“There’s a guy who reached out to me earlier this week and asked for a Zoom call,” one of my coaching clients told me. They’re in a professional group together, so my client said yes. Within the first 10 minutes, the colleague asked him for a big favor. “I was amazed,” said my client. “I don’t want to be an idiot, so I usually say I’m helping, but I feel pretty taken advantage of afterwards.”
Nobody wants to find themselves in a networking situation where they feel taken advantage of—nor do most professionals want to be put in the opposite position, where their co-worker questions their motives.
As I discuss in my book The Long Game: How to be a long-term thinker in a short-term worldhere are three strategies you can use to build mutual and fulfilling long-term professional relationships and ensure your new connections never feel like you’re approaching them for the wrong reasons.
Don’t hesitate to ask for favors
That’s a rule I learned the hard way. Years ago I met a woman who was a little rising star. She had spoken at a large conference that I was dying to attend. We had been enjoying dinner together and exchanging a few emails back and forth when I texted her. “Congratulations on your last lecture!” I wrote. “I loved the video. One of my goals is to speak at this event one day. Do you happen to have any advice on how to break in?”
As far as things go, this wasn’t a bad email. I didn’t ask them directly for a performance or nomination: I was just looking for general information.
But in hindsight I realized – even that was too much, too soon. She was so well known that she was probably inundated with connection requests from aspirants. Although I felt worthy of being her colleague, after a while I began to imagine that all requests from people she barely knew sounded the same.
I never heard back.
I was struck by the realization that she probably saw me as no different than the people who were actually users. The antidote: I’ve made it a point not to ask for any favors for at least a year. This allows you to take a step back and focus on building a real friendship without pressure.
Make your intentions clear
“Favor attacks,” as experienced by my client, are surprisingly common—often because well-intentioned professionals simply don’t know how to appropriately ask for what they want. Because they are uncomfortable or embarrassed, they often try to cover up their intentions, which leads to misunderstanding and malevolence.
A few years ago, I had developed a casual friendship with a woman who had come to my house for a party. In return, she offered to take me to a home-cooked meal with the cuisine of her home country. Thrilled by her hospitality, I accepted – only to find, as she nervously hinted at something she would ask me all evening, that the whole dinner was just an excuse for her to make me an investment proposition.
I wouldn’t necessarily have minded the question, but if she had been upfront about her intentions I could have quickly told her I wasn’t investing in her type of project and we could have moved on. Instead, I was stuck for hours on an awkward multi-course meal that had suddenly turned from an initial gesture of friendship into an awkward pitching session.
Once you’ve gotten to know someone well enough to ask a question, it’s important to be clear in advance what it is and what’s actually going on.
Think creatively about how you can help
We all know the networking mantra: be helpful! Added value! But it’s often hard to know where to start, especially when the person is already successful (“He has many customers and knows everyone. What can I offer him?”). But with enough persistence and discernment, you can find a place to make a name for yourself. Laura Gassner Otting discovered this when, as a relatively new professional speaker, she was invited to join an online community of far more experienced and well-known colleagues. “Well, I don’t belong here at all, and you’ll find that out pretty quickly,” she thought. But instead of hiding and remaining silent in the background, she had a different strategy: “I’ll take and I’ll learn, but every time I’ll add that resource back as well.”
Her first question was how to draft a speaking contract. The group had created a database where members could upload their contracts for others to consult, but it was chaotic and disorganized – a huge amount of work to sift through. Laura decided to rise to the challenge by creating a clear, easy-to-digest 15-page resource guide that summarized best practices around things like travel, film, and intellectual property clauses, and made the data usable for all.
Soon, she says, “I became part of the cool kids in this group because I kept giving back.” Through her involvement in the speaker group, she formed friendships that led to strong professional connections, including opportunities to perform Good morning America.
As Laura says, “I’ve learned about book publishing, I’ve learned about podcasts, and I’ve shared the resources over and over again. And we can all do that.”