Networking for Skeptics, Cynics and the Easily Abashed
I will always remember my first "networking" event. After spending my first several years post-college as a newspaper reporter, I landed an entry-level position in public relations and communications for a travel and tourism trade association and was attending an industry event. Mid-20s me went into it like I would have as a reporter: skulking around the periphery and availing myself of the free food and beverages. I didn't have the first clue how to penetrate the little huddles of people chatting animatedly, and frankly it didn't even occur to me to try.
A dear friend and colleague saw exactly where I was at that evening, collected me and dragged me around the room to make small talk. To be honest, it felt hideously awkward. It WAS hideously awkward. She explained we were there to meet people and represent our association, and I am a fairly outgoing person, so with her help as a wing woman, I got through it. It got easier as time went on, of course, but the discomfort of that first outing still sits with me.
That's probably why I've been researching some different approaches to networking as I attempt to find a job in a new state where I have a very small (pequenito!) handful of professional contacts. Here's some of what has resonated with me:
• Be helpful: In the podcast "Work Life with Adam Grant," Grant recommends focusing less on the volume of business cards you can collect and more on having focused conversations with a couple of people. Ask them what their biggest challenges are at the moment and see if you have any experience or anecdotes to share that could help. As he says, "If you want to build a network of people who recognize your value, don't focus on what you can get. Figure out what you can give." I got a chance to try this out at an event being put on by a company at which I recently applied for a job. In my career, I've put on tons of events, so I decided to show up a little early and ask if they needed any help. I wasn't consciously trying to be seen by anyone involved in the hiring process, but I figured there's no telling what could come of it. I ended up handing out signs and felt great for having a purpose and contributing to the cause. Did it get me the job? I don't know yet. But it couldn't possibly hurt.
• Be an expert: This is a closely related idea. When you are an expert in something, or are deeply passionate about something, people are interested in what you have to say and impressed with your depth of knowledge. You can build interesting relationships in which shared expertise flows both ways. I've been thinking about my areas of expertise and how I can share what I know.
• Bring a boast partner: When you're networking with the intent of getting a job, winning a contract or landing a new client, talking about your accomplishments feels so gratuitously self promotional (that is, if you're not an egomaniac). What if you brought a colleague or friend who is familiar with your background to do the bragging for you? Imagine you're in one of those conversations above in which you're discussing a new contact's challenges, and your friend chimes in with "Amy! Didn't you handle a PR crisis just like that for XYZ corporation?" and gives you the perfect opening to demonstrate how you deftly handled a similar problem. You'd get the point across without looking arrogant and have a third-party endorsement to boot.
How do you make the rounds at professional events? What's your MO if you find yourself in a totally unfamiliar crowd? What advice do you wish you'd had back when you were an entry-level gal like myself, hovering near the exit and feeling like a dork?