Does hearing the term “networking” make your skin crawl? Does it make you imagine uncomfortable conversations with stuffy people in suits who supposedly “can help you advance your career?” Probably because that’s all that you’ve seen of networking…or rather, that’s the only thing that you’ve seen that has formally been dubbed as “networking.”
I know the feeling. My first networking event ever was at my college, back when I was a young, spry student who was taking a break from her study-cry-watch Modern Family cycle. Yep, those were the days.
After a long day of informational interviews, they set the students and professionals alike free in a large hall to mingle and make connections. Side note: can I just say how much I love informational interviews? It’s like all of the fun of getting to know someone and about their career without having to actually prove my knowledge of the field or my competence. As someone who is genuinely interested in learning about new people, whether or not I have said knowledge or competence, informational interviews are really where I shine.
Anyway, we were all crammed into a room with juice and hors d’oeuvres with the intention of meeting new people and possibly getting closer to securing a job after college. Oh boy, high-stakes conversations with people I don’t know in overly-crowded rooms, my favorite!
I remember standing awkwardly off to the side with one woman who I knew from organic chemistry. As I stood there anxiously, feeling like a failure, she explained that to succeed in events like this, I’d have to “be a shark and jump right in.” I then watched her jump right into a conversation and boldly take it over.
Instead of feeling envy or inspired by her boldness, I felt relief: I wasn’t failing at this networking event. “Being a shark” just wasn’t for me.
For the longest time, this is what came to mind when I thought about networking. I’m not a shark at all. If I were a sea creature, I’d probably be more like an octopus or a seahorse (whichever is chiller — the google search for “chillest sea creature” yielded 0 results). I just have no interest in gaining success at the detriment of others. I’d rather work with the people around me to achieve my goals, not against them.
I also feel like networking has the connotation of using people. As someone who strongly values the human connection and enjoys deep, meaningful relationships, I’d much rather build a strong rapport with someone than only focus on how they can benefit me and my future.
Even as a freelancer, I like to build a professional relationship with my clients. Instead of simply doing my job and going on my way, I want to understand what they need and work hard to be an enjoyable person to work with. Then, hopefully they will contact me for more work in the future. I’d much rather work with a client I like and trust for several projects than multiple clients. I just work better with people who I know well and know me and my writing style.
I have found, however, that networking isn’t just hovering around the cheese plate or swimming the waters at a networking event in search of proverbial blood. Networking is literally every interaction that you have throughout your day. Networking is bumping into a high school friend at the grocery store. Networking is talking to your parent’s friends at a party. Networking is joining Facebook groups and twitter chats with like-minded individuals. Anything that gets you communicating with someone else is networking. Time and time again, we hear that jobs are found by word-of-mouth as opposed to through the traditional application process. After all, wouldn’t you prefer to hire someone that a trusted friend or colleague recommended than an unknown on LinkedIn?
If, during one of these random conversations, the other person brings up something that would help you progress in your career or practice some new skills, be sure to let them know what you need! Even if the lead doesn’t go anywhere, at least you’ve put yourself out there, and if they have a friend who needs something similar, they can recommend you. Speaking of which, as networking is largely relational, one thing that I remember while networking is taking every opportunity to help others shine. If someone has an opening, or even is just in a similar field to one of my friends, I will make sure to offer to put them in contact. For me, this is one of the cornerstones of networking. Learning someone’s skills and making your skills known so that even if you can’t help each other directly, you may be able to help each other through someone else!
Of course, in order to tell someone your skills, you need to know your skills. Do you know what you are good at? Do you have a particular specialty or an area you’d like to become more familiar with? Can you explain why you are good at what you do? Can you explain why you are passionate about what you do? Being able to effectively articulate how you can be an asset to others will show your confidence and self-awareness. It’s totally possible to assert what your skills are without bragging! After all, it’s technically not bragging if you’re just telling the truth about how great you are!
In this way, networking does involve some self-promotion, which can be uncomfortable. For someone like me who thrives on genuine connection, I don’t want anyone to feel as though I’m only talking to them for the sake of self-promotion. No, awesome person! I am promoting myself to you because I think you’re awesome!
Take that confidence that you have in your own skills and transfer it into some healthy self-promotion. It’s not presumptuous to give someone your card or show them your work when they have expressed interest in your field of expertise. Any new connection you make is a new opportunity to introduce someone new to your work. Once you start recognizing that networking can be done (almost) anytime and anywhere, it gets much easier to promote yourself regularly.
Finally, remember that networking isn’t just about getting yourself ahead, but also about how you can be beneficial to others. When helping someone else, feel free to request help in return, but don’t expect it! Conversely, when someone helps you, ask what you can do for them in return. I consider networking to be “humbly transactional” (a term that I just made up) because it often is a transaction, but to get to where you want to be, sometimes you need to help other people without anything in return.
Networking isn’t only about being a good talker or a good employee. It’s about being a good human. Employers and other powerful people can probably train almost anyone in their trade, but they can’t train someone on how to be a good person. Next time you’re at a networking event, instead of expressing a competitive, cut-throat attitude, express an empathetic, helping one! Networking is all about people, and you can’t do it successfully without caring about people.