I was standing in the middle of a hotel lobby in Newport, Rhode Island, surrounded by a slew of undergraduates wearing bad khakis and ballet flats and praying for the life of me that I might disappear. That the roof might cave in. That anything would transpire to keep me from heading into the gauntlet to “network.”
I was attending a leadership conference. I was a senior in college and all sorts of antsy about my future and the "real world." Networking would be the creme brulee of the evening and we'd be unleashed into a room full of professionals who were "supposedly" interested in what we had to say.
We’d spent the afternoon learning how to balance cups and dishes at swanky cocktail parties while keeping a hand free to spit out resumes and business cards like ammo. I’d cringed & cowered, feeling fake and phony as I presented my budding skills to a business professional who already knew I might as well be saying, “I want you to give me a job... a connection... a lead... Give. Me. Give. Me. Give. Me.”
Perhaps I stink at networking.
Perhaps my only craving has ever been to sit Indian-style in the middle of an open room with you and talk about what kinds of things keep you up at night. Perhaps that is my version of connection. Perhaps it has gotten me exactly where I am today. And perhaps the world doesn’t quite agree.
Either way, our culture has done a lot to jack up this concept of Networking. We think of stale suits and girls with their hair all stiffened into buns. Cardboard interactions. Awkward conversations as one fumbles to find a connecting point and we all just agree that there are no job outs there (that's a lie... there are plenty of jobs out there. Please stop listening to the people who say there isn't.).
Networking, when you get down to the bones of it, looks a lot like friendship. A lot like actual connections. A lot like dream sharing. A lot like something I would actually do if taught right. And so I’ve dedicated this blog post to the best practices I’ve learned while networking. I’ve appropriately entitled it “How to Network Like a B.O.S.S.”
I might be raw. I might be point blank honest. But folks, I just want to be real with you. You down? Cool!
Quit treating it like it’s a dang game.
We are human beings. We go through similar things. Life is tough. Am I right?
At one point you need something. At another point I need something. Get down to the grit of me, care about how I am doing, get to know me, see how I could really help you.
Networking is not a game. It’s not a savvy straight line to the job of your dreams. It’s about conversation. It’s about collaboration. It’s about stepping outside the lines of “do this” and “do that” to just talk to someone openly and honestly. It’s about opening up to someone, “Listen... I’ve got this dream... I’m wondering what you think of it...”
So... um... What do you want?
Be clear on it. Know it better than you know the freckles on your knuckles (maybe I am the only one with freckles on my knuckles?). No one can put the words of what you need into your own mouth so you best get comfortable with speaking on it yourself.
Y’all should meet the young lady (and one of my very best friends) who changed the face of networking for me forever. I believe Tammy Tibbetts is the muse behind Alicia Key's "Girl on Fire" song. She is on point. She is focused. She is a star connector. And Tammy looks me in the eye every time we meet, and asks, “Ok, how can I help you?”
I’ve learned this with Tammy: I need to be ready for this question. I need to already know my answers. Because she wants to help. And I should be open to knowing where I need the help.
She & I jet furiously into a list of what’s been right and what’s been wrong. And who could help. And who could connect. And who could add this or take away this. It might have started out as networking but it has morphed into a solid friendship where she and I are able to swap skills, laugh together, and get down the bones of our deepest dreams.
But it all began with this: What. Do. You. Want? & How. Do. I. Help. Make. This. Happen?
And what can you give?
Know thyself. Know thyself. Know thyself. What are you good at? What kind of expertise can you offer someone else?
Networking is a symbiotic relationship. It is, “I serve you and you serve me.” It is boosting another higher. It is knowing when you can step back in and return the favor. Your mindset going into an email intro or a conversation with someone you’ve long admired should not just be “What do I need?” but rather, “What do I have to offer?”
And please, don’t sit here whining that you don’t have any skills. You gotz mad skillz and if you don’t then sit down NOW and really ask yourself, “What do I want to be good at?” Focus on that. Get better at that. And then prep yourself to give it back into the world.
I am noticing there is a gangsta twang to most of my language here but maybe that's cuzzzzz all of seeing your dreams into reality is about HUSTLING. Always & always, baby.
