By Camille Reyes (New York City)
For many people, networking is on par with dental extractions when it comes to their list of favorite activities. For example, a friend of mine confided in me her horror about an upcoming corporate retreat for new hires, including an team-building adventure course and “trust falls.” Networking is often a painful experience, and the prospect of having to “fall” into the arms of a stranger – and then make small talk with him – only compounded her apprehension.
Perhaps this dread helps explain why so many people at networking events suddenly turn into pitch-men (and women), attempting to sell, sell, sell to anyone who will listen – and why an equal number suddenly sprint to the bar for a refreshment in response to a particularly unctuous pitch. But the uncertainty doesn’t stop there. At a panel event, for example, the question of whether or not to approach the speaker afterward gnaws at your brain. Common wisdom says to do these things often, yet so few people know how to do them well.
But then, of course, there are those confident types who seem to work a room effortlessly. Gold dust falls from their eyelashes as they confidently shake hands with strangers without even a hint of sweat in the pits of their perfectly starched shirts. She will come home with C-level business cards and action plans. She will get buckets of referrals. What is the secret to such networking prowess?
Community and Connection
Countless business books encourage the creation of a personal brand. While a focus on unique characteristics is certainly interesting, this marketing-speak can seem a bit ambiguous, verging on narcissism or strange forms of competition. Although it can be tempting to treat people like products and consumers, the fact is, networking is better approached through a lens of community and connection. This viewpoint fosters genuine mentorship, understanding, and the kinds of ties that could reap mutual life-long benefits.
Perhaps the best way to think about networking is building “social capital.” In the American Journal of Sociology, James S. Coleman writes, “Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence.”
Taken too far, this concept might lend itself to a form of social competition that proves counter-productive to the goals of individual networking sessions. Yet, social capital is a useful term to signify the big picture of networking activities – building a productive community. With this goal in mind, the intrepid networker is almost ready for the event. Now, some guidance on how to accomplish a positive networking interaction is in order.
Five Expert Tips
What we need is practical, expert advice from someone gifted with the networking touch. Fortunately, Dr. Sandra Hagevik, Senior Vice President at Lee Hecht Harrison, has provided some useful, easy-to-follow advice. In the journal of Journal of Environmental Health, she wrote:
1. Sharing of expertise and influence is always appreciated. People who use this approach have more to give than to get, and their willingness to share conveys competence and capability.
2. Concern with confidentiality is important. People who respect confidentiality regard others’ privacy as they would their own. They share resources judiciously and always ask permission when referring.
3. Excellent listening is an effective way to network. People who use this approach spend twice as much time listening as talking; their purpose is learning rather than leading the conversation.
4. Have a purpose. Even if it’s just to catch up on your last conversation. Know what you want from the conversation. Always ask about others with whom you might communicate. Ask for permission to use your contact’s name. Then acknowledge them in ongoing contacts.
5. Limit your conversation. Nothing’s as annoying as one who tells too much. Tell little and reap the benefits of time and careful thought.
Sure, easier said than done. But you’ll never know until you try. Get thee to an event and let the schmoozing begin!