Adrian Miller, founder of sales consultancy Adrian Miller Sales Training in Port Washington, NY, says she’s always been a networkerbutnot always for her own good. In 2008 when the economy took a turn for the worse, Miller became nervous about the future of her business and went into extreme networking mode. “I started going to events morning, noon and night for five days a week hoping I would meet new clients,” she recalls. “I did it for months and was getting overwhelmed and just exhausted.”
On a vacation to Istanbul, Miller started thinking seriously about all the time she had committed to networking. She calculated how much revenue she’d gotten out of months of running around exchanging business cards and realized it was next to nothing. “When I saw I wasn’t getting a return on my time, I knew I had to get the compulsive behavior in check,” she says. “I had turned what was a pleasant activity into a nightmare.”
While career coaches and success gurus expound on the virtues of networking-especially in a down economy-some professionals take it too far. Management and addiction specialists say they are seeing more people compulsively attending events, obsessively growing the number of their connections online and wearing themselves out with little too show for it. “Initially people want to promote their careers, but it can become obsessive,” says Dr. David Sack, an addiction psychiatrist and head of the Promises Treatment Centers in California. “Some people are looking for validation and recognition. It may be partly a self-esteem issue that gets gratified by numbers.”
Yet the compulsive pursuit of more and more connections will not ensure better networks. In fact, it will degrade them. “There’s an upper limit to the number of connections you can maintain of around 150 people,” says Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath, noting that many people too aggressively pursue initial connections without investing the necessary time to strengthen and maintain those relationships. “In whatever format, more than 150 and the relationships are impersonal and the connections are weak.”
The quantitative approach to networking has been exacerbated by technology, says psychiatrist Dr. Reef Karim, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA and director of The Control Center in Beverly Hills, CA. Social media networks like Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter offer a continuous feedback loop, where success may be graded by follower counts and rabid updating. Dr. Karim says the unlimited access and interactivity ignites the reward centers of the brain, supplying an “ego-based gratification.” It can also lead to impulsivity where users are constantly on edge waiting for something to happen: Did he accept my Linkedin request? Has anyone responded to my tweet? Have I hit my goal of 1000 followers yet? When it gets excessive, he says it may end up distracting from your work, interfering with real-world relationships and lead to unnecessary stress.
Whichever your networking platform of choice, according to McGrath, “There is such a thing as too much networking-or rather too much clumsy, untargeted, not really useful networking.” She and others have noticed more and more agenda-pushing and not enough listening. Meanwhile, to truly foster a successful relationship, it’s important to identify what you hope to get out of it and to consider your mutual interests. Otherwise, you risk alienating the people you hope can help you.
“I’ve seen people give out their cards like mints, but if you don’t have meaningful conversations, it’s a waste,” says Andrea Nierenberg, president of The Nierenberg Consulting Group and author of several networking books. She’s seen people pivot immediately to their business needs in every social situation, becoming excited by a high-status brand affiliation or pouncing on a perceived opportunity. And it can be painfully obvious. Once, she saw a woman start a conversation, leave when she realized the person couldn’t help her, and then return to ask for her card back.
“Some people see networking as always getting,” says Nierenberg. “They just want to meet people and never follow through. You need to be a giver offer a suggestion, information or a helpful connection. Try to find common ground.”
After consultant Miller had her epiphany in 2008, she scaled back her efforts and completely revamped her strategy. Now she’s started hosting networking events so that she has more control over the people in the room, and she only attends one to two industry events a month. “I like to go to the breakfast or dinner events,” she says. “I’m done with standing around with a cocktail in one hand and bruschetta in the other, wondering who I’ll meet. Those events