Ask not what your network can do for you…

…ask what you can do for your network – exploring the difference between “networking” and cultivating the existing network of people you know.


If you’ve turned on a TV lately you’ll have seen Facebook mentioned in some way – unless you’ve been watching Mad Men exclusively. While there’s lots of talk about Social Media there is little talk about social networks or networking in general. With so many people laid off in the last 18 months many are discovering the need to network for the first time. Many people aren’t really sure what to do when it comes to networking or get shy at the thought – is it shallow to ask friends of friends a favor? Or do you just go to a ‘networking’ event and talk to people – right?

When we think of “networking” we picture in our mind a stockphotoesque image of superficially smiling business people gathered together at an event shaking hands and giving out business cards. The phrase itself implies an individual has ulterior motives when talking to you. Something deep within us reacts against this.

In this blogpost I’m suggesting taking the focus off what you need and onto what other people need. The resultant activity will create much deeper relationships amongst the people you know (referred obliquely as your ‘network of contacts’). Paraphrasing John F. Kennedy I’m asking not what your network can do for you but what you can do for your network.


I once stayed in L.A. for a few days with a CEO of an online company. He came home one night from a bar with multiple pockets full of other people’s business cards (approximately 30). While getting other people’s contact details isn’t networking it is assumed that a certain threshold of commitment has been reached. Having someone’s contact details does not automatically make them a ‘contact’. After all it is easier to ignore someone via email than when they are standing there in front of you. Later that night the CEO tossed out all the cards.

Despite living in a  highly digital age it is amazing that we still want to see business cards. People still need a means of capturing contact details for all those new or chance meetings. I met someone at a Bris who was in the gaming industry too – naturally neither of us were carrying business cards to such a ceremonial event. Luckily the iPhone application ‘bump’ cuts out the middle man by allowing you to transfer contact details directly between two iPhones (watch bump movie).

It goes without saying that your job search materials should be in a high state of preparedness if all your contact details are pointing to them: résumé, website, business card, blog, LinkedIn profile etc. (personally I love LinkedIn as it provides a window from your working life into someone else’s and keeps updating as things evolve in either person’s career.) After all you only have one chance to make a first impression.


“Networking” is traditionally seen as placing yourself in situations where you can create some kind of new relationship with someone who you previously didn’t know. The hope is that you make enough of a ‘connection’ (emotional investment) so that the other person is more likely to say yes if asked to do a favor. It’s rather like going to a singles event – everyone wants to make a connection with the right person (or people) but not really being sure who it is in the room.

The phrase ‘growing your network’ is mentioned in articles and blogs but this usually refers to adding more people to your network – a case of scattering the net far and wide in the hopes that you scoop up someone that will help. Rarely are people thinking about cultivating their network i.e. helping those people who you know already e.g. if you’re reading this you probably know me as a friend, worked with me, met me at an event or are in the online/media industry. I’ve probably done you a favor at one point.

There is an enormous amount of Anthropological and Sociological research into social networks all summarized well in Wikipedia’s page on the subject. The gist of it is that cliques are filled with people who know each other very well and at the opposite extreme is networking events where people don’t know each other at all. Everybody else in your life is somewhere in between. If you are a bridge between different groups/networks then you have potential influence e.g. I know a lot of designers, a lot of recruiters and a lot of people in the online/media world – all of whom want to talk to each other.

Sociologically a person with many loose connections (called ‘weak ties’) to other groups or networks are seen as having a much greater access to useful information or individuals. Mark Granovetter developed this line of thinking as The Strength of Weak Ties’ theory (he is also is the originator of the Tipping Point theory). While weak ties connect different groups or people – see diagram below – they rely on there being strong ties at each end.


In my quasi-anthropological diagram above you are at the center and the amount of people in the different rings drop off exponentially from the 10-15 close friends you have to the next ring where there’s maybe 20-40 people at the ‘you like them in work’ or ‘friends of friends’ ring. The next ring could be more peripheral people in work, ex co-workers and friend of friends of friends etc. (make up any titles you want for the rings to fit your world view). At the largest ring is the enormous amount of people like the guy with the really odd job you met once at a party once.

