Confession of a Networking Pro
On a nondescript evening this fall, I walked into a 50th floor conference room hosting a networking-event-disguised-as-a-cocktail-party for Today’s Chicago Woman “100 Women to Watch List,” of which I happened to be one. And instead of being excited and ready to mingle, I found myself filled with dread.
Admittedly, being filled with dread at a networking event is nothing new for most people. But for me it’s a veritable occupational hazard. I bill myself as a communication expert — this is my thing. I teach communication skills and I’m known for being able to schmooze and hobnob with the best of them. Yet, when I walked into that so-called “party,” it took every ounce of self-control I had to not pull out my iPhone and pretend I had very important business matters to attend to ASAP.
As I seriously considered making a run for the door and leaving before speaking with a single soul, I stopped myself. If I couldn’t pull it together and make this event a good use of my time, I definitely wasn’t worth my salt as a communication and career expert.
Here’s what I did. I decided on the spot that it wasn’t about me. I was not going to try to meet a single person of interest to me professionally. I wasn’t going to think about advancing my own cause for even a moment (even though there were likely potential new clients in the crowd). I was going to try to refrain as best I could from telling anyone about my own business or area of expertise.
Instead, I was going to take a page from the Great on the Job playbook and simply focus on one thing — being generous. How could I help others in the room? I have a vast network. I’m great at connecting interesting people with one another. I know lots of smart, talented women in corporate America who are looking for business leads, new jobs, mentors, agents, clients, etc. I love being a power broker of interesting people and ideas.
And so I walked over to a group of women, introduced myself and immediately asked about them — who they were, why they were there, and what they were looking to achieve that evening. And I listened intently — not with feigned interest, or quick glances over my shoulder to see whom the camera crews were interviewing. I listened and thought, who do I know who could help Jillian out? Who can I introduce Lisa to? Who do I know who would love Andrea’s product or Taylor’s service?
I met a jewelry designer whose upcoming trunk show I sent out to all my girlfriends. I met an executive director of a nonprofit and offered to speak to her organization pro-bono. I met several women in real estate whom I connected to my husband; and others in PR who I could do nothing for in the moment, but whom I’ve kept on file for the next person who asks me for a PR referral.
I wound up having fun. I met some fabulous women and felt good about the fact that I could provide leads, contacts, or at the very least, enthusiasm about other people’s businesses.
So as the holiday season nears and you gear up for those obligatory cocktail parties and professional soirees, remember to make it about others, not about you. Be generous — open up your virtual Rolodex, share your contacts, offer to make introductions, try out a new product or check out someone’s service.
You’ll have more fun that way, you’ll learn about new people and ideas, and you might just get something out of it in return. The laws of Karma are no less relevant in the world of networking than anywhere else. At some point down the road, chances are you’ll meet someone at the bar or over canapés who knows the perfect person to introduce you to, or has just the lead you’ve been looking for. Or someone will go out of his or her way to repay your favor or random act of kindness. If there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that life is a virtuous cycle — when you keep on giving, eventually you get.