Six Friction-Free Ways to Help Your Network Help You
“Everyone at some point has gotten a job only because they knew the right person — and those are usually the better jobs.”
This is Patrick Ewers, early LinkedIn director and relationship-building expert. Today, he makes his living teaching tech's most successful professionals how to get what they want by forging the right connections. What’s different about Ewers is that the bulk of his advice can’t be found in Networking for Dummies-style guides. It’s designed to be simpler, more genuine and effective at the same time. Case in point: You’ll never hear him say, “Fake it till you make it.”
Whether they admit it or not, most people are uncomfortable with the concept of "networking." Whether you’re standing alone in a sea of people at a cocktail party or sending a note to an old colleague asking for an introduction — these interactions are fraught with pressure and anxiety, even for those who have risen to the top. While Ewers’ philosophy does require discipline, it’s all about removing these mental blocks so you don’t miss out on opportunities.
His tips aren’t just for introverts either.
In a landmark study, Stanford Psychology Professor Carol Dweck defined two types of people: Those with a fixed mindset vs. those with a growth mindset. Successful relationship-building requires the latter — you might not know how to go about it, but you’re willing to learn.
“People with a fixed mindset basically say I am who I am and my abilities won’t change much,” says Ewers. “The problem with this attitude is that it means that every time something goes wrong, you assume you’re the failure — and you see every failure as a personality issue rather than something you can learn from.”
People with a growth mindset see the opposite. “They see abilities as muscles they can exercise. The more you work, the stronger these abilities get. So it follows that these people take more risks. Even if they fail, they know they will learn from it.”
The way Ewers sees it, once you accept that it’s okay not to be perfect in every interaction (because no one is), the easier it will be to take chances on people, reach out first, and capitalize on the connections you make.
#1 Make Opportunities Come to You
If you’re trying to make something specific happen, it’s important to have a concrete goal in mind. Finding the right job is a big one, but it might also be that you want to find investors, referrals for your business, business development targets, interns or mentors. The more active you are in your network, the greater the chance you will connect with the right person at the right time. The process works even faster if you are intentional about who you interact with and how clearly you state your goals.
“Too often people are more than happy to help, we just do a terrible job of letting them know what we want from them,” says Ewers. And it’s true — there seem to be unspoken rules about asking for favors directly. Requests get buried under layers of courtesy and small talk, or never get expressed at all. “The fact is, it’s a numbers game. The more people you tell about what you want, the greater the chance it will happen.”
The anatomy of opportunity is simple.
“Opportunities come to you because someone was thinking of you at the exact time they came across something that was relevant for you — whether it’s a job, or a deal, or an introduction, or a technology that could help your business,” Ewers says.
You can't control when people see great opportunities. But you can make sure they think of you first.
This is where most people have huge potential for optimization. The problem isn’t that others won’t act on your behalf. The problem is they aren’t thinking of you.
“I call this the notion of mindshare — how top of mind you are for someone at any given moment,” says Ewers. “The more mindshare you have with someone, the more likely they are to say, ‘I know the perfect person for this opportunity.’ You want to empower people to think of you when they come across needs that you can meet.”
This is another reason it’s important to have a clear objective (even if it changes over time). It’s very hard to create meaningful mindshare with a lot of people at once.
#2 Build Mindshare
There are two ways to stay top of mind with people:
- Interact with them constantly: “You’ll see this with salespeople — they pop up again and again in case a need for what they’re selling arises,” says Ewers. “But you can’t do that with people you care about and rely on for opportunities. It’s turnoff and people simply don’t have the time.”
- Deliver quality experiences: This is much more resonant. If you can consistently give people a positive, energizing experience, they will remember you and are more likely to have a vested interest in your success. The better the experiences people have with you, the less frequently you need to be in touch.
“Increasingly, we live in an experience economy,” says Ewers. “People aren’t buying products or services anymore, they’re buying experiences. And they’re willing to pay a premium for good ones. Just look at Starbucks. They are able to sell a coffee for $5 because they package the experience in a particular way that shows the world you’re living a certain lifestyle.”
Similarly, whenever you interact with someone, you want to make sure they view the experience as meaningful, relevant and valuable. “If you can do this, you’ll constantly win,” Ewers says.
Creating this type of experience transcends being charming. “Being entertaining or nice is fine, but it has a very short-term life cycle,” he says. “Just because someone enjoyed talking to you doesn’t mean they’ll think of you at a critical moment or recommend you. It’s the difference between eating something with empty calories and something nutritious. You want to be a nutritious connection for people.”
