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.