Connection Defined


Connection Defined

I have read and heard more opining about the value of "networking" and "connections" than I could relate in an entire book. But, having discussed the issue with people who made it big and who themselves are now the "connection" that everyone covets, two pretty cut-and-dried principles emerge. First, connections might get you in the door. Second, they will never keep you in the room.

Bill Shaw, president and chief operating officer of Marriott International, summed up the views of many of the people I interviewed when he said that "connections" are of very limited value in the corporate world. "They might open a door—maybe help you get an interview—but they will rarely get you a job or a promotion," according to Shaw. Most invincible executives feel that aspiring professionals place too much importance upon connections and networking.

That said, they do agree, as Shaw said, that a connection can get someone in the door of an organization. Even to get in the door, however, you need to have a "true" connection. Let's start our discussion, therefore, with the definition of a "connection." Just as you cannot fabricate opportunity; you cannot fabricate a connection. Remember, prominent people are inundated with requests for help. And it seems that the vast majority of them will help when they can.

Yet there are very important limits. First, former Attorney General Janet Reno says that she very much dislikes being asked to write a recommendation for someone she does not know well. Here is how she put it: "'Ms. Reno, would you write me a letter of recommendation?' 'I'm sorry, my dear, I don't know your name, what you do, or anything about you.' 'Oh, I thought you might just churn something out for me. It would mean so much to me.' And I say, 'Well, have I had any experience with your work?' 'No.' 'Well sorry.'"

Former United States Attorney Edward L. Dowd Jr. similarly notes that he is always willing to take the time to recommend or otherwise assist someone whom he knows. "I help someone out with a job recommendation literally every week and I am happy to do so," he says. What he is reluctant to do is recommend someone he has never heard of just because he or she is the friend of a friend. "First, it never works," he says. "People can tell a generic recommendation when they see it and it carries no weight, so it is a waste of everyone's time." Second, you must remember that credibility is a very valuable commodity among invincible executives. "This guy I am supposed to rave about may be a total loser. I'll look like an idiot recommending him," says Dowd.

If you are seeking a connection through a friend, it may sometimes be possible for you to arrange a meeting with the connection and provide that person materials demonstrating your accomplishments. "That works sometimes, but it is still a long shot," says Dowd. "Unless you can say 'I have known and worked with this person,' letters of recommendation usually get thrown in the trash."



Connection Etiquette

Next, there is a pretty well-established etiquette for using connections. You can never appear opportunistic in cultivating a connection. For example, producer Christopher Lloyd acknowledges that connections open doors in Hollywood. You cannot dispute it. He has helped many young writers along in their careers. However, what never works—and will actually backfire—is to appear opportunistic. Lloyd related to me a story about a pickup basketball league that he played in a few years back. One day after the game, one of the players, whom Lloyd hardly knew, handed him a script as he was walking to his car after the game. Reflecting on the limited interaction that they had previously, Lloyd perceived that this person may have joined the league just to get access to him. It all looked very contrived. Lloyd chose not to read the script.

Another important piece of "connection etiquette" is that you should never overplay the relationship that you have with a connection. For example, I had an acquaintance who repeatedly told me how chummy he was with a congressman. As luck would have it, we were both at a fund-raiser that the congressman attended, so I asked the acquaintance to introduce me to the congressman. Appearing very nervous, the acquaintance approached the congressman. The conversation went something like this.

Acquaintance:

Hello, Congressman, let me introduce you to my friend, Tom Schweich.

Congressman:

Tom, good to meet you.

He shook my hand. Then he turned to my acquaintance.

Congressman:

I think we've met before, haven't we?

Acquaintance:

Sure Congressman, you remember, on the food irradiation bill.

Congressman:

Yeah, sure, I remember. Well it's good to see you again.

Acquaintance:

How is Susan these days?

Congressman:

Susan who?

Acquaintance:

Your wife.

Congressman:

Oh, Suzanne. She is doing great. She loves being a grandmother. You know, all the fun, none of the work.

Acquaintance:

Yeah, my parents are the same way.

Congressman:

Well, ah ... friend ... good to catch up with you.

It was pretty clear to me that the congressman had no clue who my acquaintance was and had only played along to save face for him. Moral: do not overplay your connections or you will look like a total idiot.

Finally, you get the most out of a connection when you sincerely want to learn from the person whose help you are seeking. Song-writer and recording artist Sheryl Crow told me that she has no problem at all with the idea of using connections to help a career along. But there is one big caveat: you have to have sincere intentions. "When I went to L.A., I used every connection I could possibly find," Crow told me. "But I enjoyed the process of learning from these people. And I think if you approach it like that—not using people to get somewhere but just fitting into the process—who can I learn from, who can help me to become better—doors will fly open. I think everything has to do with intention. When your intentions are pure, that is honored by the universe."

Pat Finneran, a top executive at Boeing, echoes Ms. Crow's sentiments. He does not like the idea of a pure "connection." Rather, he in his career has had mentors, like former Treasury Secretary and White House Chief of Staff Don Regan, who at times gave him advice. The invincible executive, therefore—according to top professionals ranging from songwriters to defense contractors—does not sit around plotting how to use a connection to get somewhere. Rather, he or she has flexible goals and takes the opportunity to learn from people who have reached similar goals. Those people can detect that honest enthusiasm and will naturally offer to help their aspiring friend along with his or her career.