Beyond business cards

Features - Workplace Management Series

Advice for networking your way to success.


During your career you’ve heard or read countless advice on networking. Chances are you’ve picked up a subtle, underlying message: More is better. Why else would you have left the last conference you attended with a briefcase full of business cards?

Oh, you haven’t reached out to any of those folks yet (or they to you); but, you “networked,” and that’s what matters. Your online networking efforts are even more fruitful—you’ve got hundreds of Linked-In connections just waiting to be cultivated.

Author Andrew Sobel says this superficial view of networking just doesn’t work.

“If you really want relationships that matter, stop aimlessly collecting business cards,” says Sobel, who co-authored Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships and the accompanying workbook, Power Relationships Personal Planning Guide with Jerold Panas.

“There is a big difference between ‘networking’ and actually building a network of deep, loyal relationships,” Sobel says.

“Unless you’re a nightclub promoter, calling, texting and ‘Linking In’ with dozens of people every day isn’t going to help your career,” he adds. “Neither is doing favors just to create ‘reciprocity’—so that people will owe you. In this age of social media, we’ve come to confuse quantity for quality. But supernetworkers understand that all contacts are not equal in terms of their career impact.”

Sobel says supernetworkers segment—explicitly or intuitively—their network into the “critical few” and the many. They adopt totally different tactics to stay in touch with and manage them.

“My own research shows that in your professional career, there are about 20 to 25 relationships that will become your critical few,” he says.

Over the course of writing eight books about business relationships, Sobel has interviewed and surveyed thousands of highly successful professionals. In Power Relationships, he pinpoints the 26 relationship laws he has discovered—laws that determine the success or failure of your most critical professional relationships.

Sobel and Panas explain how to connect at the top and build deep, trusted relationships with key influencers. To help put the laws to work, they also have written a 90-page Power Relationships Personal Planning Guide that contains dozens of summaries and application worksheets. (It’s available only at and is free to anyone who buys the book.)

“I’m not saying that once you’ve settled on your critical few that you never need to network again,” Sobel says. “You should never stop making new contacts. But you’ll reach out to your larger group through less personal means of communication—blogs, e-newsletters, social media—than you will with your critical few. And in the meantime you’ll be refining your critical few relationships through more specialized contact like face-to-face meetings, phone calls and so on.”

The critical few

Know who your “critical few” are and cultivate them. Sobel advises clients to make a careful list of who they think should be their critical few and to build a regular staying-in-touch program for each of them.

“In my interviews with highly successful professionals who were at the end of their careers,” he says, “I discovered that most of them actually knew very early on who made up their inner circle—those 20 to 25 key individuals who were going to really power their careers and on whom they would also have a major impact.

“Your critical few should include clients or customers, prospects, colleagues, personal mentors, collaborators—by which I mean other firms or individuals you may trade leads with and work with to serve a client—and so on,” Sobel advises. “Plan to personally connect two or three times a year with each of the people on your list. Add value to them in different ways. I like to think about ideas and relevant content, network value (making a valuable introduction), personal help and fun.”

Build your network before you need it, Sobel advises. He offers this example: Petri Byrd is the bailiff on Judge Judy Sheindlin’s family court TV show. “Judge Judy” isn’t any old show—it’s the most popular daytime TV program in the U.S. One might assume Byrd got his coveted job because of his acting skills. But according to Sobel, who met him on a flight to Los Angeles a few years back, the real reason is because he followed this essential law.

“Turns out Petri had never acted in his life,” according to Sobel. “He worked with Judge Judy—as a bailiff—in Brooklyn family court in the 1990s. When he moved to L.A., he heard she was starting a TV show and called her up. She hired him immediately,” he says.

“Petri had developed and maintained his relationship with Judge Judy years earlier—he built his network before he needed it. By doing so, he overcame what most would see as a huge disadvantage in getting a TV role,” Sobel says.

“You have to invest in other people before you ask them for anything. Otherwise, you’ll be seen as a freeloader,” he says.

Sobel suggests cultivating relationships over time. “Then, when you do need help, you’ll find the people around you eager to lend a helping hand.”

Keep in touch

Follow the person, not the position. “A client of mine was promoted to a very senior position in a large Fortune 100 company,” Sobel says. “She had been the deputy in her area and was now at the top. She told me that the day her promotion was announced in the newspapers, she got dozens of calls from suppliers wanting to do business with her,” he adds.

