It’s the Spring of 2009.
Every college senior in the country was losing sleep for reasons beyond all-night study sessions or end-of-the-year house parties. The economy was in a God-fearing state, and we watched as people with 5-10 years of experience were struggling to find a job in their field. Dozens of resumes were flying out of my “professional” Gmail account, with very few human responses coming back to my inbox. At one point, I even thought about getting my masters degree to prolong the job-searching process, inspired solely by the most-common advice I was getting from mentors, peers, and professionals. I spent late hours in the hallway of my small apartment, which reeked of burnt popcorn and sweaty twentysomethings, ironing clothes that only came out for special occasions. On this particular week, the School of Business was taking a bus load of students to Columbus for a networking fair. At this point in my life, networking meant one thing: it was how I was going to land a job. Networking had very little to do with expanding my reach or measuring the impact that I was willing to make. In all reality, it was a one-way street to figuring out how I was going to make $100,000/year in the first 5 years of my professional career- don’t ask me how that turned out. Every conversation I had, whether it be at a roundtable or in a convention center filled with recruitment officers, felt like a poorly executed death metal song stuck on repeat. I remember leaving that event with a bag full of brochures, a handful of business cards that meant very little, and an immense amount of fear that I had spent the last four years studying marketing only to be the proud owner of a mobile home reselling used goods on eBay. Did I make a poor choice when I changed my major for the third time? Did I miss my life calling in the 5th grade when I got an “Excellent” rating on the recorder?
The truth is I think networking has made a bad name for itself over the years; come to think of it, maybe we’re the ones to blame. The first thing that always comes to mind is large conferences with name-tag memorizing practices, subtle business card drops, and endless amounts of social media stalking to determine who’s who in your industry. Or from a social perspective, it means open bars filled with well drinks and domestic beers or fancy finger-foods that make us feel sophisticated or enriched by our profession. A recent conversation with a fellow marketing and communications professional showcased the genuine despise that many feel towards networking. And the truth is, I get it. The surface-level conversations about ourselves, the endless handshakes and culturally-guided order of operations to creating a new contact can get pretty exhausting. If that’s all there is to networking, the “young millenials” (as coined by a recent article…don’t get me started) are bound to turn a cold shoulder in search of something simpler or more authentic.
In retrospect, the definition of networking has taken a turn for the best for me; when professionals are able to spend less time thinking about how they’re going to pay their rent, they can spend more time actually thinking about the people in front of them. I live in a community where my coffeeshop conversations in the early hours of the morning actually have human value in them; when I’m discussing my current projects or aspirations for the next few years, I feel both encouraged and challenged. I think these are the most-authentic forms of networking, when it doesn’t feel like work at all.
It’s time to take back networking as a tribute to the relationship-building that I like to believe happened in small Midwestern towns between merchants and business owners with a hint of barber shop conversation to keep things contemporary. Maybe it’s as simple as people ditching the word “networking”. It’s turned into this dirty word and the sales executives of the world have made it their own. So call it what you want. But here’s how I think we take back networking.
Build a synergistic mentality: What we are capable of doing together is more powerful than what any of us could do individually. This is the true spirit of collaboration.
Connect the right people and places: some of the most successful people out there aren’t necessarily the best in their field; but what makes them great is their ability to connect people to one another, placing the right people in the right places. It feels like a hybrid between management and psychology. Understanding the people around you and the values that they honor most can go a long way. Rather than asking the question, “what’s in it for me”, ask yourself, “how I make things better for someone else today?” and believe that empowering those around you to be better is going to make you better. Some call it karma, others call it blessings; regardless of definition, go after it.
Celebrate people for who they are: We’re an instant-gratification generation that is used to getting what we want immediately. From a religious perspective, I think one of the biggest failures of the modern church is the inability to connect on a human level before diving into the spiritual realm. Before they can experience breakthrough, a person must feel safe (not necessarily comfortable) in their surroundings, willing to trust those around them, and celebrated by the community. So before diving into new work contracts or licensed agreements, take a minute to invest in that person for who they are, in their truest identity. Most of us, even the passionate entrepreneurs, like or need to be recognized for who we are as people, not by the products we build or the entities we create.
Know balance: Everyone has their limits when it comes to capacity in relationships and in people. And let it be known, we all certainly have our own preferences. There is no right or wrong when it comes to determining how many people you can actually invest into in your life, and at what level you invest. But know where your balancing point is; investing too much can leave you burnt out and dependent on your surrounding. Investing too little can leave you with little motivation and a lack of diversity in both thought and interaction. Learn what works for you, but never fear a little stretch in either direction.
Let’s take back networking.