I remember aerobic networking circa 1985. Nearly every week, I’d dash out to a couple of industry events in my best notice-me suit, armed with business cards and eyesight that could nail a name tag at 20 paces. Over the next two decades, whether I was running an ad agency or building a start-up, it was my job to be out there, tirelessly padding my Rolodex and expanding my resources. And for years, networking worked, producing clients, hires, and friends for life. To return all those favors to the sisterhood, I helped and counseled a lot of women — so many, I’d have to put a comma in the number.
Networking in our 20s and 30s was a contact sport; the more, the better. But now, as seasoned careerists, we crave connections who can help us with complicated work issues, like how to exit a job or raise capital to start a business. And although success makes us even more eager to pay it forward, we sometimes find ourselves fending off networkers who are more about taking than giving, who deplete our goodwill and our precious time. How can we fish for what we need while avoiding the sharks? How can we give back without giving it all away?
Drawing Your Own Boundaries
There are a lot of reasons women want advice from KaZ Brownlee. At 48, she’s a restaurant and cinema owner, a business consultant and a real estate developer, splitting her time between Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia. But it’s her warm personality that makes her a magnet for advice seekers. "After I teach a seminar, people call to pick my brain," Brownlee says. "Or one of my real estate deals becomes public knowledge and leads to e-mails and phone calls asking how I did it and if I can share my secrets — all for free, of course."
Brownlee knows she’s a softy. "I genuinely care about people, and they feel so comfortable around me that the boundaries get blurred," she says. Her generous spirit makes it hard to turn down people who want her help, even though most have nothing to offer in return. "Some people say they have an idea they know no one else has; some want a free ride. A very few have genuine talent, determination, and potential."
After tangling with one too many time suckers, Brownlee sought help from a lawyer friend. "He advised me to set my own company policy and not deviate from it," she says. Now Brownlee allots 45 minutes for an informational meeting and decides whether she can help. Then she lays out her fees and a time schedule to collaborate on the next steps. Or she gently declines and steers the advice seekers elsewhere, always closing with a good-luck handshake.
Brownlee believes this technique has helped her focus her attention on what (and who) matters. She has reclaimed her time, made some good contacts, and kept her conscience intact. "By sticking to my policy, I’m able to be a representative of my company, not me," she says.
How to Spot (and Stop) a Taker
I too am an openhearted type who has a tough time discerning the sincere seekers. So I turned to someone who has studied the psychology of the workplace: New York City-based psychotherapist Katherine Crowley, a coauthor of Working with You Is Killing Me (now out in paperback).
Crowley told me that we each have our own fatal attraction that draws us to troublesome opposites — and them to us. At a networking event, she says, takers go after givers like heat-seeking missiles.
Crowley defines three types of taker. "First is the Empty Pit. She’s the most disarming, because early on she’ll confide a personal problem, like fears about her health or her job," Crowley says. "You give your advice, and she gratefully acknowledges how smart and nice you are."
Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning of an escalating series of personal requests, until you become, asCrowley says, her unpaid therapist. "She’s always ingratiating and complimentary, which is a fatal attraction for someone who likes to think of herself as a helper and do-gooder. Soon, we find ourselves inviting her to Thanksgiving dinner or giving her the keys to the condo."
Most draining is the fact that she never takes our advice. The best defense? "Zip your lip. Become good at nodding," Crowley says. "Turn the tables by saying, ‘Oh, that sounds complicated … but you’re a smart woman, I know you can figure this out.’"
Two other types to beware of: the Hyper Curious, who won’t stop asking questions (think of the child who follows every answer with "Why?") and the Opportunist. The latter tends to be very deferential because she believes it’s your job to help her get ahead. "The opportunists talk about what they can do for you and wow you by throwing names around, which may trick you into wanting to prove your own clout by doing favors for them," Crowley says. Her advice: Ask them to deliver their favor to you first. (It will never happen.)
Crowley also suggests making rules for dealing with requests for guidance, such as limiting phone time to five minutes. "It’s about setting boundaries," she says. "It’s you who gives too much. The better you know yourself, the better you can defend yourself."
