Today’s guest blog post is written by Matthew Williams, Communications Intern at Accent on Business.
For a long time, networking evoked a negative albeit vivid image in my mind. A large group of middle-aged strangers getting together in a large conference room drinking, laughing at unfunny jokes, and passing around business cards all the while trying to sell insurance or burial plots. I’m not entirely sure where this image came from but I was certain it was not the game I wanted to play.
From the time I entered college until the time I left, I would constantly hear professors espouse the virtues of networking:
“It’s not just what you know,” they would say. “It’s about who you know. If you don’t learn to network the odds of finding a good job are slim.”
I’d like to say that hearing this message repeatedly over time softened my position on networking, but it didn’t. I convinced myself that I didn’t need to network because I was hard-working and talented and employers would notice that by looking at my professional, well-written resume.
After I woke up from this dream, I realized I should probably give networking a shot. I went to a few a networking events around town and discovered a new reason to dislike networking: I was horrible at it.
For reasons I can’t quite explain, these events remind me of my high school days. In high school, I was pretty shy and didn’t talk to a lot of people. I was the kid who spent his lunch time eating alone at the far end of the table while everyone else made plans for the weekend. I eventually grew out of this practice and have become quite the social butterfly, which gave me reason to believe I’d be good at networking. I was wrong.
The low point came when I signed up to go to a young professional’s networking event at the local baseball stadium. It was designed to be an evening of fun where one could enjoy beer, brats, baseball and business talk. Knowing I had struck out on previous networking endeavors, I made a plan. Because the food would be served first, I would get to the stadium early, find a table that offered an excellent view of the field and sit right in the center. This would force the action my way. People would sit down, we’d talk, they’d love me, and I’d walk away more connected than when I’d walked in.
As is often the case, life gets in the way of perfect plans. About five minutes after pulling out my driveway, I realized that I didn’t have my wallet. I stopped, turned, around, and went back for my wallet. Unfortunately, I had no idea where it was. I spent fifteen minutes tearing up my apartment before finding it. Sweaty and flustered (it was summer and I was overdressed), I headed back out. Apparently, during the fifteen minute period I was looking for my wallet, everyone in the suburbs decide to hop on the interstate and head into the city. After finally making it downtown, I had five minutes to find a parking spot and get into the stadium to be on time to execute my plan.
Twenty minutes and a gallon of sweat later, I found a place to park. By this time I was officially late. I strolled into the park in my well-pressed long sleeved shirt sporting a tie and sweater. In July. At a baseball game. Outside. Uncomfortable but not completely discouraged, I tried to find a table with a good view in the hopes than I could salvage my plan. I sat down and not too long afterwards a couple sat next to me. Like I had done so many times in the past, I froze. I didn’t introduce myself and they talked to each other as if they didn’t even see me there. By the time the national anthem started blaring, I was ready to go home. I was more interested in networking than watching a minor-league baseball game. I don’t even like baseball. The only consolation was that I’d won a door prize which entitled me to a dozen gourmet cookies.
As I drove back home drowning my sorrows in soft-baked white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, I tried to figure out why it was that these events were causing me so much stress. Why did I keep running into my cocoon instead of spreading my wings?
The realization I came to was simple, but helpful nonetheless. The reason I find everyday conversations with strangers manageable is because I don’t place a large amount of pressure on them. If I make a connection, that’s great. If not, then that’s Okay too. Networking is important and can lead to great things. However, pressure and unrealistic expectations can short-circuit the process before it even begins.