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Take a tip from the experts: a nakedly self-serving approach to building connections puts people off

Good networking is about reciprocity. If you just want others to scratch your back, forget it

In Spain, so my colleagues tell me, for male office workers to stay in the city alone in August – and to live it up while off the familial leash – is known as “estar de Rodriguez”. It’s an ideal common surname to use as an alias if you don’t want your reputation tainted when the summer comes to an end, speculates one former Madrileño.

Rodriguez is also the protagonist’s name in a 1960s sex comedy about solo summertime exploits: “Lo que pasa en Madrid de vacaciones, se queda en Madrid”, as it were.

Like many contemporary Spanish women, or so I imagine, I’m now as likely as the man of the house to be the one to stay in town when the seaside beckons. And so, trusty wheelie bag dragging behind me, this summer I criss-crossed London: from train station to office, to my mother’s, back home and then back to the train to get to the beach again.

Like “Rodriguez”, I was determined to make the most of the time stuck here in the heat while the family were frolicking on the beach. Although not hoping for the same kind of meet-ups as our anti-hero (the very thought!), I did want to network and keep some useful contacts warm.


Spoiler alert: I failed. The meetings did not happen. And the episode made me realise my clumsy approaches had in this instance displayed a tendency I disapprove of: seeing other people in terms of their usefulness and little else.

Beyond blisters and a new, vicious hatred of the wheelie bag, I’ve been left with some lessons from my doomed networking experiment. My “main-character energy” may not have been that of Rodriguez, but I was still being a user: and who wants to feel themselves demoted to supporting cast? I got no takers because it was all about me, my needs and my list of how others could help me.

The classic works on networking ram the lesson home.

Carole Stone, once known as the “networking queen” of British politics, had a bank of more than 50,000 contacts among the UK’s most influential people. My dog-eared copy of her slim volume from the turn of the millennium remains supremely relevant. Networking can have a bad name, she admits, conjuring up “images of pushy people ruthlessly brushing others aside to advance themselves”. Done right, it must be about “mutual benefit”.

I once saw her in action at a reception – she displayed Olympic-level skill, made everyone feel they were fascinating by asking questions, put the right people together and hoovered up contacts without it seeming transactional.

The even more tattered copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People buried on our shelves has a pithy first rule for making people like you and confirms the Stone method: “Become genuinely interested in other people.” (Rule two is even pithier: smile.)

Even recent self-help books I consulted on the topic stress that good networking is about reciprocity: if you just want others to scratch your back, forget it. (Beyond this, the tips and tricks tend to get dull and techy, involving stationery or spreadsheets.)

By trying to glom on to people over August when they were contentedly decompressing, I was in danger of creating resentment – none of the necessary interest in others, which in my case is usually very genuine, was in evidence. I was being too nakedly self-serving, trying to cram these people into my schedule, one they found irksome in the heat.

Apart from one lovely – and impromptu – evening of wine-fuelled political gossip, I eventually left my contacts alone. I hereby apologise and resolve never to slide again into seeing other humans as instruments to further my own aims. When people do it to me, it makes my skin crawl.

So take stock. If when you meet someone, you conduct an efficient interview to detect their status and then move on to mentally composing a follow-up email of requests (I’ve received a lot of these recently), please desist. You may as well just come out with it: “Are you useful to me? If so, consider my subsequent demands in good order.” If you reduce people to a to-do list, as I did, they won’t enjoy it.

My behaviour was nothing like as bad as Rodriguez, but both of us should probably take the same advice: don’t be a tool and don’t treat others like one, either. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023