Make It Their Idea
One way to ensure that you do not look opportunistic when asking someone to help you is to make the assistance the other person's idea. Instead of dumping a script on someone you barely know, go out for a beer with him or her a couple of times. Use less formal settings to let the person know your aspirations, and seek legitimate advice from that person. If the person likes you and perceives that you are sincere and talented, he or she may offer to help you. It often works like a charm. Take it from Lloyd and Crow—two of the top people in their respective entertainment fields—the best connections are those built around friendship, trust, and sincerity—not by desperately throwing your request at someone during a fleeting or contrived opportunity.
Do Not Waste Too Much Time Networking
Let's discuss a term closely related to connections. Most invincible executives agree that "networking"—the formal, planned, and deliberate cultivation of relationships for the purpose of assisting one's career—is also of very limited value in getting jobs or promotions. This belief is consistent with my personal experience. As a lawyer who works for a firm that represents a large percentage of the large companies in my region, I get frequent networking requests. For example, an acquaintance of mine decided to close his small, floundering ad agency. He proudly told me that he was going to embark on a massive "networking campaign" to try to get a new job. I set him up with a couple of my friends. From what he told me, he must have taken forty people or more out to lunch to pursue leads for a marketing job. He was a firm believer in the power of networking.
About seven months later, he called me with the good news. He had finally landed a job as the director of marketing for a hotel. I congratulated him and asked, "Which one of your lunches paid off?"
"Actually, I got the job by responding to a want ad," he replied.
This is not an uncommon scenario. Invincible executives generally believe that mid-level executives waste too much time networking. While being a member of a trade association is, for example, good for perspective on your industry, it rarely leads to a new job. Or, as Doug Bain of Boeing put it, "I think you are not going to get to the top of an organization unless the people at the top know you because you have fulfilled whatever expectations they have or skills they want. But you have to separate that from the 'schmoozing.' I don't think those connections do you a bit of good. I remember that I mentored a young executive in the contracts department. She kept emphasizing 'networking' and I finally said, 'Knock off the networking.' If your networking is part of the job you are doing [like marketing or community relations], that is great. But if all you are doing is networking in the sense of sucking up, that works against you."
The Payback Connection
Another blunt insight: "The best connections are payback connections," a top Republican fund-raiser once told me. She explained that as you seek your connection to a particular job or assignment that you want, you must understand the relationship between the connection and the "connectee." The connectee is the person who ultimately makes the decision to give you the job or the assignment for which you are using the connection. If the connection is soliciting a "favor" from the connectee on your behalf, then your chances of success in using that connection are better than nothing, but less than 25 percent, according to this fund-raiser. On the other hand, if you become the chip that represents a "payback" for something that the connection did for the connectee, "your odds shoot up to about 80 percent," she told me.
A novelist, whom we'll call Jimmy, related this story to me. Jimmy's agent was shopping around Jimmy's very first manuscript. The agent liked the novel. After three readings with prominent editors, however, the agent had no takers. So the agent called an editor at a leading publishing house who owed the agent a big favor. Years earlier, this editor was toiling in oblivion until the agent handed him a great novel by an established author looking for a new publisher. Unsurprisingly, the novel did well and it put the editor on the map.
"Now it is payback time," said Jimmy's agent, handing the editor Jimmy's manuscript. "I gave you a great author when you had nothing; now I want you to take a nothing author who I believe has talent." The deal closed the next week. The first novel did so-so, but the second one did better, and the novelist's career soon took off. Jimmy's agent had demanded a payback, not a favor. The lesson: make sure if possible that the decision maker owes something to the connection, and make sure that you become the payback chip by learning as much about the relationship between the connection and the connectee as possible.
Juanita Hinshaw, CFO of the multibillion-dollar electrical giant Graybar, candidly acknowledges that "when you have used connections you have to be willing to be used. So I've let it be a two-way street." In those instances, therefore, where a connection can be helpful, try to be the "payback." It greatly increases your odds of success.