THE terrible thing about networking is that it works so well.
It’s the people who constantly make connections who thrive in the business world. They like to be seen as movers and shakers, and by moving around and shaking hands, they are.
“Business networking is a socioeconomic activity by which groups of like-minded businesspeople recognize, create or act upon business opportunities,” says Wikipedia in a neutral tone, with no audible background retching (I added it in my mind). “Many businesspeople contend business networking is a more cost-effective method of generating new business than advertising or public relations efforts.”
Some people take naturally to schmoozing. You can observe the most successful of them gliding through any professional event like reef sharks, sizing up fellow guests like they’re potential bait. They appear to be asking themselves, “Could that woman be useful to me? How powerful is that man over there?” Prime schmoozers only cultivate the most influential parties. Lo and behold, all that chuckling at Conrad Black’s prison yarns eventually gets them somewhere.
Meanwhile, those of us haunting the cheese trays cringe with embarrassment at the obviousness of their tactics. Transparent ambition offends our tender sensibilities. Instead of heading straight for the fat cat, why didn’t our rival networker make a beeline for some other mousy guest, as we might, and save that person’s night? The answer is clear; the shrewd businessperson didn’t show up at this soiree to be a social worker – he (or she) went there to get ahead. Triumphant networkers wind up the evening gloriously festooned with business cards, not cracker shards and spittle.
Whenever I’m puzzled by something, I like to consult the freelance idiots at wikiHow.com for advice, because it usually arrives at a level a kindergartener can understand. Thus, wikiHow tells us, when it comes to building a career, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know…. Your fellow human beings are a vast resource.”
So that’s my problem -- I don’t regard my confreres as a giant mineral deposit. To me, they’re not alluvium ores ripe for plundering, but individuals whom I may or may not wish to know better, depending on whether they laugh at my jokes.
Even as I offer this simplistic, self-serving analysis, I’m reminded of being in Toronto years ago at a soiree for the National Magazine Awards. I was one of the nominees, losing out to the late Paul Quarrington. Despite that disappointment, this was the ideal opportunity to introduce myself to the country’s biggest media moguls, and that was largely why I had gone.
Suspecting this, a savvy acquaintance pointed out some powerful figure whom she thought would be a good person for me to know. I instantly scoffed, adding childishly that I was glad not to live in Toronto if a career there meant I would have to suck up to the so-called elite. She shook her head. “Oh, Kate,” she said wearily, deeply pitying my naivete.
I know now that she was right. I should have dashed over to meet whoever it was. We Canadians, however, tend to be unassuming people. Our idea of an aggressive move is mildly rebuking a stranger for not picking up after his dog. We aren’t self-promoters. In fact, my generation of Canucks was taught that seeking attention was crass. As a result, business networking seems like a trap to make us reveal our innate vulgarity.
Of course, there are other, less paranoid viewpoints on this topic. Apparently the business networking event can be quite benign -- you just have to know what you’re doing. YouTube, for instance, offers a Digital Café video featuring an expert who says networkers should strive to seek out a “trialogue” (a conversation with two others, not to be confused with a “three-way”). That sounds okay. In my experience, however, triangular conversations always exclude the least pushy party -- who then starts groping for any murky cocktail that’s floating past.
The same video advises that along with a fresh supply of business cards, those of us attending a networking event must ensure that we take along our “audio logo.” This is a series of three questions we ought to ask each person we meet: What do you do? Why are you here? Who is your ideal prospect?
“Start with the premise of ‘What can I do for you?’” says the Digital Café expert. Now I know why my strategy of scowling while telepathically delivering the message, “How fast can I get away from you?” has never worked.
I guess this is one of those “There are two sorts of people” scenarios. One sort of person employs artful strategy to achieve a desired result. My sort of person galumphs away from same, hoping only for a generous supply of refreshments. We fantasize that our work speaks for itself and will attract opportunities as magnetically as black pants rope in pet hair.
Is this wise? No. Does it work to enhance our careers? Evidently not.
Can we transform ourselves from glum lurkers to glib glad-handers? Not without illicit drugs. I prefer tea, myself.