I remember early in my career when an influential woman I admired sought me out. She wanted to connect and learn more about my goals and how she could support me: Classic networking at its best! I was excited and eagerly met her for coffee after coffee, exchanging ideas, contacts and …..
It wasn’t until about a year later that I realized I was feeding her more information than I was receiving in value. You see, I worked for a global cosmetic brand at the time, and she was looking to do work with our executive leadership. Under the guise of networking, she was, in fact, using me for leads.
Is that wrong of her? Was she being deceptive and misleading? Unfortunately, yes and I’ll tell you why: I received no mentoring, guidance, support or insights from her. The relationship was one-sided and not valuable to me.
I’ve always believed that women should support other women, regardless of their station in life and career. And, as women, we tend to be generous, helpful and giving. Sometimes to a fault. Sometimes we need to walk away from professional relationships that no longer add value. Since networking is different from time we spend with friends and loved ones, it should add value to us, and enable us to reciprocate to others.
Here’s an example of how it should work: Ginny is a talented and up-and-coming corporate trainer. She’s developed a unique model of delivery that’s getting noticed by businesses in her community. She connects with Madison at a local industry event, and they quickly become professional allies. Madison works as a human resource professional in a Fortune 100 company and wants to learn more about public speaking to feel more confident delivering a message to stakeholders.
Over lunch meetings and Zoom, the two begin to share insights and expertise to support the other. Ginny shares how her confidence used to be shaky when she first approached an audience. She empowers Madison with techniques and tips given to her by seasoned speakers and mentors. Madison, in turn, shares insights about the inner workings of big companies who seek new and innovative trainers as part of their retention strategies and commitment to learning and development. The two networking contacts are providing value to the other and feeling balanced in the relationship.
How can you recognize when the balance is off
1. You give more than you get. Are you the one providing insights, leads, information and support and not receiving anything of the like in return? Be sure you’ve clearly expressed your needs and interest before concluding the relationship is one-sided.
2. There’s a lack of acknowledgement or appreciation. For some, the only value received from the relationship is gratitude. And that’s a good value! Mentoring, for example, is a form of professional networking which might feel one-sided, but it’s actually reciprocated value in that you know you’re making a difference in someone’s life, and they appreciate you for it and tell you so.
3. You only hear from them when they need something. I admit, I had someone in my network like this. When I needed something, they were too busy and would pass me off to a colleague. But when they needed my help or guidance or insight, the pressure was on. This is not balance.
4. You worry you’re being “used”. In my opening example, I felt used. I realized that I’d naively thought this influential woman was befriending me when in fact she used me for insights, which I gallantly offered up. As you build your career and gain influence, you might also find that your credibility and visibility is attractive to others. These people want to appear close to you to enjoy the “brand halo” that your credibility and position offer them.
5. You haven’t heard from them in ages or can’t’ remember why you connected. I recently downloaded all my 10,000+ LinkedIn Connections (not Followers, just actual approved Connections) into a spreadsheet. As I looked through the list, I realized many were people I’d lost touch with, couldn’t recall how I knew them, and who weren’t relevant to my career going forward. Networking should be an active (not passive) sport.
When it’s time to say goodbye
When deciding to cut ties with a networking contact, always do so with grace and diplomacy. Online connections likely aren’t notified that you’ve disconnected (most platforms do not alert the other person, but if that person looks at your profile, they’ll see you’re now not connected).
In person networking is a bit trickier. When deciding to distance yourself from someone who you believe isn’t adding value to your career and with whom you no longer feel compelled to add value to theirs, consider first whether you should speak to them about it, or allow the relationship to quietly fade. This should be a thoughtful decision, not just avoidance of their emails and calls hoping they get the hint. It’s okay to be candid and let them know that your career is moving in a different direction and you’re seeking to spend more time networking with individuals who enhance that strategy. Let them know you’ve enjoyed the relationship in the past (if that’s true) and move on.
Online, create a system to evaluate and purge connections and contacts. For instance, on LinkedIn I’ll delete online connections if:
– The person has passed away (but their online profile remains)
– They’ve changed industries and I don’t see the connection value anymore
– They’ve retired (I’ll evaluate whether this is an absolute or if I can see an opportunity for mentorship)
– They’re an ex and not in a good way
– I can’t remember why we connected and haven’t heard from them in years
– The only time I hear from them after connecting is with aggressive sales messages (when we’ve not established a professional relationship)
Good reputation hygiene dictates we spend our precious time serving, helping and learning from people who make us better, stronger and more competent, professionally. Periodically, check your heart, head and gut when you encounter a professional relationship that might have run its course. This is your career, your life and your valuable time – spend it wisely.
**As previously appeared on SWAAY.com