Networking- Sincere, Strategic, or Slimy?

Subject: Help Me Get A JOB!!!!

Last week in my power and influence class we discussed the merits and perceived shortcomings of two different networking styles. On the one hand we had a Silicon Valley CEO turned venture capitalist who networked her way from a company newsletter writer to one of the most influential people in microcomputing. On the other hand, we had a star consultant turned Internet CEO, who successfully networked his way from working class beginnings to Crain’s Top 40 under 40 list. The two readings painted two entirely different pictures of the protagonists that were open to individual interpretation. As a result, the discussion was divided, giving rise to such adjectives as sincere, strategic and slimy.

After leaving the class, I was left wondering, is there a line between sincere networking, strategic networking, and just plain slimy networking? And if so, where does one end and the other begin?

Looking back on this past summer, I was pretty active in terms of meeting people. Over the course of the summer I met with 41 business professionals, outside of my summer internship. Most of the meetings took place over lunch or drinks; however one did occur at a child’s birthday party and another at a person’s Hamptons beach house. In my heart of hearts, I believed that I was very sincere when I contacted these individuals and requested to meet with them.

Now, I realize that there are some who would argue that meeting with 41 people in less than three months cannot possibly be sincere networking. At best, they would accuse me of strategic networking, and at worst they would accuse me of slimy networking. Admittedly, I specifically identified all 41 of the individuals that I met and kept detailed records of my progress toward scheduling meetings with them. So yes, in the most technical sense I guess I was strategically networking when I identified them, but does that mean that I was any less sincere when I approached them?

Some would argue that the true difference between sincere, strategic, and slimy networking is not the way we go about deciding who we would like to get to know. Instead, they would assert, it’s what our intentions for knowing a person are. In my case, my intentions were the same regardless of whether the person works in private equity, wrote an article on privatization in Latin America, launched their own clothing line, is the CFO of a professional basketball team, or is a music mogul. My intention was to learn more about something that the person that I was meeting with had knowledge about. I did not limit my pursuit of knowledge to my professional interest. No, in fact, many of the individuals I met with had knowledge about something that I was personally interested in.

The pursuit of knowledge for professional or personal interest is possibly an acceptable reason to get to know people, but what if my intentions had been to solicit contacts, find a job, secure money for a new venture, or just simply to ask a favor? Would any of those intentions convict me of slimy networking?

At what point is it clear that someone is engaged in slimy networking? Is it when they are only out to exploit a relationship for their sole benefit? Like when person sends a random email to a HBS alumnus from the class of 1985 that happens to be a managing director a Goldman Sachs and asks them directly for a job? In this rather simple example the intended benefits clearly appear to be one sided: Slimy networking or as we say here at HBS, “leveraging the HBS alumni network?”