Meeting people, connecting with people, finding common ground-- none of it ever shuts down. The beauty of this world is that you are constantly apt to meet other interesting souls, whether you crash into them in the grocery store or intentionally meet them for coffee.
Please, if you take anything away from this post then let it be this: You need to pull networking out of the stale, cardboard box your college business department tries to shove it in. Networking is not about resumes on the cuff and recommendations. It is about being an open soul wherever you’re walking and being very aware of what kind of big things you want to do in this world...
Don’t you go all Tin man on me.
I am not your most conventional business person. I don’t really play by many of the rules because I don’t even really care about the rules. But I do want to know your heart... and that has worked for me just fine.
I went to a networking event in NYC in the summer and I nearly fell out of my skin in humiliation for the whole thing. I felt out of place. I felt so uncomfortable. I hated having business cards ready in my pocket. So I said, “Eh, screw it” and just started to be myself.
Before long, there was a crowd of folks around me and we were talking digital communications & love letters & generosity. And it was real conversation. And one person started weeping. And another grabbed a napkin to wipe up the tears tsunami. DANGG, that. is. my. kind. of. networking.
The point is this: I really don’t need you to size me up. Or place value on my connections. I have no interest in knowing you want to climb a ladder. I want to know if you are passionate. I want to know if you are ready for sleepless nights and a celebration that does not always come when you expect it. I want to know that passing your name on to one of my connections will reflect back on me. I want to know that you will be gracious. I want to know that you are the real deal and I don’t need a resume to confirm that.
Oh goodness, this one is a doozy. You must be dedicated to following up with people. Even if a connection does not work out or a partnership does not pan, you should always draft an email or a thank you note to the person who first made the initial contact. It’s cordial. It’s sane. It’s quite human of you.
We want to know that our match up meant something to you. We want to know that we opened the door for potential collaboration. We want to see that our resources were well spread, so come back to me! Tell me what happened! Tell me if I can help a little more!
Find the courage... and then pay it forward.
I left this point for last. It matters most to me. It's like the fortune in the cookie, baby.
When I was 22 years old, with empty hands and a full heart, I stumbled into a breakfast full of leading ladies at Tammy’s apartment. We sat & laughed & collaborated for two hours and I met a beautiful soul named Selena Soo there.
Selena Soo exudes grace. & know-how. & eloquence in her speech and her work. She is truly a marvel to watch & know.
I scrounged deep in my pockets for the big courage to email Selena and ask her for maybe 10 minutes of her time. I was looking for my first “real person job” and I was seeking guidance on the job hunt. Selena took the time to talk with me one early morning for 30 minutes. She gave me advice. She steered me right. And it was all because of my openness and honesty with her-- I told her dreams, desires, hopes and loves.
Selena doubled back with worksheets and exercises to help me nail my dream job. She checked in with me often. We developed a closeness between us. And I always thought, “Wow, all of this-- the following my dreams, the going out on a limb-- all of it is because Selena gave me 30 minutes of her time.”
If you admire someone, if you want to know more, if you just have an ache to meet them for coffee and spill your guts then do me a favor and tell them. Don't cry all over your shirt. Don't be a hot mess. But be gutsy enough to just send an email and propose a conversation... it might just change your life.
Selena is the reason behind my first "big girl" job. The reason I quit my full-time job to pursue my dreams. The reason I am now a freelancer at 24 and eating my work like it's decadent chocolate cake (I lick my fingers and everything). But best of all, Selena and I skype every month now. We formed a remarkable friendship over the simple act of networking. We pour into one another. It's quite beautiful. And it's not anything you would pent up into a business brochure.
In my own networking & connecting experiences, I want to be like Selena Soo. I want to be the person who gives someone with little experience and a big heart the advice they truly need to push forward. I think we should all strive to be like that: genuine givers, with big hearts, and a lot of grace.
The moral of my little story.
Networking should not be something we all try to "get good" at. If you want to be good in this world then focus on forming relationships, establishing connections, being better to other people and helping where you can. Those are the things that count. Those are the things that build up character as opposed to just a resume.
You ain't your accomplishments. You ain't your titles. You are a human being with real dreams & a need for others. People need you. You need others..
Figure out why and just go.
Can we swap networking tips like play cards now? Please, oh please, share in the comments below.