Many women think of networking like exercising: something that's good for them, that they know they should be doing, but that they just can't find the time or the motivation to do. Plenty of the women I advise detest the very concept of networking. Girlogic: networking is slimy, manipulative, superficial and mostly for people who have no life.
Yet every single career-building book in the universe will tell you that networking is the single most important thing you can do to keep your Options open. I agree. Personally, though, I think the problem here is the word "networking." When people use it as a verb, as in: "I was out networking last night," I want to GAG.
Machines network. Human beings talk.
Networking is actually just chatting -- having a simple, meaningless conversation that creates what I call a "Hum" between two people. Relationships -- and I'm talking real relationships here, not just a bunch of names in your Rolodex that you've "collected" -- begin with "hello" and are built on a series of chats.
Once you've established a nice Hum with someone, she becomes your chum, and you become hers (notice that nice reciprocity part?) Getting the Hum going assumes that during your chat, you formed a mutual interest in each other. And I'm not necessarily talking only about big whigs who can hand you your dream job.
Really, isn't everyone you know good to know for some reason? Even if it's just that they make you laugh?
Getting One Pump in the Door
You've already got a bucket of chums -- it's called your address book. All of those people -- family, friends from high school, people in your office, friends of your siblings -- found their way into your little black book for some reason. You might not think of these chums as valuable assets in your option arsenal, but they are: they all have their own connections to other potential chums that could quite possibly change your life.
I can't tell you how many of the girls who call me got jobs through a friend of a friend of a friend. Check out how three of them got their most recent jobs:
Alison got a job as a headhunter (when she had zero experience) through a former colleague's husband's sister's contact.
Allison's dad knew somebody whose secretary knew somebody who knew somebody to get her job in public relations.
Alyson and her sister met a guy at a dog run. He dated Alyson's sister and Alyson got a job as an Internet retail site producer at his company.
The moral of the story here is not to go out and get a dog, although people do tend to get chatting with complete strangers on the street who have either dogs or babies. The point is to start broadcasting in a chatty, non-desperate and positive way, to anyone you meet, what you do, and where you think you would like to go next.
I mean to anyone, anywhere. When I was a senior in college, while I was waiting on line to get into the ladies' room at a bar, I struck up a conversation with the woman in front of me. After a quick little blah blah blah on where we both lived, I casually mentioned that I was a communications major and was looking for an internship at an ad agency. Well, turns out the lady on the loo line just happened to be a senior manager at an advertising agency, and before the two of them could even see the stalls, she gave me her card. As soon as I got back to school, I dropped Ms. Senior Manager a note reminding her of our conversation. Ms. Senior Manager arranged for me to get a fab internship for the summer. Hummmmm.
When something is humming away, it's working in the background. Don't you just love it when you hear the washing machine running? It means you are getting something done, and, really, your effort was pretty minimal -- you shoved the clothes in, dropped in some soap, pushed the button. Woosh.
My career, as opposed to the string of early hateful J-O-Bs, did not start until I learned to chat and Hum. I originally thought that I needed to follow all the conventional job-hunt routes -- classified sections; job agencies; temp agencies. Obviously, some people find success down those avenues, but the best jobs I ever cruised into, and the best jobs that most of the people I know landed, were the direct result of chatting and Humming. It's a fact: most people get the good jobs the same way they get good dates -- because someone "fixed them up" with it.
Sealed with a Kiss of Lipstick
When I wanted O-U-T of the hateful Boston ad agency job and away from my dreadful boss Demi, I told my friend Linda that I wanted to meet her chum Brigitta because Linda had said Brigitta worked in event marketing -- which is exactly what I thought I wanted to do with my life next.
Linda brought me to a party that she knew Brigitta would attend. I got a little chat going with Brigitta, who mentioned that she liked my lipstick. I, who, at the time, was just this side of signing up for food stamps, ran out the next day and bought a tube of the same lipstick I had worn to the party and sent it off with a note to Brigitta. Alas, I heard nothing more from Brigitta as the months rolled away and my political misery syndrome raged on.
Six months later, though, while aboard an Amtrak to New York, I spied Brigitta. I plopped herself right down and began chatting with Brigitta, who immediately mentioned the lipstick. Huuuummmmmm.
Brigitta: "So, ya. I'm going to leave my job and go home to Munich."
Me (jumping out of seat): "Are you kidding me?"
Brigitta: "No. I'm ready. Why?"
Me (trying to steady myself): "Brigitta, I am dying to get into event marketing. Can you please tell me what I can do to get my foot in the door at Phillip Morris?"
Brigitta: "Do you have any event marketing experience?"
Me (passionately): "Absolutely none. But I want so badly to learn it. Can you help me?"
Brigitta (sold entirely on the strength of my unbridled enthusiasm): "I don't see why not."
