Is Your Networking Group Worth It?

Like most professionals, you’ve probably been dragged at least once to a “networking group” where members trade—and often tally—the referrals they give to each other. (BNI is the best known, but there are plenty of local and national alternatives.) The logic seems sound—after all, everyone knows you need to build relationships to get ahead. Plus, the peer pressure of weekly meetings and public roll calls (“how many referrals are you bringing today?”) can do wonders for motivation. But let’s face it, sometimes joining a networking group can be more trouble than it’s worth.

Here are six questions to ponder to see if participation is worth your time.

1. Are you actually meeting people who are either potential customers or can refer customers to you? Talking with other professionals can be a wonderful way to build connections in your community, share best practices, and give back to junior executives. That’s different, however, from a “networking group” that’s meant to generate leads. If your goal is rainmaking, it’s a waste of time to chit-chat every week with people who aren’t really your customers (or can’t lead you to them).

2. Does it suck up too much of your time? One networking group I visited met every Thursday morning at 7:00 a.m. That’s great if you’re a confirmed early bird, but in today’s economy, you have to determine whether that precious time might be better spent tending to your own business (or on the treadmill at the gym). Plus, attending meetings and scrambling to find referrals for other people can take a lot of time. Figure out how much time you’re spending on the process, then do a careful cost-benefit analysis.

3. Are you giving more referrals than you’re getting? I don’t want to sound like Scrooge here, since I firmly believe in the value of thinking of others and sending them business. (“Giving to Get” is the very first step I outline in How to Become a Referral Magnet). However, if week after week, you’re combing your professional network to scare up referrals for other group members and getting little in return, it may not be the best way to spend your energy.

4. Are you referring to people you really trust? The pressure to give referrals can be intense—one group I visited clanged bells and yelled out tallies of how much money club members had put in each other’s pockets. You can certainly get a feel for people when you’re interacting with them on a regular basis. Just because someone’s a nice guy, however, doesn’t mean his company’s software will work or that he’s skilled enough to manage your employees’ pension plan. Some groups make an effort to vet new members, requiring “sponsorship” from current participants—but have they seen them in action and hired them for projects, or do they just know them from “around town”?

This post originally appeared as part of the American Management Association’s Moving Ahead Newsletter.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.