Building a Profitable Network

One of the things that I have always found frustrating in my career is how certain people seem to just fall out of one job straight into another! No sooner have they lost their role in one position, they have found – and are up-and-running – in another.

It has never worked like that for me. Finding a job has always been a complex process, not least of all, because colleagues don’t seem to make me as readily aware of opportunities as is the case with some of my compatriots.

As I have learnt more about Asperger syndrome in a work context, I have gradually come to understand and appreciate some of the reasons why this is the case.

A key one is socialising. I had a colleague whilst at the BBC who undeniably fell into the category above. Joe (not his real name) would be out partying at every opportunity. He never seemed to worry about how late he remained out or work the next day; instead he would always be connecting with people.

Over the years the importance of socialising in a work context has increasingly become apparent to me. Now, whenever I can, I try to attend events and mix in; where I can’t and have been invited, I have let people know and informed them that I very much want to be at the next gathering.

However, I still felt I needed to know more about effective networking which is why I read How You Can Build a Profitable Network by Dr Ian Halsall, an NLP (Neuro-lingustic Programmer) trainer. The book is about generating the results you want through the help of other people – or networking.

The text starts by citing the common misconception that to get on at work requires three tangible things: getting qualifications; being technically good at your job and; working hard. However, as Dr Halsall points out, this is only a small part of the total picture. To this I thought I could add: it is an even greater part if you also are affected by Asperger syndrome!

The problem is that progressing in organisations necessitates knowing – and getting along with – the right people which is where building an effective network comes in.

His first point in relation to this is, I feel, very pertinent from an Asperger perspective. The best information comes from long-term network associates, rather than from looking for one-off wins or returns. Achieving this, means making an effort for people in the first place – by doing something for them.

The reason I say that this is a key facet is that I have found from my own contacts with people on the [Asperger] spectrum is that they tend not to make an effort to stay in contact with me, even when I have I believe, assisted them via the route of Asperger Management.

This is contrary to the book’s key assertion that business is about people and that the most effective contacts from a long history of helping each other.

The good news is that, according to Dr Halsall, networking isn’t about having lost of friends, being the life and soul of the party or attending lots of social events; its about having contact with people in a way that enables you to help them and vice-versa.

The first step in building an effective network is to know yourself and what your desired outcomes are. According to Dr Halsall, this is usually overlooked. It could be securing a new job but could also contain open-ended outcomes. The important thing is not to set boundaries.

The book then outlines some key ideas for success in networking. His first point here is also important in relation to Asperger: success is a state of mind. When I speak to fellow “Aspies” there often believe that they cannot network or socialise with people. Overcoming this misconception mentally is, I have found, a vital requirement.

The next point made is also highly relevant: pushing too hard or not acting reciprocally is counter-productive. If people find you too cold or pushy then they won’t warm to you. As someone with Asperger I know that’s difficult, but this is something that, with hindsight, I believe that I have demonstrated previously.

As someone who is always willing to help other people, I have come to believe that I can expect reciprocation from them. I have also come to appreciate that such a viewpoint is unrealistic and misguided. If I am to network effectively, I know I have to address this, not push too hard or expect too much from others and, above all, give something first before I can expect something in return.

Secondly, most people in general do not network enough and when they do, they do it poorly. So, it’s not only those with Asperger who find networking difficult!

The author then makes what I have come to believe is another key point: be loyal to people who you value during the hard times. This, I have found, is one of the most effective tools for networking and can really generate goodwill towards you and reflects the Asperger trait of innate consideration for others.

Some of the best support I have received has come from people who I have tried to assist when they are at a low point in their own career. People don’t forget. If I show concern for them when they are down, I have found that they remember.

However, as Dr Halsall points out, you need to work out how to get people to help you by discovering what you can do for them. If you can assist them, or give them some useful information, then they will feel pressure to help you. Acknowledging them personally when appropriate such as by congratulating them when they get promoted for example, is also beneficial.

However, it is also important to avoid unproductive relationships; few people will do what they say they will. Consequently, it is necessary to be proactive in building a network to secure the right type of people. It is also important to remember that it is constantly changing and, whilst a network can take a long time to build, it can also deteriorate very quickly. Effective networking involves placing emotional deposits with other network members.

I believe that the book’s next key point is correct also: networks take time and require a plan. In addition, you never know where the next great contact will come from and that many people judge someone too early. Some of the best contacts I have made have come from the most unexpected sources and the most important thing I have found is that I must get out and network and, as the book asserts, look for, and induce, indirect links.

The next point is one that I don’t feel that I have observed sufficiently previously; indeed, I believe that it has been one of my key mistakes in relation to networking: “don’t put pressure on the other person by being blunt by going straight to the point!”

This, of course, is a trait that is a direct consequence of having Asperger syndrome. However, as the author rightly points out, it will strain a relationship and asking direct questions like straight away such as: “I am looking for a job, please let me know if you hear anything” can be very counterproductive.

Instead, Dr Halsall argues that there is great power in indirectness as it creates possibilities in the mind of the other person. In any network you don’t have much authority, so avoid trying to “command and control”. Getting results is about how you say things.

The next point is also important: don’t gossip and avoid getting involved in personal comments within any network. I feel I have been guilty of this in the past. I know that my propensity to moralise as a result of my Asperger can get me into trouble and it is something that I have worked consciously to stop and avoid. Nowadays, I say only positive things. If I feel negatively about something, I deliberately refrain from speaking out.

