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You’re Networking Wrong - Here’s How to Fix It

Networking is the most effective way to get anything you want in life or career

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Created in Midjourney

My younger sister, Angela, called me up from Boston where she was working for a tech company. Sometime during the conversation she said, “I like my job, but people are telling me I need an MBA if I really want to advance. Was it worth it for you?”

I said, “Totally worth it, especially if you go to a brand name school.” 

Angela suggested, “What about the Sloan school at MIT? It’s here in Boston and I think it’ll be great if I want to stay in tech.”

I was a little jealous, having been rejected by MIT myself when applying as an undergrad. But all I said was, “Get a good GMAT score, and anything is possible.” The call ended, and I wasn’t at all sure whether she would go through with applying to MIT. 

A couple of months later she was on a flight to visit our parents in Canada after our father had had a health scare. On the flight, the gentleman sitting next to her struck up a conversation, and when the subject got to careers, she mentioned that she wanted to get an MBA. 

Over the course of the flight, she filled in some blanks, that she liked working in tech but wanted to be a manager, that she really loved Boston, that she was an Electrical Engineer and loved MIT for its reputation in technology —  basically endearing herself, as she does with everyone she meets.

Towards the end of the flight, the gentleman said, “I think you should apply.”

My sister responded, “Really? You think so?”

He said, “And after you apply, let me know.”

She asked him why he was interested in knowing, and as he handed over his business card he said, “Because I think you’d be a great addition to the the Sloan School.” He then added, “I’m a graduate of Sloan myself and I know the head of admissions.”

Angela aced the GMAT, graduated from MIT, and has had a stunningly successful career in marketing. In part because she knew what she wanted, was comfortable talking about her goals openly, and got encouragement from a not-quite-random stranger.

Tom Vosper, UBC’s regional alumni representative for Toronto, called me out of the blue a couple of years ago. Until then, I had no connection at all with the University of British Columbia, a school that dramatically improved my own career prospects when I went there for my Masters in Electrical Engineering. 

I was happy to respond to Tom’s cold outreach because of the connection, and we’ve developed a nice relationship over the years. We share a lot of interests and I genuinely like spending time with him, even though he partially represents the dreaded ‘Development’ function at UBC that wants to pry philanthropic dollars from me. 

I still enjoy the time we spend talking, and the subject of donations rarely comes up. I know I give a lot of money to universities and other charities, so does he. I don’t need him to ask — when I’m ready to make a donation, I’ll bring it up myself.

And therein lies a hidden secret to networking. Network with people who can help you, sure, but other than letting them know what your long term objective is, don’t put them in the difficult position of asking them straight out to hire you, buy from you, or otherwise transact with you. Use the opportunity to learn. If they want to transact, they’ll bring it up themselves.

As long as there is something that connects you to each other, it’s easy to get someone to have a conversation. And yet few people do it, and almost nobody does it well.

A couple of months ago, my 14 year old son Jai and I were at my restaurant, Marked, in downtown Toronto. A business colleague of mine came in and started chatting with us, and he asked my son what he was into. Jai didn’t hesitate to say he loves hockey, and that more than anything, he wanted to get into AAA. 

I was talking to our server at the time, and I heard afterwards from my son, “Hey Dad, your friend offered to connect me to a AAA coach!” 

I said, “What? He knows one of the coaches in your 2009 year?”

Jai responded, “Yeah! This coach is a really good friend of his!”

And when that coach and I eventually met for a coffee a couple of weeks later, he offered to connect me with another AAA coach. Another key point — always ask if you can be introduced to anyone else who might be able to help.

We live in a world where it is dead simple to network, and yet hardly anybody is doing it effectively. The key, the thing hardly anybody does, is to constantly tell people what you’re looking for, but don’t ask outright for business. Talk and learn. 

When I sold Audiobooks.com in 2016, I was sitting on a rather large pile of cash and needed an investment advisor. Out one night at a local bar known for its vodka selection, my friend Kevin came up to me and asked, “You’re looking for an investment advisor right? I have someone you should meet.”

We then walked across a crowded dance floor to find his friend Dean Colling, who runs a financial services practice out of CIBC Wood Gundy. Kevin introduced me, saying “Dean, this is Sanjay, he likes to have a good time.”

I shook Dean’s hand and said, “Hi Dean, pleased to meet you. I hear you’re an investment advisor.”

Dean then responded with a statement that built my trust more quickly than any power point presentation could have, and made him custodian of my wealth a few months later.

He said, “We’re here to have a good time, not to talk business.”

My sister didn’t ask a stranger to get her into MIT. I didn’t ask the AAA coach to get my son onto his team. Dean didn’t ask me to invest with him. If it works out, great, but it doesn’t matter. I’m happy to connect with people I like and respect. I talk and I learn. Sometimes I drink vodka. 

I have a massive network, and I get requests all the time for help meeting someone or getting a job. I hate those requests. It puts me in the awkward position of either recommending someone I don’t know, or just flat out saying “No”. Often I avoid the problem by lying, “sorry, I don’t really know that person.” Unless of course it was you who asked me, in which case I genuinely don’t know that person.

Just ask for a conversation while telling me what you need in broad terms. If I can help, I will.

Nowadays it’s easy to use LinkedIn to find people who share interests, alma maters, or who work at companies you’re interested in. When you reach out, mention the connection and that you’d appreciate a conversation to help you learn about an industry or a company or a job function. Never ask for a job. If they talk to you, like you, and there’s a job, they’ll make the recommendation without being asked. It’s all about visibility

So get out there, tell people what you want, and have some interesting conversations. Me? I want to help my son with his hockey aspirations and I need some hockey clout. 

You’ll let me know if you have Wayne Gretzky on speed dial, won’t you?

  1. My son’s entry on the Elite Prospects website. It’s a nice picture of him.

  2. Connect with me on LinkedIn and see who I know. Be careful asking for an introduction, but do ask.

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