Networking Principles

October 11, 2009

Many people ask me about “networking”. One of the basic observations I make is that “networking” isn’t useful unless you are doing it WITH CONTENT. (A friend of mine heard this concept from a mentor many years ago and I have adopted it.) Without content, you are simply annoying people. There’s nothing to talk about other than what you want from them. That’s not networking, it’s begging. I’ll give a specific example that frustrated me this week and then give a few words of advice.

I just received an email from a friend describing a recent experience they had with students at a career conference. The students were networking for potential job opportunities and potential employers were there scouting talent. I had such a visceral sense of frustration from the feedback that it’s making me post immediately on this topic (over the “figuring out what you want” post promised last week).

So what happened and why was I aggravated? (head shaking…)

Here’s the paraphrased and summarized feedback: I really wanted to help these students, but they did a few things that made it impossible to support them. First, they hadn’t prepared. They simply didn’t know anything about my company. Second, they wanted an informational interview but expected to set it up and conduct it while I was working an event. Third, several students represented to my colleagues that they knew me well when in fact we are not close.  

I have a few snarky rhetorical questions based on the feedback:

1 – How can you possibly think that not researching your target company will work?

Networking with content means actually having something to say. You don’t need to be teaching targets something. Simply understanding their company and asking smart questions about how you might fit or what their major issues are can be enough.

That assumes you’ve done some basic homework.

By the way –I bet there were candidates at the conference who did do research. They made better impressions. In many of these situations, recruiters are going to see hundreds of resumes to make 5-15 offers. In normal hiring situations it’s for 1 position. You don’t even get a second look if you mess up basics.

2 – What do you hope to gain from asking a target to go out of their way to help you?

Develop a sense of what to ask for and when to ask. I always coach people to ask for help. Most people will want to help reasonable requests when they can. Make them reasonable. In the case I cited, people who were planful could have reached out in advance, had a phone conversation etc. Rather, they were last minute and trying to bend their target’s schedule to their needs. That is NOT how to win friends and influence people.  It smacks of lack of preparation and opportunism. It’s shallow.

Genuine interest is shown through proper due diligence, professionalism in communication and cementing that impression in excellent live conversations.

By the way 2 – shallowness in networking is patently obvious to the targets. Authenticity is as well. Be authentic.

3 – Do you think that overstating a connection to get play will work out well in the end?

The prior two are attributable to laziness or lack of common sense. This one leans towards ethical issues. NEVER misrepresent your relationships to gain an advantage. It will kill you eventually.

Do you think people at companies don’t talk? If you drop a name, you better be sure that person will back you up.

Enough said.

Conclusion

In closing, my advice is networking 101 but apparently needs to be regularly re-enforced. 

First – Network with content. Be prepared and have some good (open ended, conversation starting) questions prepared. Make sure they reflect a basic understanding of the company. DON’T try to be “too cool for school” and act like you really understand the company. You don’t work there yet, so you don’t. But do show that you’ve thought about the target in some detail and are genuinely interested. Lacking this, you will appear shallow and merely in search of whatever you can find.

Second – Be planful and respectful. Your targets are doing you a favor. They may be very generous and open, but they are still giving up their time to help you for no immediate return to them. So MAKE IT EASY! Meet them where they are on their schedule. If they have 5 minutes on the phone while at the airport, then you make that work. If you don’t understand why this is important, talk to someone who can explain it to you. (Sticking tongue out…)

Third – Don’t be a tool. Nobody likes them and being one will destroy far more value for you than it creates.

 I want to reinforce how valuable and fun networking can and should be. Just remember to use common sense and good judgment when doing it.


Michael Sandel’s “Justice”

September 30, 2009

Michael Sandel is a renowned Harvard professor who teaches a class titled “Justice”. Its subject matter is ethical decisions and challenging students’ mental models. (ie: actually challenging people to think.) His class has been recorded in a high production value setting by WGBH in Boston and is now available online at http://justiceharvard.org/

It’s interesting and thought provoking material and the episodes come with suggested readings to go with them. I always appreciate excellent teaching and would encourage you to take a look at the site, even if you don’t have the time to watch all 12 episodes.


Do business schools need to change?

March 29, 2009

The Sunday 3/15 New York Times had an interesting article entitled “Is It Time to Retrain B-Schools?” Given the long list of MBAs running now bankrupt or dysfunctional organizations and their collective impact on the economy, the article asks experts to comment on whether schools are really doing their job. Essentially asking, “what purpose do they serve?”

Ideas such as a formal code of conduct  for business professionals (like in accounting – that worked out well for Arthur Andersen!) are batted around. Much of the critique focuses on overemphasizing training for technical skills rather than for “judgment”. It is observed that at many schools, ethics is treated as a separate subject rather than something woven through the entire curriculum.

Frankly, I think there are normal generational shifts that drive some of the behaviors described. Graduates reflect their times as much or more as they do their institutions. The current millenial students I teach are quite idealistic and focused on social responsibility. Sometimes to a fault (eg: even a non-profit doing good needs to economically viable).

Our curriculum here at the Carlson School really tries to weave in ethics and CSR from freshman year. As one example, our introductory management course spends as much time on ethics and corporate social responsibility as it does on strategy. We have lively debates over Friedman’s view on shareholder supremecy contrasted with stakeholder theory. Additionally, in my Consulting Enterprise program we try to always model best practices in ethical behavior. A minor, but common “slippery slope” type ethical dilemma is how you represent yourself when doing research.  Clients will occasionally ask us to represent ourselves as students working on a class project.  Clearly this isn’t ethical when we are working on behalf of a client, so we simply won’t do it.

My feeling is that it’s important to develop in our students a sense of judgment, rather than try to “teach” them ethics.  I often comment to my students that many phenomena (like politics) simply are. They exist. If you don’t like politics, then don’t join organizations. If you’re in one then you’ll be dealing with people’s goals, drives and motivations. Having said that, there are “good” politics and “bad” politics. The first advances important agendas and builds things for some common good. The latter aggrandizes personal fiefdoms and enriches its practioners at others’ expense.

I also think it’s a bit much to blame b-schools when the broader culture is so overtly corrupt. I’m no apologist for senior execs who took ridiculous compensation or the boards who overpaid them. It’s unconscionable for publicly taded organizations in my opinion. However, any politician casting a stone is absurd. Republicans, Democrats, legislators, regulators…everyone was in on it. Money flowed freely all over keeping the wheels of commerce turning. To expect an individual executive to stand against the entire system is a lot to ask. That would be a noble person. You can’t expect large numbers of people to do the right thing when there is huge upsayde and little or no downside to unethical behavior.

I think the best we can do as institutions is challenge students to confront these realities and begin to think through where they stand while giving them some tools to frame their thinking.  In the end, they won’t know what they’ll really do until posed with an actual moral dilemma.