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Networking tips: what NOT to do when making an introduction

Craig Zelizer

April 14, 2020

One of the key ways networking happens is by asking for an introduction to someone via your professional network or contacts.  When asking or making an introduction, there are some critical key steps I recommend to help ensure that the introduction is more likely to be a successful one for all parties.

When you are asked to make an introduction do you light up and think to yourself I'm delighted to make this connection or provide a reference? Or do you feel some level of internal frustration that the introduction the person is seeking isn't a reasonable request.

As a former full time professor at Georgetown University for 10 years and founder of PCDN I receive countless requests on a weekly and sometimes daily basis to consider making introduction and/or provide a connections. Some of these requests are very reasonable and I'm happy to help. Other times the requests make me honestly cringe a bit and I politely decline.

I write this short post for two reasons. First with PCDN we strive to provide the tools, information and resources to help our community build careers of impact.  We do this in many ways from our Career Series, our  Social Change Career Helping Line, our Social Change Career Podcast  and our Career Coaching Services.  This post may help as you navigate your career. Second, I know that many positions are filled by networking (by some estimates in DC networking plays a critical role in filling over 80% of positions). Of course one still needs to apply, but having someone put in a good word can help with ensuring your application get a stronger review.

Before getting into some dos and not dos I want to highlight one key guideline when asking someone to provide an introduction, facilitate a connection or reference. The number one rule should be is this is a reasonable request to make based on my connection or relationship to the person I'm asking for assistance? What this means in practice is do you have a pre-existing connection where you know each other, have worked together, or have interacted in a professional or personal capacity (this can be in person or on-line).  If the answer is that you've never met the person before this doesn't mean you cannot ask for some assistance, but the request should be a light touch rather than a deep request for assistance.

We are all working for social change and facilitating collaboration is a wonderful endeavor. I'm a natural born connector and love personally meeting with new people from different sectors to learn, share ideas and if appropriate explore potential ways of collaborating. I also enjoy connecting people in a professional matchmaking sense (not romantically, but to see what amazing professional things can be cooked up). In my many years in the social sector and connecting others, I've helped to facilitate some terrific connections that have led to strong collaborations, but there have also been some failures where initial introductions have led to frustrating outcomes (thankfully this has been a small minority of connections).

Here are some key dos and do nots from my experience.

Please Don't Do This When Asking for an Introduction or a Reference 

  • If you don't have a professional relationship with someone please don't ask that person to serve as a reference for a job,  academic program, or related areas. I've been asked countless times by people I don't know to do just this and I believe this isn't fair or ethical. I've been also asked more times than I can remember to make an introduction to hiring officer by someone I don't know professionally.  Connectors only have a limited bandwidth and number of introductions we can make.This requires some of our vouch capital or social capital and when making a reference we want strive to ensure it is a good match. It isn't reasonable to do to this for someone without any direct connection or knowledge of his/her work. 
  • Don't ask for a reference with a very short turnaround. A colleague whom I admire once asked for a reference letter for an opening within 6 hours. This doesn't mean I didn't do it, but this was a big ask (particularly because she didn't make it an easy as she didn't provide all the needed materials) and not one I did happily in this particular case.
  •  Please don't demand. Using polite language such as I would like to see if you might be open (this is one time passive language can be your friend) to helping with this could make a world of difference.
  •  Give an Out.  Making a request is fine, but also realize people are busy, or may not want to make an intro for a variety of reasons. Making saying no an easy option for the person you're asking for help is the smart thing to do.
  • Don't be a taker but a giver. There are some people who seek help with introductions or references in a purely transactional manner. Please try not to be this person.  It is more important to stay in contact with your professional network on a regular basis and also try to be a helper to others. 

Things to Do When Asking for a Introduction or Reference

  • Try to make the request one that will spark joy in the connector. I know this can sound ridiculous but please put serious thought into language and the type of request you're making. Often providing a short context about the type of intro you're seeking and why can make all the difference.
  • Provide context but keep it short. We are all inundated by information these days. My ideal request is one that keeps it short but still provides enough information for how this request fits into your overall career path.
  • Make it easy. If you're asking for an intro and your connector agrees, make this as easy as possible. Provide a bio, or a resume (basically all the materials needed) and if appropriate offer to write a draft of the email that your connector may send. It is key to learn how to write amazing recommendation letters as increasingly recommenders may ask you to write a draft letter. I've done this many times and I can tell you when I receive a high quality draft that only needs a few edits, it is much more pleasant than a poor draft letter that takes a lot of work.
  • Folllow up and say thanks.  Let the connector know how the conversation went with the new contact. If you're asking for a recommendation letter taking time to send a thank you email or even better an actual thank you card makes a world of difference.
  • Ask with reasonable time. Of course, short deadlines do happen. But asking in advance with a reasonable amount of time is key to keeping happy relationships.
  • Follow up if needed. Twice recently I failed to respond in a timely manner to introduction a colleague made that the person thought would be mutually beneficially. I appreciated that the person followed up with a reminder.

These are some recent key reflections regarding effective introductions.  It does make a big difference when I receive a reasonable request and write a letter or make an introduction with joy versus the opposite experience.

What has been your experience in asking for help or being the connector? What are your recommendations for others?

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