Desk with pens and phone opened to LinkedIn app

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By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

We’re big fans of LinkedIn here at the Alumni Personal and Career Development Center. Sure, it’s not perfect – what is – but as far as being an easy way to connect with people, to find people, to research jobs and opportunities, to market yourself to employers (and clients!) it’s a great and user-friendly tool. Beyond that, it’s a place where you can and should build active community, not just by connecting with people, but by engaging with them. You can share helpful articles you find, write and share blog posts, and comment on other people’s posts and recognize their achievements and contributions. You can and should join the Wake Forest Alumni group, and become an active participant, there, too.

All of that said, there are a lot of people who try to use LinkedIn in the wrong ways. And by that I don’t mean they have bad profiles or their photos are too casual (though, that happens). What I mean is people are going about connecting with people entirely in the wrong way. The result is going to be a lot of dead-ends and frustration, on both sides.

With that, I offer up here some tips on how NOT to LinkedIn (as well as thoughts on what to do, instead). What you might notice is that these tips have a common thread: they’re all about you, when you should be making it about the other person.

  • Don’t send an auto-generated connection request. We’ve all been on the receiving end of that generic message. “Hi Allison, I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn.” As the recipient, this is the best kind of request because it’s an automatic delete and only takes up about two seconds of my time. As the sender, you have provided no reason why I should connect with you, open my network up to you, and give my time to you. That’s an easy decline.
  • Don’t send a connection request when we have had zero connection beyond the request. Sometimes I will receive a request that is just a fancier version of the first message, above. I do appreciate that the sender has spent more time on it, but unless I can immediately see some value or benefit to me, again, I’m going to decline this request. An example: “Hi Allison, I see we’re both graduates of Wake Forest. I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn.” While that’s a nice point of connection, it doesn’t differentiate you from the other 72,000 graduates of Wake Forest and gives me no reason to say yes.
  • Don’t send a connection request based on how much you like the other person’s role or work or background. This looks like: “Hi Allison, I saw in your profile that you work in mentoring. I, too, love mentoring, and would love to connect and learn how I can get a job like yours.” While the intention here might be benign, how this reads to me is, “I see that you’re an expert in your field and I want to take advantage of you and your expertise to my benefit.” See how that sounds? Not great. Not only that, it completely diminishes my 25-plus years of work and multiple advanced degrees. So now, not only am I declining your request, I’m sort of offended by it.

At this point you might be thinking, well, great, what am I supposed to do, then? Everyone tells me to connect with people on LinkedIn to grow my network. How am I supposed to do that if I can’t reach out to people?

Imagine for a moment that you just walked into a giant ballroom full of people at a professional conference. You know a few of them but most are strangers. On their nametags is listed their name, title, organization, and a bit about what they do. What would you do? I bet you wouldn’t start walking around the room demanding that people open their phones and transfer all their contacts to you. I bet you wouldn’t walk up to people insisting that they share all their knowledge and expertise with you.

Don’t do that online, either. Network-building is relationship-building. If you want me to support you, and to be part of your network, you have to give me a reason to do so. Because at the end of the day, I do have a great job, and I do have extensive expertise and knowledge. If you’re reaching out to me, you probably need me a whole lot more than I need you. You need to give me a reason to say yes.

So, here’s an example of how you could do this better. A couple of years ago a young man I had never met, who lives on the other side of the country, reached out to me on LinkedIn. He didn’t ask to connect with me, he sent me a message that very briefly told me about a program he was running, his progress, and a few questions he was working through. He asked if I would have some time to chat so that he might get my advice on his next steps.

This is a request that I will almost always accept. Why? He wasn’t asking me to do work for him. He demonstrated that he had put the work in, and now would like some feedback and he valued my expertise. We met and had a lovely conversation. And then he sent me a request to connect, which I immediately accepted. See the difference? Sure, he asked for a bit of my time and expertise. But first he showed me that he had done some work, and that my time spent would be worth it.

LinkedIn is a great tool. But it’s just a tool. When you use it well, it can build deeper connections, open up opportunities, and help you learn and grow. Use it wisely and judiciously. When in doubt, ask yourself, how would I feel if someone sent me this message? If the answer is, I would ignore that, chances are other people will, too.