She asked each of these people where they had been five years earlier.

Truly important people—those who are at the top of their careers in any field— often have brought their advisors and trusted suppliers along with them over many years. While it is not impossible to break into someone’s inner circle after they have achieved success, it’s also not an easy task.

Build relationships with smart, motivated, interesting and ambitious people, even if they’re not in an important job right now. Follow them throughout their careers. Before you know it, you’ll know some very important, powerful individuals who can buy your products and services.

Stretch yourself by building relationships with people quite different from you. Research shows that our natural tendency is to choose others to work with who are very similar to us. But the most creative teams, the teams that solve problems the fastest, are eclectic and combine people with different backgrounds and personalities.

“Relationships with people who are just like you are easier,” Sobel says. “You can quickly agree on most everything. We gravitate toward those relationships. But that can be a problem. Those people are less likely to push you and help you develop your fullest self. In contrast, a certain amount of stress and tension is productive. And, people who are different from you often connect you into whole new networks that will complement your own.

Make them curious

When someone is curious, he or she reaches toward you. When you evoke curiosity, you create an irresistible gravitational pull.

“When I found myself halfway around the world with only five minutes to convince a skeptical CEO that his company should hire me, this supernetworking law became my best friend,” Sobel says. “I had a 45-minute meeting scheduled with the CEO, but at the last minute, I was told he had to leave suddenly and could spare only five minutes. Yet, my host told me the sale depended on a firm nod from the top dog. I dropped the traditional sales process everyone is taught (‘ask good questions, uncover their issues’) and instead highlighted several risks his new strategy faced—risks his own people had not surfaced—and an overlooked opportunity I thought they were missing. He leaned across the table and was suddenly engaged, because I had evoked his curiosity. Needless to say, I got the sale, a major contract.”

Offer assistance

Know the other person’s agenda and help her accomplish it. Supernetworkers know that the key to connecting with others is understanding what’s important to them. When you know what the other person’s priorities, needs or goals are, you can figure out how to help him or her. And that’s where the rubber meets the road in building professional and personal relationships. If you don’t know a person’s agenda, you’re shooting in the dark or relying on some nebulous concept of charisma.

Every act of generosity creates a ripple. A collateral benefit of selfless generosity is that it draws others to you. It creates an attractive aura around you—even though that’s not the reason you do it. It is what characterizes the most influential people in history, individuals such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Andrew Carnegie and Martin Luther King Jr.

“In the last chapter of Power Relationships, we tell the story about a philanthropist named Rich Goldbach,” Sobel notes. “One night, in a dark, empty parking lot, a strange man confronts him. Rich thinks he is about to be mugged. But the man is there for a very different motive. It has to do with an early childhood literacy program Rich funded in the local community. One of the grade schoolers who learned to read in the program has in turn taught his father to read. The man has come to thank Rich, not rob him,” Sobel continues.

“When Rich told us this story, he was choked with emotion,” he says. “He had experienced, firsthand, the ripple effect of an act of generosity. There is no way of knowing how your own generosity—to a cause or an individual—creates a ripple effect that influences many others. You end up touching many other lives, often without even knowing it. Supernetworkers, in short, are among the most generous people I know,” Sobel adds.

As you read this, you might be thinking: Great. All my frenetic attempts at networking so far have been in vain.

Not true, says Sobel. He advises going through your contact list and asking yourself: Who will go out of their way to endorse me and introduce me to their network? Who will drop what they are doing and help me when I am in need? Who will tell others that they’ve never known someone as trustworthy and talented as me?

“After asking yourself these questions, you may find that only five or 10 people remain on your list,” Sobel says. “And that’s a great start: A handful of deep, loyal relationships is always better than hundreds of superficial contacts.” He adds, “Quality trumps quantity every time.”


Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas are co-authors of Power Relationships: 26 Irrefutable Laws for Building Extraordinary Relationships (Wiley, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-118-58568-9, $25.00) and the accompanying workbook, Power Relationships Personal Planning Guide. Sobel’s clients include senior executives at leading companies such as Citigroup, Ernst & Young, Cognizant and Booz Allen Hamilton. More information is available at