When It’s Kinder to Say No
When you start your own business after 40 — as so many women do — networking becomes essential again. But I’ve noticed that those of us whose businesses grow out of innate talents, such as selling or communicating, attract networkers who assume that what we do is so easy, anyone can do it. As head of a company that listens to female consumers, I hear from women who open with, "We do the same thing," even if all we share is estrogen. I’ve set up so many meetings with these women that my own business has suffered. But saying no can feel unkind or, worse, unsisterly.
Luann Udell, 54, is an artist in Keene, New Hampshire, who discovered her creative calling late in life. Now she’s a magnet for peers looking to turn their lives around. Although many women claim to have artistic talent, Udell says, "most aren’t really serious or focused enough to take actual steps." Udell confesses that she used to be sympathetic, but to separate those with real potential from the pipe dreamers, she now forces the inquirers to do their own research first. "It’s like helping a baby chick out of its egg," she says. "A chick gets stronger by having to break out alone. By doing things for people, you actually take away that stage they need to go through. We’d all like to believe there are secrets and shortcuts, and people to know who can catapult us over the hard stuff. But what I’ve learned about life, about other people, even about myself, I honestly wouldn’t trade for instant success."
Udell refers would-be artists to her blog, a hands-off way to give advice. Their online queries help fuel her future content. And she directs talented hopefuls to trusted art centers, who then give Udell credit (karma, not money) for the referral.
Some entrepreneurs have given up on gentle letdowns. Susan Murphy, 63, a communications-skills consultant in Edgewater, New Jersey, is an avid networker who has faced the onslaught of overexpectant seekers. "Because my field is perceived as a natural endeavor for a friendly person, I constantly get hit up by people who want to be me. Any rudderless person without technical skills seems to think she can succeed on natural flair," Murphy says. "I tell them that my firm isn’t equipped to train them, but they can practice by booking speaking engagements for themselves. I tell them to feel free to call for advice, but they rarely do."
When people tell Murphy, "We should work together" — which she translates as "You should train me, sell me, and give me money" — she requests a written overview of their goals or offers a referral fee if they find new clients for her. Nearly every time, she gets the same result: "Nada."
New Rules for Paying It Forward
When I asked MORE readers about their strategies for productive networking, I heard plenty of war stories of abusive advice seekers. But I was also reminded why we need others to thrive. "Throughout my career, women have mentored me not because I asked them to — I was too self-absorbed to think of asking for help — but because they were just great women," wrote Marilyn Dial, 59, an office manager inFort Worth Beach, Florida. "It’s my duty to give back because I’ve been given so much."
But Dial is savvy about offering her time. She thinks of networking in terms of reciprocating favors: When she recently had an opening in her department, she e-mailed members of one of her women’s organizations, asking for a short list of potential recruits. "I received several applications with the assurance that they were known by someone I knew," she says. This saved her the time and expense of placing an ad. She paid the favor forward by recommending one candidate to a friend who had an opening.
Dial’s approach is light-years from the full-frontal "gimme" networking style many of us grew up with. By being more precise in what we ask and what we give back, we can make the most of our precious time and valuable resources.
I’ve practiced shifting my style from "Let me tell you about me" to "What about you?" I’ve gained some of my best clients by attending conferences where I never ask for anything. I initiate no-sell, no-pressure conversations and ask people about their personal interests to see what I can do for them first, whether it’s career-counseling their college-age daughter or buying a seat at an event for a cause that matters to them. If it’s appropriate, I recommend them as a speaker or subject for a media interview to help their careers. Over time, I try to earn the right to have them consider me as a business partner. I’m happier leaving an event with one new friend than with a pile of business cards. And friends are the best kind of new clients, anyway.
While I was writing this column, an e-mail popped up on my computer. It was a thank-you from a woman I had counseled last summer about opening her own publicity business. She wrote, "I have my new Web site up, my first clients and a start-up plan, and I often look back on your inspiration as the beginning of my new life." I remember sitting with her, sharing a deli coffee on a hot street corner, worried about some deadline of my own, but thinking how much she had helped me when I launched my first book. I cared about her. I owed her. Now here was her thanks in return. And her e-mail juiced me to send a new customer her way.
I can’t turn off my instinctual urge to reach out and listen and help. But at this point in my life, it’s fair to expect a little thanks too. And to be ready to hold the line when someone crosses it.
Mary Lou Quinlan is CEO of the marketing firm Just Ask a Woman and author of Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives.
Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2007.