The book then turns to the practicalities of networking: the need for good hardware items like high-quality business cards and the value of keeping an up-to-date database of contacts (social networking sites such as Linkedin.com I have found can be useful here) that include an item of personal information about the other person. These can be the source of advantages to them as previously pointed out and a trigger for making contact.

But it is the “software” items that the book refers to which I believe are most advantageous and important; the appropriate ideas, attitudes and techniques associated with networking. As the text rightly suggests, making contact with people effectively is not just about picking up the phone and saying “I thought I’d give you a ring”.

The key is to do something creative, by saying “I’ll be in town” can I buy you a quick drink to touch base, congratulating them if they are promoted or saying “I’d value your opinion”. By making the person feel important, one can gain access to valuable support and information.

Overall, the key is building rapport which is essential to truly get to know people. The trick is to ensure that people feel comfortable with you by not overtly pushing for anything specifically; if people feel threatened they won’t help you. You only ask for something once you have built rapport.

The book then investigates issues like starting new networks which are probably not appropriate for someone with AS, but does advocate taking a proactive part in any network which, I think, is a good suggestion for someone with AS. By contributing to a network by undertaken administration for example, you can create a positive impression.

The book then looks at how success in any network also depends on how a network is managed which can involve difficult decisions like dropping an unwanted member. Write down the goals of what you want to achieve and track those people who can offer you benefits. Review the benefits and the time afforded on each.

However, as the book then goes on to say the best way to network is by actually spending time meeting people face-to-face as this is the way effective rapport can be established. These contacts then have to be kept alive and nurtured.

I found the next point pertinent also: that reputation is also important in any network. Contacts are assets and so is your reputation. As the author says, it is worth taking time out to think about your reputation: what people say about you and the influence you have through your reputation.

This, I believe, is highly important. Some of the most damaging criticism I have received during my career has emanated from disagreement with important figures within organisations. This has often resulted from reacting negatively because of the Asperger to initial, undue criticism.

I have come to appreciate that whilst this is unfair, the reality of the situation is that it is normally, inevitably apparent. By reacting I have sometimes gained a reputation for challenging authority in appropriately. Reputation is important and I have come to appreciate the importance of nurturing and protecting it.

The author then alludes to what I think is a useful related tactic in this area: cultivating the reputation of others through your own network as this is an effective way of benefiting yourself.

However, Dr Halsall’s additional point is also highly relevant from an Asperger perspective: namely that it is important to appreciate that this can also work negatively: if you say controversial things, they can rebound on you. If you can change something positively, do so; if not keep quiet about it. Talk about the future and not the past and spend more time improving yourself rather than criticising others.

In addition, there are other things you can do to protect your reputation. Firstly, take care over your physical image as people can be quite unforgiving in this area. Secondly, use positive language. Be supportive of people and the network in general. Thirdly, do helpful things for other members: again, if you give first before you expect to gain, it will enhance your reputation with other people enormously throughout the group. To have a reputation as a helper can be one of the best assets a networker can have and can outweigh other deficiencies. Fourthly, do what you say you will: if you don’t, you will sow seeds of doubt in other people.

Finally, don’t commit before you are sure you can deliver. This point is something that I have found is hugely relevant to me as a manager with AS. My innate propensity to assist and want to be liked has, sometimes, led me to promise things that I have not been able to provide. Now, I pause before committing to something and ask the third-party to allow me to consider before responding. If I can’t deliver, I am honest with that person and explain to them why.

Chapter 8 looks at the different personality types in a network and the advice here, I believe, is invaluable. Some people will help a lot, others only a little and identifying each is important for an effective network. This comes back to the point made previously about not (as a person with Asperger) being able to expect people to be as honest and willing to assist as I am.

The book then lists some “networking character types”: “non-reciprocators”, those who will not provide any assistance and “energy drainers”, people who say that they will but don’t; in other words, those who will simply waste your time.

The key objective again is to find something similar in the other person; something that you share with them that helps identify common ground between both parties.

Finally, the text emphasises the importance of referrals. These, it is argued, are vital it for enhancing your status within your network. This can be something very simple such as passing on a telephone number.

The reason why referrals are so useful is that they cost nothing and save time and can help in developing an image of being someone who can make effective contributions. However, it is important to not give bad referrals to ensure that other people’s time is not wasted.

The book concludes by saying that networking is a skill which gets developed via practice. The more you think about it, the more you work at it, the more fluent and powerful you will become.

This, for me, is perhaps the most important point from the perspective of being a manager with Asperger syndrome. I have come to really appreciate the importance of networking and the way that it can reduce difficulties in other areas – by circumventing the conventional job search process for example.

Given the networking involves proactively getting out and meeting and socialising with people, I appreciate just how hard it can be alongside having AS. However, it is one of those management/professional tasks that I have come to conclude that I simply have to do.

How You Can Build a Profitable Network is a great introduction to the subject of networking. If the reader does have AS, then it is important to bear the associated issues in mind when reading the text and considering the actions advocated.

However, it certainly focused my mind and provided some most useful tips on how to go about effectively networking. It is an excellent starting point and reference for anyone who wants to start out on the networking road.

How You Can Build a Profitable Network: Developing the Contacts for Better Personal and Business Results, Dr Ian Halsall, Lloyd West Publishers, ISBN: 983-40788-1-1

Managing with Asperger Syndrome