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."