I feel the key to building a network is to take a qualitative rather than a quantitative approach to add depth to your network i.e. having specific rapport with specific individuals. In the diagram above the closer to the center the greater the similarity in personality or resonance the two of you have i.e. building more resonance would be the equivalent to moving someone from the darker rings to the lighter rings.

Freddie McKenna, Copywriter-at-large, points out how the personal touch that builds rapport is needed now more than ever: “I would say in a time when job applications are sent off into cyberspace and everything is done online, face time is actually more important than ever. It’s one of the few ways you can stand out in the sea of resumes.” With the Holiday Season of work parties ahead of us now is the easiest time to put in this facetime.

A while ago a friend was worried he would seem shallow if he started connecting with people in senior positions that he last knew when they had much more junior positions. The same issue appeared in a networking article I read recently that suggested aiming high when trying to ‘network’. This may work for some people but more people will respond to the sincerity of connecting to anyone. In time they/their careers will grow organically so start early and remain sincere.


In this day and age the favor is probably something you could do from your computer whether it is forwarding a résumé, recommending someone on LinkedIn or answering a technical question. Some favors are more in depth such as providing references or giving informational interviews or mentoring. Just like life people are unpredictable so I highly recommend not keeping a scorecard but just being open to helping others in the hope that they will respond to your sincerity. If you’re worried about what people will do with the favors have a look at this 69 second movie from Burn Notice.

This should make using your network even easier since favors are the currency that flows through any network of people, however informal. After all what’s the point of having a network of ‘key’ contacts in useful/influential positions if they aren’t willing to do you a favor. Likewise if you aren’t willing to do anyone a favor why should anyone want to think of you as a helpful contact.

The flipside of offering to do favors is follow through. I’ve noticed that most people like to offer help but a lot less people actually want to put in the effort of doing the favor. Often it is simply a case of being too busy to take the time to help that friend of a friend of a friend who keeps emailing. If you promise to help someone and then keep putting it off in the hopes that the person eventually stops asking then you may as well say ‘no’ from the start. Like the example in the last paragraph, why should anyone ever help you?


As you’ve gathered by now the key point I’m getting at is knowing the difference between ‘networking’ (adding more people to your network) and what your network actually is (a collection of individuals you know who may be called on for favors or information). Sounds simple but it’s all about perspective – knowing people is not enough if you don’t have the charisma or rapport to convince them to do something for you.

When I was briefly out of work an amazing amount of people helped me immediately. Doing them favors helped build that rapport. I wasn’t calling in favors – they were just helping me because I had helped them and others they knew over time. By just being yourself and helping others things start to fall into place organically. Sure, most people are afraid of being taken advantage of by people they barely know or have no emotional investment with but like it or not none of us got where we are entirely on our own. Somewhere along the way someone helped us. Why not do likewise? It’s good karma.


Kennedy Inaugural speech—getting-promoted

5 thoughts on “Ask not what your network can do for you…

  1. Great post Rick. Malcolm Gladwell has written in his book “Tipping Point” about people who are the connectors, and I find this intriguing. I’ve done many favors for my connections with never the intention of receiving one in return. I think that alone is important as I feel most people want immediate gratification or favor payback… but they’ll learn that as time passes those kind people will rely on you, as you have relied on them. In summation I feel to keep a professional contact there usually needs to be some sort of transaction (favors in many forms), as opposed to acquaintance-smalltalk.

  2. From my father:
    “In my opinion good networking creates a situation where you know where to go to get help or advice. It is not necessarily free but is the
    source for the best advice or assistance for a specific purpose or
    problem. You also learn more and gain more experience from working with or interacting with experienced people. A good network relationship will give you access to these people at critical times to find a solution.”

  3. I loved this, Rick. A well-written and thought-provoking piece. It’s not who you know but how you know them and how well they know you and what you do–enough to refer you when the time comes. Web 2.0 as well as World 2.0.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s