Author’s Note: I am risking myself professionally by exposing this hidden world. I will try to be vague about names, identities and places. By blowing the whistle on a powerful group of shady individuals I risk becoming an outcast…or worse. Proceed with caution if you wish to gain a deeper understanding of the arcane world of networking, for me it is too late.
The Real Illuminati
Everyone is familiar with the concept of secret clubs, the Illuminati…the “Odd Fellows” who are supposedly running the world behind the curtains. Their work is everywhere, they are meeting in coffee shops and back-alleys, speaking in coded language while slapping “The Proles” on the back. They have “secret handshakes” of many forms and laugh amongst themselves at the plodding mass of humanity. These people exist and they are called The Networkers.
Whether or not you are aware of their existence, The Networkers are the ones brokering all of the connections, getting the deals done, filling the CEO positions, finding future spouses for others and filling up the rosters of “the cool people parties.” All of this they do with a few phone calls, Slack messages and emails which cost them nothing to send (nothing tangible, anyways).
“Networking” to most people is synonymous with unsolicited LinkedIn messages, recruiter-spam, marketing nonsense, unproductive ass-kissing and generally favoring appearances, in-crowds and credentialism over productivity. There is a lot of truth to this perception. Networking done poorly is at epidemic proportions, accelerated by the clueless application of social media and electronics communications tools. If you want a full introduction to what GREAT networking is, read this book.
In this article I will touch on bad networking, but what I am really interested in is helping more people to understand the hidden mechanics of great networking.
Networkers Don’t Work For Any Company, They Work For Their Ecosystem
Ok, now that I have had my fun with the Illuminati analogy, I will introduce a more accurate analogy.In practice, networkers are actually more similar in nature to Dr. Suess’ Lorax than to a secret pseudo-religious club. If a particular industry or ecosystem is a garden filled with plants, bushes, trees, shrubs…Networkers view themselves as the keepers and gardeners of the vegetables and shrubs…Truly Great Networkers are even willing to lay down in front of the bulldozers to protect their networks, should this become necessary.
Networkers Work For Everyone, And For No One
While a Networker may work at one particular company or another, they actually view themselves as working for their entire sector. They want everyone to succeed (to a point) and the whole industry to move forwards as a result. While receiving a paycheck from one company may bias their actions, Networkers feel rooted to The Mission itself. The Mission transcends all corporate boundaries, The Mission is eternal and universal…it unites us, binds us…oh fuck wait I think that is “The Force.”
One of the biggest areas of confusion many people have is that Networkers are not wired for direct personal gain or profit. Instead, they are motivated by a nearly limitless desire to be helpful. This limitless desire to be helpful comes with a horrible cost, which I have termed “The Curse Of The Networker.” I will talk about this curse later.
This desire to be helpful can cause Networkers to act, do and say things which, to many observers (who generally only do things that are in their own interests), appear completely f*cking inexplicable and irrational. Some of the more cynical people I have met view Networkers as rubes, maroons, dolts and idiots for this reason. That is a mistake. Networkers are playing a game, your lack of knowledge of the rules may mean that YOU are the rube, not them!
The Networking Debt Ledger
You may be familiar with the concept of a ‘Transaction Ledger” which is effectively a book of transactions which any observer can validate. The core of what networkers do is maintain a private debt ledger in which they record each and every connection they make, for better or for worse. In Chinese culture there is a concept called Guanxi. The Russians call it Blat. The Japanese have Keiretsu. Some Networkers are much more aggressive about tracking this than others, but the debt ledger is always there in some form or another…They. Never. Forget.
True networkers have long memories, they are the elephants of the business world. They remember when they sent you a connection and you ripped that person off or treated them poorly. They remember when you referred them to a job seven years ago and gave them a good recommendation that bumped your salary by 30%. They remember the time they went through your interview process, mentioned the name of a talented co-worker and subsequently heard that you sent your recruiters after that person without asking their permission. If a networker helps “hook you up” (job, contract, opportuinity) and you never bother to thank them for it, that gets noted someplace.
Long story short, don’t piss of great networkers. They may continue to interact with you out of business necessity and even pretend to like you but you are dead to them and they will stop providing you access to their opportunity flow. You really don’t want that because the great industry networkers talk shop to one another all day long, they all know one another.
The Networking Engine
The core driving force of a networked-relationship is The Networking Engine. The Networking Engine is an endless series of transactions and small favors which extends throughout the lifetime of a relationship. Like the spark delivered by a spark-plug which ignites a series of gasoline explosions in a car engine, the back and forth value exchanges keep the pistons of a relationship running and move the whole network forward.
I once read a story in a book about two Japanese business people who did one another a favor. Due to the strangeness around how to correctly assess an interpersonal business-debt in Japan, the two businesses sent each other presents of ever-incremental value attempting to repay the debt over the course of several decades. Because the initial favor was so large, the parties felt effectively that they could never repay their debt and each counter-present only re-inforced the idea that the debt was still valid. They are probably still sending one another presents to this day.
That is what The Networking Engine does, the value exchanges never end, which is a great thing.
The Networker’s Unwritten Free Trial Offer
Because of the vagaries of networking, it may be impossible to tell precisely who “is in” and who “is out.” There isn’t really an official secret handshake but handshakes of sorts exist. Generally speaking, the only way to truly verify if another human being is in “The Networkers” group is to perform a series of exotic signalling rituals. Like the Blue-footed Booby, who perform a silly dance to assess one-another’s mating potential, Networkers also have their own ritual: The Free Trial Offer.
I will wait here while you watch this video of Boobies dancing. Great, glad to have you back. You’re welcome.
