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A Referral is Only As Good as the Referrer

Successful careers depend on great networking more than ever before. But, beware, the person you're depending on to open doors for you could conceivably be shutting opportunities down instead

Networking for a job feels like a numbers game, doesn’t it?  And most of the time it is. Certainly the more meetings you can land with people who might know of a job that would be a good fit for you, the greater the chances are of actually landing one of those jobs.  And you probably know by now that the people you’ll be meeting may not directly know of potential jobs. They’re more likely to introduce you to people who know of people who know of jobs. 

You’re going to have to go several rings out beyond your immediate circle of friends and contacts before landing that great new job.  And you’re going to have to depend on people to usher you across the boundaries of each ring – usually via personal introductions.  These are the people who will tell their friends that they know you; they vouch for you; and that you’re worth their investment of time.  These  people are what Guy Kawasaki, author of one of my favorite books, Selling the Dream,  calls your evangelists.  They sing your praises in advance of your appearance, and they tell their world how wonderful you are. You need them.

But the wrong evangelist can actually hurt you more than help. Just because a person has access to someone you’re dying to meet, that doesn’t mean that that person is your ticket to your goal.  It’s possible that you can put your fate and future  with the wrong hands. Here’s how:

Your would-be evangelist drops the ball: For simplicity’s sake, let’s call your evangelist Joe.  And let’s say that Joe stands squarely between your dream and the person who can help make that dream come true. Let’s call her Mary.  You can go to Mary directly, ideally letting her know that you two have Joe in common. But Joe insists on making the introduction.  Out of respect for your relationship with Joe, you agree to let Joe pave the way, thankful for the extra help.

Then. Nothing.  You gently ask Joe now and then if Mary has responded to his introductory email or phone call.  Joe says, “No…it’s weird. But I haven’t heard from her.”  After a while this begins to feel really weird.  If Joe and Mary are such good friends, wouldn’t she naturally return his emails or phone calls?  At least eventually?

Several scenarios come to mind. Mary and Joe aren’t such great friends after all. And Joe was just inflating his importance, either to her or to you.  Joe’s introduction of you was so ineffective that Mary has already decided that it’s not worth her while to meet you. And now Joe’s on the spot. He doesn’t want to cop to the fact that he screwed up. Or he doesn’t want to hurt your feelings.  Or Joe never made the introduction at all.  And now you’re waiting for a result that hasn’t even been set into motion.

That’s a pickle. You don’t want to think mean thoughts about Joe.  But worrying about Joe’s feelings or behaviors isn’t getting you any closer to Mary.

Your would-be evangelist thinks he’s better than you:  It’s difficult for a lot of us to ask for help in breaking through social or business barriers. But it’s also difficult  for others to receive that request without somehow taking on the notion that their position of advantage means they’re better than you in some way.

You actually have to feel sorry for them. Because they may be a little afraid that your neediness might rub off on them. Or they have somehow mixed up the notions of career success being the equivalent to personal superiority. No one is exempt from the unpleasant surprise of being laid off these days. And if they’re thinking that they are untouchable by bad luck because they are just so wonderful , they’re in for an especially hard fall when it happens to them.

You’re actually better than your would-be evangelist.  Let's say that Joe doesn’t carry the respect he needs to truly open that door for you.  People are “insiders” for a wide variety of reasons.  That doesn’t mean they carry the power that comes with the esteem from their fellow insiders.   Maybe Joe is too junior a professional to be able to effectively open doors for you.  Maybe his fellow insiders are sick of his complaining and whining.  Maybe he has a record of having bad judgment in people.  Whatever his disadvantage, that disadvantage rubs off on you. And doors remain resolutely closed to you. Your only strike against you is that you happen to know Joe at all. And his recommendation is actually a condemnation.

How do you get around pokey, ineffective, even humiliating would-be evangelists?  It depends on the situation, of course. But, regardless of the circumstances, your job is to protect your future, your career, your prospects, your reputation, your personal brand.  You don’t want to burn bridges, certainly.  The relationships you carry with you will last much longer than this terrible time of being between jobs.  But the one bridge you definitely want to keep intact is the bridge that stands between you and your future success.