The Mentor's Manual

Learn to network: how to succeed in networking and mentoring.

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

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."

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