The Networking Myth

Networking has become a bit of a science (instead of fun!). And worse still, especially with LinkedIn, many people just try to grow their networks in size. Mike says that’s bonkers: there’s an ideal network for you, your contacts, and your business.

Networking is an essential business skill. It probably always has been – only in business schools does the myth of business as some kind of objective, impersonal science hold sway. Real business, especially for entrepreneurs and small businesses, has always been won and maintained through personal contact.

Yet the topic has suddenly become a fashionable one, no doubt due to the rise of the internet. Online networking organizations such as LinkedIn have bought thousands of people into virtual contact, to their mutual benefit. The sensible organizations back that up with live events, for example our own ‘Beermat Monday’ sessions.

A myth has emerged out of this, however. ‘The bigger the better’: if I have a network of 10,000 people, that is inherently better than one of 5,000 people. This is a dangerous fallacy. What counts is quality, not quantity.

By quality we mean the quality of the network members’ relationship to you, not whether they are posh or well-connected (though good connections can help, it must be admitted). The real question is whether the network members actually like, respect and trust you. Are they prepared to do you a favour, either because they owe you one or because they trust you to do them one in the future (or, a third option, just because they like you)?

For most of us, there is an upper limit to the number of people of whom this can be said. Some master networkers seem to be able to form vast webs of well-wishers, but for most folk, once the number gets beyond about 150, people begin to drop off the radar. (An anthropologist quoted in Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘The Tipping Point’ claims to have worked the average out at 147.8) Adding extra people to the network way beyond this number has a strongly diminishing return, unless they are special and displace someone who hasn’t been in touch for a while and wasn’t that close a friend anyway…

The secret of good networking in our view is to manage that ‘magic 150’ effectively. By ‘manage’ we mean stay in touch regularly and speak to in greater depth from time to time. In business, it also means ranking potential customers. Who has got needs and money now? This may sound cynical, but remember that good business is about solving problems for people: at least half your question is ‘who needs help the most?’

When you do get a request for help from your network, you need to be careful. Is the person in your 150? If not, aren’t they being a bit cheeky? The answer may be no – the request is simple, so why not help out? We get emails from entrepreneurs every day, and if there are simple requests we’re delighted to help. We even give free one-on-one sessions for members of the wider Beermat network. But ‘outsiders’ can overstep the mark.

If the request comes from within the 150, you still have to balance out whether the favour is one you can do or not, but the assumption must lie much closer to taking a punt. If the request is outrageous, should the person be in your top 150, or did you put them there for a wrong reason, for example great charm or celebrity? The ideal favour is an introduction where everyone benefits. Sadly, not all intros fall into that category. We’ve had people ask for introductions, and found that they used them to try and sell real estate or pyramid marketing products.

Chris has recently worked on a book about doing business in China. The Chinese are masters of networking, as anyone who has tried to do business there without the necessary ‘guanxi’ will testify. The rules are strict and clear. Trust takes time to develop, but once developed is sacred. There is little slack cut to ‘nice but unreliable’ people. It’s a bit like one of those Victorian novels where characters worry endlessly about their ‘good name’ or their ‘position in society’.

China is a hard, highly structured society – and probably needs to be, with 1.3 billion people. We’re not advocating that our gentler, more democratic culture should emulate it. But at the same time, social and business life is not quite as easy-going as we would in our more idealistic moments like it to be. Certain facts of human nature do not change over time or place, and one of these is that trust cannot be infinitely expanded. For most of us, a network of thousands of people means lots of addresses, not thousands of friends.


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