The worst networking mistake I ever made

I became increasingly anxious as I realized the mistake I had been making. Before Christmas, my friend told me about an ambitious goal she had in mind and how she was gaining support for it. She listed the senior stakeholders she was meeting and her discussions with a possible sponsor, and I could see the clear progression she was making towards a favorable outcome.

I thought, I haven’t done anything like this. Despite my efforts to work out loud and build relationships, I largely ignored senior management. As a result, I had a huge hole in my network.

The relationships I like to build 

Singing around the campfire

Singing around the campfire

Like many people, I didn't like networking. It seemed manipulative and inauthentic. As a result, when I was close to getting laid off in 2008, I had few meaningful relationships outside of my firm and my small circle of friends.

Gradually, though, I changed my mindset. I focused more on contributions and learning. I made my work more visible and purposeful. Those 5 elements of working out loud led to a book to help others do it and enabled me to build relationships with people across my firm and around the world.

I enjoy making these connections. They're usually with people interested in my work or who like my other writing, so it's clear what my contributions might be. The people I meet this way are smart, positive, and helpful.

A common mistake

1925 US Supreme Court Justices

1925 US Supreme Court Justices

My relationship with senior management was quite different. Though I recognized the need to keep them informed, I didn’t always view them as smart, positive, and helpful. They seemed more like judges or, worse, blockers. Perhaps my mindset was a result of the performance management process, or maybe just my own mix of fear and pride.

Whatever the reason, it’s self-defeating. By not proactively deepening relationships with a wide array of senior managers, I was limiting my impact and my possibilities.

Mending the gap

The talk with my friend snapped me into action. I started by asking myself the same three questions we use in working out loud circles.

What’s my goal?

Who can help me?

How can I contribute to deepen our relationship?

I asked people for help to draft a list of stakeholders and a set of possible contributions. What would I have to offer? The key was to avoid putting senior managers in a box like judges and instead realize they had the same needs and struggles as anyone. That meant they would appreciate the universal gifts of appreciation and recognition.

For more substantial contributions relevant to my project, framing my work as a contribution meant making it less about me and more about them. That included using examples relevant to their businesses and describing solutions in language familiar to them. I learned that social proof was particularly powerful. “The head of another division already has this solution in place. Would you be interested in learning more about it?”

Within a few weeks, I noticed something remarkable: I felt better. Instead of bemoaning the lack of engagement or respect or admiration, I felt like I was taking control. And with each contribution, I got a bit better at telling my story and learning how to genuinely help senior managers.

It’s obvious that identifying stakeholders and developing relationships with them will improve your chances of success. I failed to do that as well as I could have, and that’s a mistake I won’t make again.