Net-Working Capital

Well, it finally happened. I made a passionate, elaborate comment in class that sparked discussion (and actually exceeded thirty seconds!). Curiously, I really did feel passionately about the topic, so I could truly speak from the heart, not from my notes. “Wow, is this what Baker Scholars feel like all the time?” I marveled.

What was the catalyst for my in-class diatribe? Networking.
In a recent Power & Influence class, we discussed the networking prowess of two protagonists.

The first, Heidi Roizen, was a Silicon Valley mover and shaker who knew everyone in the industry, had frequent dinner parties to help her network affiliates make connections, regularly forwarded resumes to friends (even with disclaimers such as, “He’s no good, but go ahead and have a look”) and made sure to put every single person she met in her contact list, emailing them within a day to ensure they remembered her too.

The other was Keith Ferrazzi, a Prada shoe wearing, two PDA toting, two cell phone ringing CEO of a high-tech company whose tips for networking could be distilled down to ten simple rules, published in Inc. magazine. Oh, and did I mention that half his Palm Pilot was filled with “aspirational contacts,” not people he knew?

What was it about these two successful businesspeople that made me so angry? The cold, calculating treatment of every person they came into contact with. And what was it per se that made me cry out in protest in class? The praise they received from many of my classmates for said behavior.

All during class, I listened to my fellow students laud Heidi’s networking aptitude. I stayed silent as descriptors like “genuine,” “deep,” “360 degree view of relationships,” “altruistic” and other accolades were thrown up on the board. But when we watched the video of Heidi saying that she keeps a “favor deficit budget,” I couldn’t bear it anymore. Why was this behavior acceptable? Couldn’t everyone see through it?

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the whole concept of “networking,” especially as a stated benefit of an HBS education. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the motivation for networking is to meet as many people as possible and hope they remember you when you need something from them down the line. Is that it?

I find no problem with networking in an appropriate setting, like an industry cocktail party thrown exactly for that reason, when everyone knows that they’re there to network and be networked with. (Note: these parties are usually pretty boring unless you’re single, but don’t take my word for it.)

But networking is not okay when one person is networking and the other is just being a friend. That’s why Heidi’s famous dinner parties at her home with her husband, kids and “close friends,” all industry colleagues, got to me.

I may be na‹ve, but one hope I had when I got to HBS was to leave with some newfound friends, interesting, warm people who I could be friends with for life. Unfortunately, upon arrival I found that my target audience was partially comprised of people with a diametrically opposed goal: to make connections, not friends.

Sure, everyone has different motivations, and who am I to judge? But how am I supposed to know the difference between someone being nice because of how they genuinely feel about me, or someone being nice because they hope in twenty years I’ll somehow be able to help them with something?

I find the idea of two hundred students here every year learning tricks of the networking trade appalling. We have a whole course on Power & Influence (which I love, don’t get me wrong), yet we don’t have anything related to business ethics. Does that sound like a well-rounded business education? Perhaps it is, but not for the type of people with whom I want to do business.

One final word. Having a business network in and of itself is, of course, necessary for getting things done in the real world. I don’t deny that. I just think that completely blurring the line between people in your business network and your friends, and looking at every interpersonal interaction as an opportunity for personal gain, really does everyone a disservice. Anyone with real friends knows that no amount of business gain could ever replace the value of a close, supportive friend.

So I would argue that when calculating the NPV of all your relationships, you should factor in the opportunity cost of foregoing meaningful, deep, emotional and lasting friendships.

But what do I know. I can’t even remember the names of people I met last night.