Adding real value for people might sound like a lot of work, but it only requires two steps: 1) Finding out what a person wants (i.e. what their biggest challenge or need is, what worries them, what they aspire to), and 2) Keeping your eyes open for ways to meet these needs in little and big ways. Ewers recommends finding out the answer to number one face-to-face. Then you can follow up later through other media.
#3 Deliver Value Payloads
“You don’t need to be investing a ton of time determining how to be valuable for people. No one expects this. We all have day jobs,” says Ewers. “This is where people struggle the most, they don’t know how to break things down into lightweight actions.”
It is possible to deliver awesomely high value to people at extremely low costs to you.
This is usually just a matter of changing your behavior during in-person interactions (i.e. focusing more on others’ needs), and adding one simple habit: low-lift value payloads.
“I love the term value payload because it sounds so tangible,” says Ewers. “Value payloads are anything you provide to people that could help them — even if it doesn’t pan out, 90% of the perceived value is intent. They could be introductions to people they want to meet, articles about a problem they are trying to solve, a note saying you saw their work and sent it to someone else. Most of the time it requires sending one email, which is easy to make a habit.”
Whenever you take this type of action, you’re telling someone, “I thought of something very specific to you and did something about it.” It’s hard to imagine that going unappreciated.
“The easiest value payload — it literally costs you nothing — is the emotion-based value payload,” says Ewers. “All it requires is giving people positive feedback in the moment. Many people have this odd tendency to be overly careful when giving out compliments or positive feedback. How often is someone talking in a meeting and you think, wow that was really smart, but you never say it out loud? Or even to them after the meeting?”
To change this mentality, he has one simple rule people can apply to ramp up the value they deliver across the board:
If you think it and believe it, say it.
“If you really believe something positive about someone else, you have nothing to lose. You can stand by it, and it will make them feel good, especially if it’s expressed in front of their peers. Just like dashing off an email to someone, this is easy enough to make habitual if you try.”
As granular as these tasks are, Ewers says he rarely sees people taking advantage of them. “It’s a function of being human. We’re not hard-wired to take risks. We react 5 times as strongly to negativity as positivity, so we don’t want to risk even a small chance of rejection, even if we’re trying to help someone else.”
He has talked to a number of people who say they are so anxious at work that they don’t have the time or awareness to even offer positive feedback. But, as Ewers says, this makes it an even riper opportunity. Just think how soothed and delighted someone else who is as anxious as you will be if you say something nice about them. It has the potential to vastly improve their work environment.
Other people fail to deliver value payloads because, whether they know it or not, they see success as a zero-sum game. If someone else succeeds, they feel less successful. To be an effective networker, you have to be honest with yourself and ditch this belief immediately. Replace it with the tenet that making others successful will do the same for you. It’s not only more positive, it’s more accurate.
Aside from this, there are two things you can do to strengthen connections and supercharge your value payloads:
- Establish common ground: This might sound like common sense, but there’s some powerful science behind it. Everyone has this instinctual urge to be part of a tribe, and out of that comes an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy. “Whenever you interact with someone, you want to end up in their ‘us’ bucket. You want to be part of their tribe,” Ewers says. Fortunately today, this is as inconsequential as saying you like the same app or read the same blog. “When someone hears this, their reptile brain makes a calculation that says this person is like me. And research has shown that thinking 'I am like you' instantly translates to 'I like you.' It’s how we process likability."
- Be authentic: Replace “fake it till you make it” with another mantra. “Instead of faking confidence, be genuinely curious,” Ewers says. “When you’re curious, you’ll ask people about themselves. You’ll find out what they want and how you can meet their needs. People love talking about themselves, and they love people who love to learn. It’s more honest and you’ll make a better impression."
#4 Make It a Habit
Ewers defines habits as “automated behaviors so ingrained that you don’t even think about it.” It’s like brushing your teeth — you don’t have it on your calendar, but you do it every night before bed even if you don’t get instant gratification out of it. Delivering value to your important connections should be similarly second nature.
The key to forming any habit like this is to be very intentional about the action for a span of time. Some say 21 days. Other say 60. The important thing is that you reward yourself for doing it until it becomes automated. Associate the action with something positive, and you’ll get hooked.
What does this look like in the context of professional networking? At first, you may have to force yourself to do it. Ewers recommends sending at least one email to someone in your network (outside your close circle of friends) every day. “You probably end up sending 260 more emails a year than you would have, but it exponentially increases your chances of running into the right opportunity.”