True story. Brigitta helped me land the job that she, herself, was vacating, and even trained me before she jetted off to Germany. A little chat, a little Hum and a little lipstick did more for my future than my four years of college could.
You can't expect to connect with everyone. And there is such a thing as trying too hard. But if you have a sincere instinct to follow up with someone you just met, or even send a small gift as I did, follow it. It might take you nowhere, or it might take you exactly where you want to go.
A little gesture that you make -- be it a letter or a lipstick--to a relative stranger that shows you really were listening to her when you were chatting, and thought about her after the discussion enough to take some kind of action is a fabulous backscratch. It confirms in the other person's mind that yes, there was a some-hum-thing there. She'll be touched and impressed -- and she will remember you if you run into her on the train six months later.
Chatting and Humming Rules
Networking really is like exercise. It's good for you on multiple levels and has untold benefits that you might never actually see. Just as there are lots of fun ways to get physical activity besides thumping the Stairmaster feeling like you are getting nowhere, there are plenty of entertaining ways to chat and Hum. Here are a few of my favorites:
If you are a gym rat, go to the best gym you can afford. Ask around your office and sign up for the gym that the execs go to. Nothing like chatting and Humming in the showers. Don't try to chat with people when they are working out, though. Pretend you are serious about exercise. Suck up a spinning class.
Take every possible opportunity for training. Go to seminars, tradeshows and take as many professional development classes as your company will foot the bill for. If they won't pay for any, tell your folks you want a gift certificate to the local college or other continuing education venue for your birthday. Get in those classes and sharpen those claws.
If your industry involves travel opportunities, take them. Don't be the one stuck home watching the phone board not light up, unless you are doing it as a deliberate heroic favor that someone influential will truly appreciate and remember. Once we strong-armed our friend Ayn, a shy divorcée, to go on a press trip that she didn't want to go on. But off she went. Ayn ended up chatting and Humming like a pro, and came home not only with a bunch of great new chums, but also with a most excellent guy who later became her hubby!
If you are traveling for work, say, to a tradeshow, ask around to find out who else in the industry, or in your office, is going. Call each person on the list, introduce yourself if you don't already know them and make a date for a meal, a quick coffee or a floor walk during the show. Invite them to see you at your booth, Babe.
When traveling, skip room service. Don't eat cheap, use the expense account to chat and Hum with the Most Uppity Uppers who are willing to be seen in public with you.
Go to every single stupid company function. The picnic, the Christmas party, the award ceremony. Smile, bring your most handsome and/or accomplished escort with you to get those colleagues buzzing, a close cousin to Humming. Do NOT get sloppy drunk no matter how much you feel you need to relax, and don't chat about work, except to drop the most subtle clues about how interesting the projects you are working on are.
Be a do-gooder. Find a charity to actively support. It can be in your church, temple, the local schools, Habitat for Humanity, United Way, whatever. It gives you something to say about yourself, you'll feel like a good and noble human being and chances are good that you'll meet some high-powered executives there. Part of the secret of truly successful people is that they make time to volunteer. The COO of Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruises, presumably a busy guy, once took the time to train for 10 months, covering 700 miles, to be in shape for the New York City marathon. He ran it in 5 hours and 22 minutes and in doing so, raised $300,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Find a cause, and make the time to support it -- you'll never be sorry.
Go to your alumni reunions: high school, college, camp, it matters not. Just go. You have a natural connection with these groups.
Go to places where other professionals who are not necessarily in your industry congregate. Art shows, adventure tours, adult education classes, the bookstore, lecture series, book readings and the like. Read the weekend section of your local paper to find out what's happening where, and go, Flo, go.
Join industry groups and other professional organizations and participate in them as much as possible. DO not put off doing this for even one more week. If you don't know which to join, that's a perfect question to ask an exec to begin a mentor relationship. And no, sending in $25 for the PBS fundraiser and getting a tote bag is not what I'm talking about here. Try something more like The Association for Women in Communication (www.womcom.org). Go on your industry website and see what associations look good to you. You can sign up on-line for most organizations and the membership dues are tax deductible. The relationships you build in a professional organization will outlast just about any job. When you join, recognize the commitment you are making -- everyone else will. We learned the hard way that giving organizations you join a priority in your monthly schedule is Ka-Roo-Shill.
Build your base of chums in a variety of social events that exposes you to new people and new interests: join a book group (or start one), form a dinner group and each month have one person in the group bring a new person as a guest. Tap into the local college. Talk to everyone.
Are you getting the idea here? Get out of your office, get out of your house, get out of your rut and get looking for a job -- everywhere and anywhere. And no matter where you find yourself, be it the laundromat or a lecture, make it a point to connect in some way with the people you find there. You just don't know if that person sitting next to you at jury duty could be the connecting thread to your future unless you strike up a little chat. (OK, here's our dirty little secret. We call it Always Looking for a Job, but normal people call it Having An Interesting Life. Sssshhh.)