How to broker a referral in the COVID connection economy

In an increasingly tight job market, connection is king. And referral is the currency of choice. Are you hoping to hit the connection jackpot by playing the uncertain game of chance networking while your career is on the line? There is a better way to establish meaningful connections and referrals and it starts with establishing trust and relevance.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

"We are leaving the industrial economy and entering the connection economy."  -- Seth Godin

The disruption to the world's economies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to wipe out 6.7% of working hours globally in the second quarter of this year -- the equivalent of 195 million jobs worldwide, according to the UN's Labor Body. And that statistic excludes employed people seeking new roles. In an increasingly tight job market, connection is king.  And referral is the currency of choice. Are you hoping to hit the connection jackpot by playing the uncertain game of chance networking while your career is on the line?

SEE: Tech Budgets 2021: A CXO's Guide (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

You'll need more than luck to beat the odds in the COVID Connection Economy. Every day we are on the receiving end of burgeoning invitations to connect. And we are not alone. So it is your dream boss. Your ideal mentor. Your future recruiter. Your future hiring manager.  And your future investor. 


Successful connections and referrals begin with articulating your story in a trustworthy and unique way. It's about demonstrating competence and character. 

Referrals result from how effectively you differentiate yourself. What you expect from a good mentor is also what you can find in a good referral. To earn a good referral, you must be able to demonstrate competence and character. You must demonstrate trustworthiness and unique abilities that set you apart from others. A good mentor will teach you how to think, not what to think. A good referral reveals who you are, not what just what you can do. 

That's why it is shocking to repeatedly discover these six strangers -- and one standout superstar -- asking for connection and help. How often do you masquerade as one of these characters in your "click to connect" messages? 

  • Generic George: He just wants a job. At my company. Or any company where I know people. If I would just introduce him. Or write a referral for him. Or "share his resume with the right people inside my company." Or meet live to "share expertise."  I begin to imagine George copying and pasting thousands of similar invite requests naively believing it only takes one yes to get him to his dream job. Or to any job. Generic George's fatal flaw? He fails to offer any specifics that would move the conversation forward. He has confused me with a bot blindly making algorithmic-based referrals. The upside to George is that he never follows up.
  • Social Sally. In a world full of strangers, she sees future friends. She has done an immense amount of research about me before sending her message. She artfully works our shared hobbies into the thread. And quotes from my recent blogs. Sally comes across as familiar and engaging. And, I always know I can count on her to follow up if I don't respond.  Depending on the time of year, she may also send me a thoughtful birthday or work service anniversary acknowledgment. I start picturing Social Sally joining my book club. But not my company. Social Sally's fatal flaw? Believing that being likable will get her the referral, the job, or the promotion. I want to have fun with Sally. But I have no idea why I would refer her, hire her, or promote her. Because she never tells me.
  • Wandering Wally. He's never had an idea he doesn't like. He's never had a thought he hasn't said. And he's never had an idea and a thought that fails to connect to another random, unrelated idea and thought. Wandering Wally is all over the map. He wants to be an astronaut. He wants to save the world. He is currently patenting an invention. But he might be ready to cross over into a career in sales. And he puts this all in his first message to me, even though we've never met.  I begin to picture Wally living in a house that is permanently being remodeled. By the end of his message, I am simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted. Wandering Wally's fatal flaw? He lacks a clear, concise direction and message. He has confused me with a career counselor. And this message with a brainstorming session.
  • Egomaniac Ethan.  He is the best there's ever been at everything he's ever done. And, thankfully, he's not too shy to share it! He is a top performer. He is already being recruited for numerous jobs but thought he would do me the favor of connecting with me. He was Prom King. He is into extreme sports. And, he knows that everyone idolizes him. As evidenced by the 86 references he would be glad to share. And, oh, I might be interested to know that he has some very important connections. After all, how many people have flown on a private plane with a billionaire to his private island? I start to flashback to bad 80's movies. And toxic teams. Egomaniac Ethan's fatal flaw? Total lack of self-awareness. His confidence, when taken to the extreme, sends the signal that he will be a nightmare to manage.  And that I will jeopardize a relationship if I refer him to someone in my network.
  • Desperado Diane. She is a living, breathing country music song. Right here in "print" and ready to share her sad story. She would have invited me to connect sooner, but there's been a series of catastrophes.  All of which she details for me.   But the good news is she's put that all behind her now. And she welcomes me referring her to the most senior and experienced people in my network. Desperado Diane's fatal flaw? Oversharing. And if she's like this with me during her first message, it will get worse from here. Guaranteed.
  • Mentor Me Mandy. She starts strong. The tone of her message is conversational but not overly casual. She is prepared but not assumingly personal. She knows something about the job she's seeking and can reasonably articulate her strengths. Where does it go wrong? At the end of the message, Mandy does not ask for a job. Or for a referral. Or even for an introduction.  Even though I'm already aware she wants at least one of the above. Instead, Mandy asks me to be her mentor.  Mentor Me Mandy's fatal flaw?  Setting up a compelling story and then failing to make her real ask.  And asking for a significant investment of time with no offer of a value exchange instead.
  • Perpetual Pete. He will reach out to you time and time again, asking for help getting a new job. His current job pays well, but there's not enough equity. His previous job had a ton of equity, but the compensation plan was less than competitive. Perpetual Pete is a wanderer and is in need of finding his true purpose -- something that can bring him joy beyond financial outcomes. It is hard to provide a strong reference for people who are driven by only financial reasons -- they can often leave a trail of unfinished work and incomplete promises. 

