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Networking: What Not To Do

By Liz Ryan A decade ago, "networking" meant calling former workmates to tell them you were job-hunting. Today networking ranges from routinely making new contacts to online community building to managing transcontinental multiplayer relationships.

UNLOCK THE DOOR. Business networking has advanced light-years in the last decade, in other words. But in my experience, not everyone has caught up. Some networking amateurs risk damaging their relationships, and their own reputations, thanks to offputting behaviors that range from the slightly annoying to the truly heinous.

So for those of you who wish to make contacts without making enemies, here are some advanced networking tips.

Have you installed one of those nifty PC programs that require people to "apply" to correspond with you? These force the recipient to fill out a form and decipher some scribbly characters before their e-mail will go through. They're great for battling spam, but remember: If you reach out to a new contact, you must preapprove this person's e-mail address to hear back.

BEST BEHAVIOR. Recently, I received a message ("Hi Liz, I've heard about you from several colleagues, let's schedule a phone call...."). When I tried to reply, I had to interpret a set of Cyrillic-looking characters and submit all my contact info.

Ouch! I don't even know you, and I have to jump through hoops to respond to your message? Not a great way to start a networking relationship.

Keep in mind when reaching out to a new contact -- what used to be called "a perfect stranger" -- that this person is leading a perfectly happy life without you in it. Therefore, common sense dictates that when you extend an invitation for lunch or coffee, you must err on the side of courtesy.

Among other things, that means meeting your new contact as close to his or her office (or home) as possible -- not halfway in between yours and his.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION. Imagine this scenario (I don't have to, since it happens to me twice a week): "Hi Liz, I read your column. Let's have lunch. How 'bout halfway between us, at the Gateway Center?" Only problem is, the Gateway Center is 30 miles from me. Now, hold on a second: Remind me why I'm meeting you?

You can't invite someone who knows little to nothing about you to meet you any further from her office than she would normally go on a typical day -- about three blocks, I'd say. Once you've established a firm, mutually beneficial relationship, you can meet at a spot that's more convenient.

But for now, you're intruding on this person, so you have to go to him (or her). Either that, or risk having the appointment cancelled on some feeble pretense, as your new acquaintance suddenly wonders: "Why did I say I would go to Outer Mongolia to meet this guy?"

BACKGROUND RESEARCH. Avid networkers are keen on meeting people who are well-connected and seek out such individuals with vigor. The only hitch is that people, as a rule, like to be valued for who they are, not for who they know.

So it is the apex of discourtesy to ask to meet someone, then show up with no understanding of the person's background or activities. If you've heard loads about a person and have been encouraged by half a dozen colleagues to introduce yourself, it behooves you to do a little research before you meet.

Otherwise, you broadcast: "I heard that you were well-connected, and I reached out to you on that basis. It wasn't worth my time to spend six seconds reviewing your bio." If you want to communicate the message "I don't care about you, only your Rolodex," there's no better way to do it.

A related gaffe is to ask a person whose image is easily available online: "How will I know you at the coffee shop?" Dude, get a browser.

PUNCTUALITY PAYS. First, it's a good idea not to be late -- ever -- unless you want important people, upon hearing your name, to start muttering about "that ignorant cretin." However, if you know you're going to be late, call and say so. And remember that there are varieties of lateness that simply cannot be caused by a last-minute emergency.

For instance, you can't show up 20 minutes late for lunch and say: "I was waiting for them to finish working on my car." Well, if you were waiting, why didn't you call?

Habitually late, I have become well acquainted with the maitre d's at the restaurants I frequent so that I can call and have them tell my meal partner that I'm running behind. You can't simply show up late without having made major efforts to tell the other party.

POLITENESS PRIMER. Doing otherwise suggests that networking for you is a kind of power play. Committed networkers know that one-upmanship is rampant in this game. Don't stoop to it.

One more note on lateness: There is a posture (physical and emotional) that must accompany your really late (past 15 minutes) arrival. You know what it is: You rush in, your eyes sweep the room for the person you're meeting, and you approach the table with the universal "so sorry" look. And then you say, "I'm really sorry to keep you waiting."

If you don't do this, you're communicating that you couldn't give a fig about the time you've wasted while your lunch partner memorized the wine list.

LATE AND UNLAMENTED. The worst networking situation I've ever encountered involved a trampling of these rules. A lady in a distant city wanted to meet me whenever I'd be in town, so we made a date to meet on my next visit.

I picked the restaurant and we agreed on 6 p.m. She was late, I was starving. So at 6:50 p.m., I ordered a plate of pad thai, assuming I'd be eating alone. Then lo and behold, three minutes later, I saw a lady checking street addresses and thought, that must be her. But she's so late and hasn't called -- she must have thought that our dinner was at seven!

The lady wasn't rushing -- didn't look like a person arriving an hour late. So, having been raised to be hyper-polite, I decided to play it as though the dinner WAS set for seven, and just apologize for ordering (and eating) my appetizer before her arrival. "Judy?" I asked. "Liz?" she responded.

"It's so good to meet you!" we sang in chorus. "Look, I'm sorry I ordered, I was starving," I said. "Don't be silly," she replied, "I'm an hour late."

GOLDEN RULE. I was stunned. She had no universal look of apology -- she was as content as could be! I waited for an explanation. Zip. She sat down. She reviewed the menu. "Um, you were held up then?" I asked. "You know how it is," she replied. No, I don't know how it is. That was a short dinner.

Networking etiquette isn't all that different from what Miss Peachtree taught you in first grade: Value other people for themselves, and treat them as you would like to be treated.

You can create terrific relationships all over town -- or develop a community of people who don't want to know you. It's your choice. A little care and forethought will help you do the right thing as you build your world-class network. And if you want to do lunch sometime, drop me a line. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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