As I have mentioned earlier, The Networking Debt Ledger begins with a social debt. Someone must donate value to someone else in order to start “The Networking Engine” which is a series of exchanges of value over time that drive their networks forwards (or off a high-trestle into a ravine, followed by an explosion after which starving muck-rats feed on the remains).
This Free Trial Offer may include a series of introductions, invites to parties, invitations to speak at events and so on. What seems like a stream of “Free” opportunity is actually an initial flirtation between one networker to invite the other networker to “play the game.” If I toss you a frisbee and it bonks you on the nose (or you knock if over the fence with a baseball bat), I will not throw you another frisbee. You are now “out.”
In the networking world, these “donations” are similar to one Blue-footed Booby flapping their feet at another Blue-footed Booby to see if they receive an affirmative signal in response. If there is no such response, then the Blue-footed Booby notes carefully into their Networking Debt Ledger that this other booby is, indeed, an actual booby and is not worth wasting any more time on. Such is the life of a Networker.
The Curse Of The Networker
I mentioned previously that Networkers can be pathologically helpful. This has many downsides.
Networkers must understand that by committing to a life sentence of networking the they are fundamentally lining themselves up to be disappointed by human nature over and over and over again. Simply put: You are going to get burned as a networker. Even worse: Your personal network may get burned and this is going to make you look bad.
Networking mavens live in fear of putting their name on an initiative or a referral or a recommendation only to have that person embarrass them. I have met CEOs who refuse permanently to ever refer anyone ever again due to having been so humiliated by one bad referral. The term for such a failure of reciprocity or default on The Networking Debt Ledger is called a Networking Foul.
Because United States debt is seen as being “rock solid,” it is highly sought after as a protected asset by the rest of the world. This debt is “as good as gold.” If the United States were to suddenly declare that it had no intention of paying it’s outstanding debt, it would literally unravel the entire world financial system and economy. A catastrophe.
This is what a Networking Foul really is, it is a signal from another person that they will default on their Networking Debt Ledger. They will never pay back their debt or “make good” a misstep. These people rack up a big credit card bill and skip town. Their debt is as valuable as sub-prime derivatives liable to explode during the next financial crisis.
There are a few ways someone can default on their Networking Debt Ledger:
- Take a trusted referral and treat that person badly
- “Loot” information or leads which are given in confidence aka “Thanks for telling me that house you are looking at is on sale, I am going to buy it before you can!”
- If they get referred to a job position and you act like some kind of idiot making the referrer look bad
- “Looting” contacts aka “Now that I have your contact list, I don’t really need to bother having a relationship with YOU anymore. Thanks bro!”
- Repeatedly ignore / fail to respond to “invitations to network” signals
- Treat “Free Trial Offers” as a chance to fleece the other person of value because that person must be stupid!
Persona Non-Grata: Transactional Networkers
The scourge of the networking world is the part-human, part-entitlement and part-greed creature known as the “Transactional Networker.” These are “value extractors.” You can often recognize them by the “MBA” or “Sales” monikers in their LinkedIn titles (a cheap shot with an aftertaste of truth). These business outcasts view the art of networking and relationship building as a zero-sum game: They win, you lose.
Even worse, they may even derive actual enjoyment from extracting network-mana from someone else without exchanging any value in return. “Wow, I soaked that lady,” they think to themselves after they receive a strong referral for a rock-star engineer. “Can’t believe she introduced me to this person for free!” Transactional Networkers are pathologically short term thinkers.
They are “coin operated.” For some reason, they think you owe them something. They want to get paid before they lift a finger to do anything. They also want the highest pay scale from the start. Transactional Networkers frequently introduce Lawyers and NDAs into casual preliminary conversations. They are not open to “Trying things out” to see what works and doesn’t work. They accept all networking value and perceive it as a “free donation” and immediately forget about it. Transactional Networkers will stop bothering to maintain a relationship with you the second they access your contacts. Transactional Networkers will steal your clients, leads and customers when told about them in confidence and wonder why you don’t want to sit down for lunch four months later.
Transactional Networkers tend to automatically reach for an authoritative or dominant style of relationship if they are your customer. They will discard you and your organization once they have paid you. They build no personal network credibility over time because everything they do is a “one off.” Business is a game of dominance to them. Transactional Networkers are “nice” only as a manipulation tactic.
In short: Transactional Networkers are persona non-grata, pathological Network Foul-ers. What is worse, many of these people have no concept that such as thing as The Network Ledger may even exist! “Playing Networking” with such people is like making balloon animals with Edward Scissor Hands: You are going to get spit from inside the balloon on your face every time. Once Transactional Networkers are discovered they tend to get black balled and are never any-the-wiser for it. Don’t be that person.
Calling Out Transactional Networkers
Calling someone out for a Networking Foul is never fun.
The possible damage from calling someone out on being transactional, thankless, ungrateful, unreliable is potentially very high. Many people believe it is always better to avoid that bridge in the future rather than risk burning it. As a result, Networkers may simply shut you off and never send anything of value to you ever again if you cross them. Because true Networkers expect the best out of people, they are often particularly annoyed / disappointed by transactional behavior. This is the curse of being a Networker.
However, sometimes this behavior needs to get called out. There are circumstances where the other party does not realize that they have been signaled networking intent or you really want (or need) that other person to “Get It.” Or their Networking Foul is so blatant that you feel obligated to point it out and can’t help yourself. Best of luck to you should you try to level-set.
If you are on the receiving end of being called on a Networking Foul, keep in mind that this is actually a very positive signal that the other person is disappointed in you and wants to work with you, you just fucked things up. The other person believes your relationship is worth saving but can’t proceed until they have aired their grievance and you adjust how you do things. The time to be worried is when you are viewed as being unimportant and not worth saving and simply get ignored and black-balled.