Pulling a good network together takes effort, sincerity and time.
Alan Collins,“Unwritten HR Rules"
If I’m honest with myself and you, I have to admit that I really don’t enjoy networking—at least networking in the traditional sense. I find it insincere, stressful, tiring, you name it...there aren’t enough words to describe how I feel about it.
A while ago, I attended a professional networking event at a local venue—think Dave and Busters but for table tennis on a smaller scale with drinks and food. I didn’t know anyone at the event but thought it sounded interesting and would give me a chance to meet other local professionals. The event was on a weeknight which meant I was going into it tired from a long day of work and “peopling” but nonetheless I managed my best smile, hopped out of my Lyft and entered.
As you would expect, it was pretty loud and crowded with regular patrons of the hall that were not associated with the event. I registered, received my drink ticket and started to plot how I was going to go from knowing no one to knowing someone. I stood scanning the room for what seemed like forever and made a beeline for what was familiar and comfortable—the bar. I figured that getting a drink would give me more time to strategize and perhaps strike up a more organic conversation with someone else in line. That didn't happen and as I walked away with my Moscow Mule, I managed to find other stragglers that looked just as lost, to speak with. Nudging myself into the tight circles of conversations already underway just wasn’t going to work for me that evening.
I found the conversations I managed to have, to be a bit dry and rote and they inevitably ended with the obligatory “well, it was nice to meet you”. Disappointed and annoyed, I found a nice spot near an in-progress ping pong game and nursed my drink until the end-of-event raffle took place (that’s really why I stayed as long as I did). As an occasional ping pong ball ricocheted off my seat, a number of thoughts crossed my mind including, “why am I not enjoying this and why is it so painful”? Reflecting on that night, I’ve come up with a few observations and words of advice for others that may have the same struggles I have had with large, unstructured networking events:
Know Yourself. I do well in small, intimate settings. I find it enjoyable having genuine, deep conversations with people. If you have the same temperament, I would recommend seeking out social clubs like the Churchill Club of which I’m currently a member. We get together on a frequent basis for roundtable dinners followed by talks from notable people (e.g., venture capitalists, CEOs) on interesting topics. This approach has been immensely enjoyable for me providing a good balance of learning and networking in a more formal, controlled setting.
Be Curious. Being curious about other people really helps in networking/social situations. I find that most people are open about talking about themselves and this helps take the pressure off of you to feel like you have to a speech ready. One mistake I made was focusing too much on myself and what I was going to say, and not more on having an open mind to go in and just meet people.
Know Yourself. No, this isn’t a typo. I repeated it because it bears repeating but for a different reason. Being a woman of color, I’m well aware of how people may perceive me and the biases they have towards women and black people. I’ve had some pretty comically sad instances where the smile of the seemingly friendly Caucasian male turned to a stern frown when they were introduced to me. There was a time when one gentleman hesitated to shake my hand when he shook the hand of everyone else in the circle. He shook my hand because to not shake my hand would have been such an obvious faux pas but the hesitation was obvious.
At another unrelated event, one attendant (yet another male) reached out to touch my hair while he exclaimed how attractive he thought I was. Luckily he came to his senses, stopped mid-air and stepped back into the circle...this really happened—-I have witnesses.
In these situations, it’s important to be grounded in who you are and what you bring to the table. Be ready to dismiss negative behavior and move on to the next person that’s probably more worthwhile.
Another adjacent aspect of this point is that you will likely need to do the icebreaking if you care enough to meet someone. I attended an event recently where we had a seated dinner (one of maybe 20-25 tables in the ballroom). A Caucasian woman came to the table, smiled and introduced herself to the three other women at the table, except for me. She ended up sitting next to me. The old me would have continued eating my halibut filet and waited for the event to start but I did something somewhat uncharacteristic—I ignored what I perceived as a slight and introduced myself. We ended up having a delightful conversation and exchanged information afterwards. We will likely never reach out to each other but it doesn’t matter. During that evening, I learned more about her profession in public relations and I’m sure she learned a few things from me and the work I do.
There’s so much more to unpack on this topic and I’ll likely write about it again but wanted to share for those that find themselves in similar situations.
Networking is necessary for every professional but the key is to find a way to do it in a way that resonates with who you are. If you are genuine and true to yourself, you can’t go wrong.