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What Squirrels Can Teach You About Networking

April 29, 2013 11 Comments

Grasshopper on LinkedInYou folks know that fable about the squirrel and the grasshopper, right?

The squirrel works his butt off all summer fortifying his little tree fort, scurrying around gathering acorns, and storing his food and water like a nut job doomsday prepper.  The grasshopper goes partying, drinking margaritas, hitting the clubs, and making fun of the squirrel for wasting his entire summer.

Then Old Man Winter comes. The squirrel is fat, warm, and happy in his little nut hut bunker eating acorns and sipping cognac by the fire. The grasshoper gets cold and hungry then freaks out and asks the squirrel for some food but the squirrel tells him to bug off (see what I did there?). The grasshopper then starves due to malnutrition, poor planning, and hypothermia. I’m pretty sure that’s how the story goes.

The question I’ll ask you is when it comes to networking, are you a squirrel or a grasshopper?

From what I can tell, there are loads of grasshoppers out there but very few squirrels.

I can spot a grasshopper a mile away. They’re partying their butts off at work while they have a steady paycheck and predictable job. Then comes the harsh winter of the layoff. The grasshopper frantically spins up the LinkedIn machine, sends out a million connection request (or introduction request) messages to people he hasn’t spoken to in years, acts like he’s best buds with them, then unceremoniously and selfishly asks “hey, can you introduce me to everyone in your network because I’m looking for a job.” To the grasshopper, this seems like a totally reasonable approach.

The squirrel hates it and would do well to let the grasshopper starve.  Why? There are a few good reasons.

Look, the acorns the squirrel collects on a regular basis are cultivating connections with the people in his network. It’s grabbing coffee with people just to catch up. It’s sending an email asking “how are you doing?” It’s dropping an unexpected call to someone simply to hear what the person is up to. It’s relationship building and maintenance 101. The squirrel does all of this without asking for anything. The reward is letting the other person know they’re important and the squirrel is interested in their lives. Heck, some great squirrels even extend unrequested offers of assistance or point out new opportunities their connection might be interested in.

All that networking is hard work. That squirrel is packing his calendar, running up a phone bill, and gathering acorns constantly. In the process, he’s building genuine, trust-based relationships that are selfless and valuable.

Along comes the grasshopper. One bet I rarely lose is when I get a LinkedIn invite from someone I haven’t heard from in years. The bet I make with myself before opening the connection request or InMail is “I’ll bet they lost their job.” 99% of the time I’m right. And it irritates the hell out of me.

The way that comes across is “Hey Squirrel, I know you’ve been out there working hard building an awesome network of people you trust. You haven’t been important enough to me for me to call you and just see how you’re doing for a really long time. But now I’m screwed and need a job and my network sucks so, you know, can you introduce me to all those awesome people in your network, many of whom are your really valuable clients, and recommend me for a job with them because I’m such an awesome grasshopper? And after I get the job, I’ll go back to summarily ignoring you and forgetting to help you find new opportunities for you.”

Yes. That’s how it comes across. Harsh. True. And you know it.

Even worse, there are some really wackadoo grasshoppers out there who get indignant when you politely decline making introductions to some of your clients or most valuable contacts because you haven’t yet solidified those relationships for yourself and you’re not in a spot to ask anything of that contact yet. The grasshopper feels insulted that you wouldn’t introduce them and they’re sure to let you know they’re hacked off.

Imagine you’re a compassionate squirrel and you decide to take pity on the poor, cold, hungry grasshopper and introduce them to some of your most valuable contacts. Implied in that introduction is your endorsement of the grasshopper as a good person and solid professional. You’ve just put your relationship with your contact at risk. If the grasshopper holds true to form and is an obtuse and selfish brute, your contact will question your judgment and your choice of keeping company with the grasshopper. Now the relationship you worked so hard to build is sullied simply because you made the introduction. How’s that pity working out for you now, Mr. Squirrel?

This dynamic doesn’t only apply to grasshoppers who are looking for jobs. They can also be out there looking to grow their business, drum up clients, hire new people, or any other interest that helps them out. I invite you to ask yourself the question “has this person who is asking something of me right now invested any time and energy in building a relationship with me or are they just using me because they know I have great relationships and they know how to get a hold of me?” If it’s the latter, I’d advise you to leave the grasshopper in the cold.

Squirrel with AcornsIf you don’t want to be that harsh, tell the grasshopper “Right now I’m not in a position to make intros to those folks. How about you and I start hanging out occasionally and catching up so I can stay abreast of what you have going on?” If they accept the offer to build a relationship with you, help the grasshopper learn how to build relationships with others. If they decline your offer, well… they made their own cold, snowy, death-filled bed.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

Photo: Squirrel Acorn by niXerKG

11 Responses to “What Squirrels Can Teach You About Networking”

  1. Roopak Desai says:

    Very nicely written. It is great way to convey the message using relatedness especially something we have learned as fable! And mostly we find grasshoppers since they feel winter will never come and if it comes I can weather it… what’s the big deal?

  2. Jodie says:

    This is an awesome post!!! and I can’t agree more….Thanks

  3. Joe Elliott says:

    And by the way, can you write me up a three paragraph endorsement of my great work with you and list my specialties as follows . . . 🙂

  4. I like this analogy. I’ve certainly encountered my fair share of grasshoppers and I was annoyed and sometimes, offended, as you described. I try my best not to be that way. I find that I have had seasons where it was hard to stay in touch with everyone in my network. But even then I shared what was going on and I believe that people understood. We all have those moments were we have to laser focus on something that is going on in our life. But then we have to get back out there and reengage.

    • skip larsen says:

      Nicely done! It seems I attract grasshoppers myself,I must be a soft touch. Your article did wake me up! Thanks

  5. Yes! Mike, you managed to say it so well. Just the other day, I experienced what you describe. Asking for help, recommendations, connections, phone calls. When did I hear from this person last? Four years ago when he was also out of work. I ONLY hear from this person when he is out of a job. So well said. Investing in relationships takes time, but it is always worthwhile. Obviously you can’t keep up with everyone and yet the little efforts mean the world. Great post.

  6. So eloquently put sir!

    For the grasshoppers out there, at best all you can ask of the squirrels is “would you consider recommending me in the future please?”

    For the want to be squirrels, please don’t forget to reinforce that first contact/exchange of details within days of the encounter. For example: “It was a pleasure to meet you Mr X/Ms Y at C event. Is there any way that I can help you please? Sincerely, First Last”

    This was my first visit to this website, but your article will ensure that it is not my last!

    Thank you indeed.

  7. Michael says:

    When did Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper become a story about a squirrel and a grasshopper?

    Or does this have a completely different orgin?

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