There’s a lot of opportunity for reward in this. “Just think, when you introduce a contact to someone and they write back, ‘Holy cow! This person is amazing! Thank you so much!’ That feels so good you’ll want to do it again. And the more you do it, the more positive feedback loops you’ll establish. It’s so powerful, it changes a little bit of who you are, let alone how you are perceived.”
Suddenly, staying connected to people becomes about more than relationship management, it becomes core to feeling fulfilled, satisfied and happy.
#5 Meet Your Legends
Everyone’s network includes people that Ewers calls “Legends.” These are the people who have helped make you successful. Through referrals and recommendations, mentorship and various opportunities, they have gotten you to where you are today. If you’re young in your career, you may have 5 to 10. If you’re older, you may have 30. Regardless, Ewers says you should find a way to reach out to these people at least once a month or every six weeks.
“In every single one of these interactions, you want to spend the time to add value,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s enough to send a note every once in a while, just checking in, just saying hi. If you make a strong effort to help them, they feel acknowledged and proud of what they’ve helped you accomplish.”
While Ewers is clearly a LinkedIn devotee, he also recommends relationship management tools like Contactually to bring together all of the people who have touched your life, and make sure you stay connected to them regularly despite time and distance. Many of these programs will email you a nudge when it’s time to reach out.
This is especially important when it comes to your legends. “These are people you’re probably not in continual touch with. They are old professors, former bosses, parents of friends. The best thing you can do is systematize this part of your life so you don’t miss out on future opportunities they might send your way.”
The other main consideration is how you’re reaching out. Now that there are so many modes of communication, from Twitter to Facebook to Instagram Direct, you have to be very careful not to add to someone's noise but to communicate above it. For now, outside of face-to-face, email is the best choice to make yourself visible and valuable.
If you follow these guidelines, it’s that much easier to ask your legends for help when you need it. “Let’s say I’m a founder looking for seed funding,” says Ewers. “I would want to be able to leverage my legends to not only close this first round, but future rounds to come. Hiring and funding are founders’ two top concerns, and you want ongoing healthy relationships to help you with both."
#6 Ask for Help and Actually Get It
“Focus on building a history of positive experiences with people, and asking for things becomes dramatically less painful,” says Ewers. “Especially when it comes to asking for job recommendations, if you’ve been in touch with someone for a while, they end up feeling like they’ve tracked and vetted you. They’ll be that much more comfortable introducing you to people who matter to them.”
A lot of people, especially younger professionals, hesitate to ask for help from people senior to them. They don’t want to leave a negative impression that they are weak or exploiting the connection. How can you get over this?
“The answer is simple. Just let go of it. Let go of it because you have to. It’s all in your head.”
As Ewers sees it, asking for help is a tremendous value payload to give someone. “People love being asked for help. It’s easy to forget that,” he says. “When you ask for help, you’re telling someone they are an expert. You’re telling them they’re knowledgeable or influential in a space that is important to you.” The key is to be genuine about it. Trying to disguise a request for help only hurts your cause.
If you believe someone could be of great service to your organization, idea or mission, don't hesitate. Tell them.
“You’ll be shocked how positively people respond."
That said, there are some things you can do to grease the wheels, and earn more appreciation. Chief among these tactics is helping your contact rationalize coming to your aid.
You want to give them all the information they need to do so — whether it’s a heartfelt explanation of why you need their support, or an offer to be useful to them in the future. “Humans are exceptionally good at rationalizing things,” Ewers says. “You can use this to your benefit.”
Essentially, you want to supply people with reasoning you know will make them comfortable. “You wouldn’t email someone and say, ‘Can you please introduce me to so-and-so because I want to sell them on X, Y, Z.’ Instead, say something like, ‘I’d love to get in touch with so-and-so because I want to learn more about X, Y, Z.’ That message is true, it’s gentle, and it gives them the foundation they need to be okay with your request.”
Particularly if you’re asking for an introduction, you want to make it clear that you will be equally valuable for the new contact. “You can go beyond saying you want to learn more. Say you hope you can share some of your knowledge, or help them overcome a specific challenge. Maybe you know the perfect person for one of their job openings. Maybe you know someone who would be a terrific mentor. It might require some research, but it will help you get your foot in the door.”
Building helpful relationships is all about tipping the scales ever so slightly in your favor. It only takes a little to get a lot.