Fortunately, I occasionally hear from Powerhouse Pat. Who is Powerhouse Pat? 

Powerhouse Pat is the standout superstar in a cast of mediocrity. Prepared. Articulate. Focused. With clear priorities. Talking points. Examples of outcomes and impact. A well thought out ask at the end of the message. And an offer of shared value or reciprocity.  Powerhouse Pat is the one who gets the yes. The connection. The referral. 

How can you show up as Powerhouse Pat and increase your odds of a successful outcome? Invest as much thought in crafting your "click to connect" message as you would in preparing for a job interview.  Your message matters.  Your message is your tool to make a great first impression. And to differentiate yourself.

Remember, the simplest message is always the strongest. Before you send your high stakes "click to connect" referral request, be sure your invitation message concisely answers these four questions:

  1. What differentiates me (and my message) from others?
  2. What is the purpose of my connection request, and is my ask clear in the message?
  3. Does this message come across as trustworthy?  Have I represented myself accurately and provided examples that make the person on the receiving end more likely to engage?
  4. Have I offered a way to return the favor or to create a value exchange?

Success begins with your story.

These are very difficult times for people who are looking for meaningful jobs and new career opportunities. Asking for a referral, and getting one, is also hard work. Those of us who are fortunately working should do everything we can to help others. We should be empathetic and generous with our time and knowledge. If there is an opportunity to coach, we should coach. Giving back and helping others is the most rewarding and important work at times of uncertainty and economic downturns. Being a door opener matters, and a good referral can open doors. 

Karen Mangia, vice president of customer and market insights and a member of the Salesforce's Work From Home Task Force, and I have co-authored several articles on how you can reach your full potential and deliver peak performance while working from home. We've covered how you design and architect your surroundings, the art and science of public speaking and presentation skills, the ability to pause, ponder, and prioritize your time, how to effectively managing your remote teams, and how leaders must cultivate healthy relationships for all stakeholders. We also know the importance of managing relationships with managers and how world recording holding athletes develop a mindset that keeps you inspired and motivated to work from home. All of these articles can help you develop the capabilities you need for a strong referral.   

What are you discovering as you work from home? We welcome your insights here or by joining us on Twitter at @karenmangia and @ValaAfshar.

This article was co-authored by Karen Mangia, vice president, customer and market insights, at Salesforce

Karen engages customers globally to discover new ways of creating success and growth together. From Executive Advisory Boards to strategic consulting engagements, her insights are central to Go-to-Market strategy, product development, marketing, and branding. In addition, Karen influences industry thought leadership in her role as Chair of the Customer Experience Council for The Conference Board. Formerly responsible for Insight Innovation at Cisco Systems, she led a global team with oversight into Customer Satisfaction and Experience, Diversity Business Practices, and Global Offset and Countertrade. Karen is also the author of Success With Less and a TEDx speaker.

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