When I first moved to Washington nearly five years ago, I cringed at the idea of “networking.” I’d say I’m an extrovert, but this seemed so forced, so disingenuous. While I made myself stay for post-event receptions, I would make a bee-line for the cheese tray (okay, I will always make bee-lines for cheese trays, I’m a Midwest girl). Then I’d grab a glass of wine to make the often awkward conversations and pauses go down easier.
It was even worse if the post-event shindig was actually called a “networking reception.” Are you kidding me? There was no way to live in denial at that point (“I’m not really networking!”). Talk about pressure.
Flash-forward to today, I’ve spent about five years working in communications in one of the most networked cities in the country. On top of that, I actually work for a company that helps people make serendipitous connections (a.k.a networking) every day.
So before you go hurl, here are some of the ways I’ve come to warm up to networking:
Spend little time focusing on titles
One of my old bosses once told me “Washington, D.C. is one giant recycle bin, so never be a jerk to anyone.” It’s so true, and not just in Washington. While you may have one, three or even five years on someone now, you may be working FOR them in three more years. It’s kind of like high school. Freshman and seniors never hung out together – seniors were way too cool for that. But in college, it mattered less. In the real world, it doesn’t matter at all.
Focus on networking with smart, brazen, genuine people who will go places fast. Don’t focus on the person’s title. Sure, it’s helpful to network with people higher up on the career ladder, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s only important to network with people above you. It goes all ways.
Just connect with people
When it comes down to it, networking is just about introducing yourself and having a conversation. If people are at events, they are looking to meet people just like you are looking to meet people. This is probably one of the areas that took me the longest to be comfortable with. If you see someone standing alone (hey, it could even be me at that cheese table), smile and introduce yourself. It doesn’t matter who they are or who you are. Have a conversation – talk about anything, you don’t have to sound like the smartest person in the room.
If it helps, pull the “picture them all in their underwear trick.” All the people in that room are just people – they’ve all started at the bottom of the totem pole, they’ve all have had diarrhea, heck, some probably even cry when they see those Folgers commercials (no comment). Bottom line, you shouldn’t be afraid to talk to them.
Don’t let the jerks bother you
Sure, there are always going to be the disingenuous folks – people who talk to you and look over your shoulder for someone better, or people whom you’ve met before who purposefully act like they’ve never met you (they’re so important, remember?), but forget those people. Trust me, I’m sure most other people have too, or wish they could. The fact that they don’t want to connect with you is their problem, not yours.
It’s not a one-off, as my current boss says
Networking is like investing in a 401K – you should be in it for the long haul, baby. Don’t think, “how will this person help me tomorrow?” Those who do think like that are in the category of people you should forget. Networking is about helping others and building relationships with people, and relationships require work. After you meet someone, follow up with them every now and again. Connect on Brazen or on other social networks. Meet them for coffee or beers, or offer to meet up with them at their office if time is a concern. The bottom line: connecting is just the first step, your network’s usefulness ultimately depends on how well you build those relationships.
See, it’s not so bad, right?
Ashley Hoffman is Brazen Careerist’s director of communications and marketing. If you’re in communications or want to be, you should join Ashley and other professionals at this really cool event. Even though there won’t be a cheese table, she’d still love to connect.