"Will You Recommend Me?": 5 Tips for Professional Networking in the Era of Transparency

Posted on April 24, 2009 by Tony Uphoff

I recently posted "So I'm getting requests on Linkedin to professionally recommend people I haven't worked with or talked to in 15 years. Ahh is it just me or does this lack a bit of authenticity?". Almost immediately after posting this to Facebook and Twitter, I received a ton of responses, via posts to the thread on Facebook, replies on Twitter and private posts to my email accounts.

Comments ranged from Irene Koehler of Almost Savvy who stated simply in a reply on Twitter: "@TonyUphoff: It is wrong. Only recommend those you really know on LinkedIn". John Evan Frook, digital media pioneer, journalist and former colleague responded: "What is wrong with “this was 15 years ago but,” or working it that way. Does your hesitancy, given that context, reveal as much about you as them? Just consider, Tony". To Jeff Sweat of Yahoo -and a former colleague- who humorously poked me with " Just goes with the territory, Chief. By the way, we worked together 10 years ago. Just in case, you know, it happens to come up". There were tons more including some truly thoughtful responses as well as some screamingly funny ones that had me laughing out loud. Clearly this post struck a chord. Understandably so.

In this extraordinarily difficult economy, the need to professionally network is more important than ever. The question is, how do you best do this today in an era of increased transparency driven by the web? An automated, electronic form letter, asking for a recommendation lacks authenticity and ultimately credibility in today's world. Smacks of the log rolling that is common in book publishing where one author gushes over another authors recently released book; "ironically" with both authors sharing the same publisher.

The web has driven a whole new level of consumer information by enabling a limitless range of customer reviews. From movies, music and television, to hotels, cars and travel, to the best companies to work for it's simple to find unfiltered customer feedback and reviews. The web has also driven increased transparency however. While not infallible, it's easier to spot the inauthentic in today's web based world. Corporate marketing posing as a consumer review, the CEO blog that is ghost written and Twitterers for hire to name a few.

So based on the comments and input received from my post, here are 5 quick tips for professional networking in a web based world:

  1. Be Authentic. This is not a commentary on your resume' but rather on your references and recommendations. List people you have significant experience with and who actually have an up to date knowledge of your work and skills. The recommendations that start off with " I worked with Sally Smith 15 years ago at ACME Media and found her to be..." are a waste of time. They aren't taken seriously and frankly reflect poorly on both the recommender as well as the person being recommended.
  2. Understand the Difference Between a Reference and a Recommendation. A form letter recommendation has truly limited value. A list of professional references however, who have tangible knowledge of your work could be invaluable. Note to Linkedin here...Drop the "recommend me" feature and replace it with a "professional reference feature".
  3. Network Naturally, Not Just When You Need it Most. We have all been in situations where we needed to tap our network of professional contacts. Looking for a new job, trying to sell to new clients, reaching out for references on an applicant or for input on a business deal, are all instances where professional networks are invaluable. These networks serve as the lifeblood of all businesses. Networking by definition however is not a one time activity. It's ongoing. If I call or write someone I haven't been in contact with for many years, I shouldn't expect that they are going to have an up to date perspective on my work. As a result I should be realistic about their level of interest in wanting to help me. If there is some tangible business benefit for them, then the reintroduction will likely be met with openness and gratitude. If on the other hand, I'm looking for a business favor that holds no material value for them other than "goodwill" I have to expect that it will have limited priority for them. I also have to expect that my contact will cause them to wonder why if I saw them as valuable in my network, I haven't been in contact before now.
  4. Value Professional Reputations: Yours and Others. One response I received from the original post posed the question; "what's the harm in making a recommendation for someone who needs it, even if you don't know them that well?". In today's world it's obvious when someone doesn't really know the person they are recommending. Take a look at the vast majority of recommendations on Linkedin. They are worthless because they lack credibility. Reputations and careers are built on credibility.
  5. Don't Send a Form Letter. I don't imagine that most of you would send a form letter or email when applying for a job, or reaching out to a customer or client of significance. You would customize and personalize your approach to the person you are communicating with. If you feel that a recommendation via one of the online professional networking sites would really help you, reach out personally to the people you want to recommend you. If you haven't talked with them in awhile, drop them a personal email and or call. Let them know what you've been up to, update your experience with them and ask if they would be comfortable providing a recommendation or serving as a reference. If they say yes, provide them with a brief outline of your career highlights, noting the experiences you had working with them.
What would you add to this list? Networking in any format is a tricky process and one fraught with personal and professional complexities. Today it's more important than ever though and with the new technologies available even easier. Social media tools can be misused however and end up ironically creating an impersonal, automated experience that actually works against creating the kind of authentic, valuable introductions, referrals and recommendations that are essential in business. Let me know how you think professional networking works best in this era of transparency.

Update on Friday, May 1, 2009 by Tony Uphoff:

Some really interesting discussions from the original post "Will you Recommend Me: 5 tips for Business Networking in the Era of Transparency". Several thought provoking responses to the blog as well as people posting to Facebook, Linkedin and to my email accounts, their thoughts on the topic. John Evan Frook wrote a particularly thoughtful post to the blog that is worth reading. John has an interesting take on the process for evaluating a recommendation and the criteria. Even if his "recommendation" at the end may or may not be misguided :).

Several key points have come out of this discussion:

  • Recommendations are key to any relationship. The question is not whether to recommend. That now, as its always been, is a personal choice and decision. It's how to maintain your sense of authenticity and reputation in a world where the digitally distributed recommendation may lack credibility.
  • There is a huge difference in transparency today. A recommendation on a site is a digital record that has wide distribution and virtually lasts forever. This carries for more complexity than the recommendation letter in a file or a phone call. In the process of visiting colleges with our daughter over the last year, I was amazed to see the looks on kids faces when administrators asked if they realized that colleges were looking at their My Space and Facebook profiles. These are digital trails that last and can be accessed way out of context from the original intent.
  • The speed, power and functionality of social media is extraordinary in driving business and social networking. It can also become so easy that it actually declines in authenticity and value however.
Thanks to all of the people who added to the discussion here. Please feel free to keep it going.

T,

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