Tapping Your Network: The Unwritten Rules

Maintaining a strong network is one of the most essential skills for leaders. Yet I frequently see even savvy professionals making some avoidable mistakes when they need help from someone in their network. That's why I wanted to wrap up my series of articles on the unwritten rules of work with this topic. 

People often hesitate to reach out to someone in their network because they don't want to bother them or they feel uncomfortable asking for help. Most people, however, are happy to help. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t feel good knowing that their expertise, experience or perspective made a positive difference for someone else. When you give someone an opportunity to contribute like this, they may become an even stronger ally for you – as long as you keep a few key things in mind.

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Be Clear in Your Request

All of us are busy and the person you are approaching is no exception. Explain very clearly why you're getting in touch. (This is one practice that distinguishes high performers from others.) Let's say you have an upcoming job interview in a business unit where your contact previously worked, and you want their thoughts about this job opportunity. Your initial email should say much more than, "I would love to catch up soon if you're free." 

Mention any time sensitivity to avoid any delays and let them know what kind of help you need. For example, do you just want them to answer some questions about their past experiences? Do you want them to introduce you to someone or to put in a good word for you? Clarify what you need and when, to help them prepare and to maximize your time and theirs during the conversation. You will do wonders to maintain a good relationship when you show respect for their time (with actions, not just words) and make it easy for them to help you.

Show Interest in Them

Even though you reached out for help, the conversation doesn’t have to be one-sided. You can reinforce your interest in the other person in several ways.  Actively engage in the conversation and ask about what’s going on in their world, personally and professionally. Whether they need any support or not, simply asking, “What can I do to help you?” can set a positive tone. It conveys the importance of the relationship and that they're not just a resource for getting what you want.

Don't Leave Them Hanging

After your meeting, take one more step to strengthen your relationship with your contact. A lot of people overlook this opportunity. This goes beyond sending a thank-you note for their time and advice. Let your contact know how the situation unfolded after your conversation. For example: "Our meeting really helped prepare me for the interview. I felt so much more confident. I expect to hear back from the hiring manager next week."  Some people hesitate to follow up because they are busy or they don’t want to take up any more of their contact's time. But the last thing you want your contact to think is that they gave you their time and you didn’t have the courtesy to follow up. Most people will feel gratified to hear that the time they spent with you was worthwhile and made a positive impact.

Finally, remember to stay in touch. Don't wait until the next time you need something to approach your contact again. This doesn't have to be time-consuming. Take simple steps like forwarding articles, sharing news and events you think they would be interested in, adding thoughtful comments to their social media posts, or making meaningful introductions. Investing in maintaining the relationship can make networking feels much more authentic.

You can find more strategies like these in "Building a Powerful Network," one of the titles in my Leadership EDGE Series.℠

And if you'd like to read more on the unwritten rules of work, check out the past installments in this series: 

If you have questions about other unwritten rules at work, please don't hesitate to drop me a note