recruiting assignment for a Director-level position, the VP who was hiring for the role was beside herself because one of the short listed candidates sent the same thank you note to the VP as she did to her colleague. “Did she think we weren’t going to compare notes?” the VP rhetorically asked.
I didn’t ask to see the notes so I don’t know for sure that they were identical. Knowing this very intelligent and thorough candidate, my guess is that the notes were at least personalized for each VP’s name and that the opening statement had been personalized, but perhaps the main body of the letter was a formulized list of selling points that she used for positions just like this one.
We are all busy and cut corners to save time. But in networking (and thank you notes are a form of networking), time spent equates to attention paid which equates to genuine interest. In this case, the lack of personalization was interpreted as lack of interest in the role and in the interviewers as distinct individuals. Therefore, watch your thank you notes! Here are five networking mistakes you don’t mean to make but probably do:
Mistake #1: Canned communication
Any canned communication, like the formulaic thank you note, is a networking mistake. It’s fine to use templates to structure thank you notes, cover letters and day-to-day responses to emails you frequently get. If you don’t have templates, then you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time keeping up with your correspondence. However, don’t rely so much on the template that the response loses its genuine, targeted feel. You have to personalize enough so that your communication feels aimed at the individual and not for general broadcast.
For example, your networking pitch (how you talk about yourself) is something you use in a multitude of situations: a job interview with a stranger; an exploratory networking meeting with a warm contact; a professional networking event with people you may see from time to time; a social event with friends, some seen more or less frequently. Each of these scenarios requires personalization. When you catch up with someone who knew you from university, your pitch encompasses your life since university. When you are at a professional meeting and see a colleague from your previous company, the pitch covers a shorter arc because you start from where you knew each other and build from that. If the university friend was someone you played sports with and that’s still a big part of your life, it makes sense to mention that. If your former colleague is someone you shared family stories with, it’s appropriate to ask about the kids. In both cases, if your aim is to share what you’ve done professionally, you could still work that in but around the building blocks tailored to the other person. Both pitches are still 100% about you but completely different. Personalization to the other person is what makes the interaction genuine.
Mistake #2: No communication
At least the Director candidate sent a thank you. Both in recruiting and in general networking I have frequently received no thank you or follow up communication at all. If someone gives you a lead, let them know what happened to that lead, even if it ultimately didn’t pan out. If someone gives you advice, let them know what results you get from implementing it. If someone gives you a lead that becomes your next employer, send a thank you note (email is fine but a card is one way to stand out). Bonus move: check in with the person after you start your job to let them know how you’re doing.
I once referred a professional acquaintance to a recruiter friend of mine who ultimately placed her within the large company where my recruiter friend worked. Neither the recruiter nor I ever heard from this person that she got a job. We both found out when my recruiter friend saw her in the company directory. It could be that she was so busy in her new job that she fell too far behind on her follow up and then didn’t bother because it felt too late. The problem with skipping the communication altogether is that it stops the relationship. If you want to continue the relationship, at some point you will need to communicate again and at that point you need to address the missing communication (or overlook it and hope the other person doesn’t notice). It’s likely the other person will notice the oversight, so best to acknowledge a favor even if the thank you is late.
Mistake #3: Let’s get together… No, not really (the unfulfilled appointment)
When you do communicate, don’t assume it has to be live, especially if scheduling is problematic. I once reached out to a professional colleague to discuss an industry issue and suggested we catch up over coffee to discuss. He agreed to get together, so I proposed a date, he counter-offered, we agreed, he rescheduled last minute and then we ultimately never met.
Some people agree to get together because they assume it’s the polite way to reconnect with their network but in reality their schedule is too busy or too out of their control to meet live. In that case, choose a different means of connecting. Suggest a call or simply continue the dialogue by email. Don’t offer to meet just to be polite if you don’t plan to follow through with the meeting. Just move the appointment to a call or email. If you don’t want even a call or email, thank the person for reaching out and say outright that you’re not the right person to connect with on this request. This ends the back and forth about the next appointment.
Mistake #4: Let’s do that… No, not really (the unfulfilled offer)
It’s not just appointments that go unfulfilled but sometimes you make a promise for an introduction or for information but drop the ball. Or you are the one who asks and your contact agrees to something but drops the ball. I know many well-meaning people who over promise or agree to do something because it seems polite and then realize they can’t or don’t want to do what they offered. Rather than say outright they will not do something, they just don’t do it and hope the other person forgets. Unfortunately, that other person might be waiting on your unfulfilled offer so it would be better to just say NO in the first place.
If you tend to overpromise or if you know you have a problem with turning down requests, force yourself to count to three before responding to anything (even where you want to say yes). In the three seconds of silence, ask yourself if you want to do this and if you can do this in a timely manner. Then when you make the offer, put it in your calendar with a firm deadline, if you can’t do it right away.
For example, I have a lot of disparate LinkedIn connections because I am a pretty open networker. I don’t mind connecting to a lot of people but I only refer people to each other when I know both parties well. When I get a request to introduce two of my connections but I don’t know one or both well, I respond, “Thanks for reaching out. I don’t know X well enough to make an introduction.…” If I can make the introduction, I do it right after I make the promise so I don’t have to remember to do it later. When I have to say NO to a request, I say NO directly and quickly — it’s better for all parties when you only make offers you can fulfill.
Mistake #5: Asking at every contact
The trickiest part about networking is when you have to ask for something like a meeting or an introduction or information. We all know people who only reach out when they need something. This asking at every contact is asking too much. It’s okay to ask your network for help (that’s a big benefit of networking) but if you only reach out when you need help, then you are not relating or building a genuine network.
If you add small talk before each ask, that’s still not enough. I have a professional colleague who is otherwise complete unresponsive but then pops up every now and again with a DEEP interest in learning all about what I’m working on and how my family is doing… Then when I ask her how she’s doing, she brings up an issue that, SURPRISE, I can help her with and what do I think of this or could I do that… The small talk leading to the ask worked the first few times but now it’s clearly a pattern of interest only before an ask, so it’s not personalized or genuine.
Follow up when you don’t need to ask for anything. Keep promises and appointments you make. Say thank you and share an update when someone does you a favor. Personalize your follow up so it is clearly inclusive of the other person and not a general announcement. If you have neglected to do any of these, it’s not too late. Start now.
An executive friend of mine got a job lead from an acquaintance and never thanked the referrer. Then over a year later he actually needed to tap that acquaintance again about something else. He feared a chilly response because he had never thanked her over a year ago. Finally, he did call and called out the oversight, apologizing for not thanking her for the earlier job lead. She quickly warmed up and they went back to collaborating again. Networking mistakes are made by smart, well-meaning people, but relationships can still be preserved if you make the effort.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career and business coach with SixFigureStart®. Her latest book is Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career (Forbes Media, 2015). She also writes a weekly advice column on Forbes (where this post originally appeared).