I used to be easily frustrated by the prospect of networking. It always seemed like a horribly insincere way to convince people to give you money or a job. The images of preening sycophants declaring their false devotion to your every need filled my mind whenever I saw the word “networking” in writing. When someone encouraged me to attend a networking event, I would shudder and force down my visceral reaction to run the other way.
But not anymore. What happened? Why does the networking process no longer feel me with dread? Is it because I’m older, wiser or more polished? Not at all. (Well, I am older.) Did I simply learn to accept that networking is a necessary reality of life like death and taxes? Nope. So why do my eyes no longer roll around in their sockets at the mention of hobnobbing with prospective clients?
I’ll tell you why. The thought of networking doesn’t produce anxiety attacks because I learned a very important detail that was never shared with me when I first ventured out into the working world.
Networking = Connecting
When I was younger, I went into meet-and-greet events expecting the working world to offer every desire I could possibly imagine if I were only smart enough, good enough and people liked me. Pass out a few business cards, shake a lot of hands and laugh at the right jokes were the 1, 2, 3 of landing that dream job and making your first billion by the age of 30.
Little did I know that networking events are about connecting, not searching for employment. Yes, you get all dressed up, practice your elevator pitch and put yourself out there, but not to land a job, not to earn a referral or fill a rolodex.* No. You do all of this to connect. With the pressure of meeting people who only could offer me gainful employment, I made myself a nervous wreck. Not to mention I was often passing by people who may have made my life easier by simply sharing horror stories, practical advice and pop culture references. Granted, not everyone will become your BFF or your mentor, but it’s important to learn how to invest in people whose value goes well beyond the business of business. And that’s connecting.
Networking is a skill that will benefit your career if executed correctly, but it need not be tedious, insincere or anxiety producing. If you’re pursuing a career that seeks to create greater harmony between who you are and what you do, then interpreting the networking process as a strange bloodletting to keep the tax man at bay will only make you feel cheap and despondent. There are ways to connect with prospective clients and employers without fretting the worst or selling your soul.
Know your limitations. We would all love to be a one-person sales machine. I dream of the day when I can sell a comb to a bald man, but I’m not there yet. I don’t handle large crowds well, so I concentrate on attending events aimed at smaller audiences. This doesn’t mean I should expect fewer results. No, instead it means that I need to make sure every networking event counts.
Will the event attendees be members of an industry that I specialize in? Do I know a few people at the meet-and-greet who can introduce me to several of their colleagues? Will the practice of attending smaller events put me at ease for special occasions when a large networking event is unavoidable? These are just a few questions I ask myself before deciding to attend a networking event. I know my limitations, and I learn to work within those boundaries to develop my skills and reach as broad an audience as I can handle.
Be Personable. The reality of the working world is people don’t hire you because you’re qualified; they hire you because they like you. I know it seems contradictory to my aversion for sycophantic behavior, but under closer inspection, I’m advocating sincerity. No one wants to work with or for someone who’s insufferable, and neither does your prospective client or employer. Yes, we’re only human and humans don’t always get along, but you’re not just working with a person who produces results you want. You’re working with a person. And whether or not you honestly “click” with someone professionally makes a huge difference in whether your next project is a positive experience you’re proud to add to your CV.
So do you approach every person with a conversation about sports, film or last night’s episode of American Idol? No. Feel free to introduce yourself with who you are and what you do, but don’t be afraid to let the conversation veer to topics unrelated to your business. Show the world that you’re a well-rounded person who is open for conversation on a variety of subjects. But — and I can’t stress this enough — do not lie. You’ll only set yourself up for failure when you can’t remember which lie you told to which prospective client. Lying about whether or not you saw Avatar or if you think Ben Roethlisberger is overrated isn’t worth the possibility of losing future employment if you’re caught in the lie because you told person X one thing and person Y another, only to discover later that they know each other. Plus, you’d be amazed at the number of people who appreciate an honest differing opinion.
Take nothing for granted. Not all prospects will appear fruitful in the beginning. Think of yourself as a farmer. Some seedlings will look puny and unworthy of your time and effort. Others seem like the real deal and leave you feeling pressure to devote as much of your day to making sure they brings in a sizable crop. And even more seeds will leave you guessing as to what happens next on a weekly basis. The important thing to remember is very little in business is what it seems and, like farming, you’ll only reap what you sow.
I’ve found myself especially eager to jump into a new relationship with a client, only to see it slow to a crawl months down the line. Conversely, I’ve offered my services to prospective employers that I initially thought might not lead anywhere after a few months of following up with them. And just when I least expected it, I’d get a call asking me if I could come in for a meeting. This has proved especially beneficial when business was slow and lean times were on the horizon. The point is approach every potential client with humility, patience and persistence. You’ll never know what this year’s harvest will yield, and every seed has the potential to feed you one more day.
Overall, long-term networking is more than just updating your LinkedIn account or attending a nearby Meetup event. It’s the process of connecting with your fellow (hu)man and building a relationship over time. It may be daunting at first, but knowing your limitations, being personable and taking nothing for granted will help you find a comfort zone that will make the process much less intimidating. Remember you are connecting with people, not just searching for a job. And if you can learn to master this important art form, you will see that every connection can be an enriching one.
* I know I’m dating myself with this reference.
How has your networking perspective changed over time?
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned?