Allow me to be perfectly frank: I hate networking. When I say “networking,” I am referring to the practice of meeting as many people as you can within your given profession with the hopes that someday, one of these connections will turn into a lucrative job opportunity.
Now, I am not against meeting new people. After growing up in Louisiana, and attending high school, college, and graduate school within my home state, I have relished the experience of the last eight years living in terrific cities like Los Angeles and Washington, meeting people from all across the globe. I have nothing but positive things to say about this experience.
But when I think of networking, I immediately think of the process of forcing relationships to occur. Have you ever had the pleasure of attending a networking event? Typically, you find yourself in a crowded bar or restaurant, with your business cards in tow, looking for an empty cocktail table at which to park and start a conversation with another budding professional. And I am sure that most have participated in these types of conversations, where you ask the person what s/he does, where they are from, and so on and so forth, with responses ranging from, “Oh, cool!” to “Right, right…” It is just something I am not very good at.
On the other hand, I realize that networking can be valuable. Aside from all the people you meet along the way, a willingness to network shows that you are able to “play the game,” so to speak, even if you think the rules of the game are a little silly. Whenever I have looked around for new jobs, it would have certainly been easier to have been recommended or referred for a job because of a professional connection instead of just going to a university’s website and filling out an application online, wondering if that application would ever be viewed by a real human being.
So what is the best way to network when networking makes you feel uncomfortable? In this month’s post, I present three tips that I have found work best for me:
1) Read, read, and read some more!
While I prefer those professional relationships that form naturally, the best relationships exist when the other person and I have something interesting to talk about. As such, I like the challenge of being able to hold a conversation about many different topics at any given moment, particularly topics relating to our field of work.
During the summer preceding each new admission cycle, I make the effort to fully jump into a topic where I feel like my knowledge base is lacking. Some examples: After realizing that my response to financial aid questions was too commonly becoming, “You need to speak with the Financial Aid office,” I read anything and everything I could find on the web about financial aid, trying to educate myself on its history in the U.S., to the current debates about its future, and of course, to the often complicated terminology and jargon. During another summer, I read up on the debate over affirmative action; at another time, I dove head first into the inter-workings of the College Board’s Enrollment Planning Service, which provides mounds upon mounds of data to help schools recruit students.
These summer projects keep my brain working, and it is fun to learn something along the way. And time again, whether I was in a job interview, or attending a conference session, the newly acquired knowledge helped me chat more comfortably with the other folks in the room.
2) Apply for a committee in your professional organization.
I was pretty late to the game when it came to applying for the different committees organized by WACAC and the like. In fact, I did not start putting myself out there for committees until I joined the staff at American University, which means that during my first 5-plus years at USC, I was pretty uninvolved.
And while joining a committee is a stealth approach to networking, what made it easier for me is that it was a structured environment. The group is working towards a common goal, so it feels less forced.
While at American, I joined PCACAC (Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling), and joined the Current Trends/Future Issues committee. Each month, the committee chairperson would send an email to the group asking for articles or podcasts about a particular topic, and when it came time for the annual conference, we conducted a research project within our association and presented the findings at the conference’s closing session. Participating on the committee was both easy and fulfilling, and I met great colleagues on both sides of the desk. When I took my current position at USC, I was disappointed to be leaving the group, but I soon joined up with WACAC’s Communications committee, which has provided the opportunity to write this blog. (And on a side note, I learned that only PCACAC and one other national ACAC have Current Trends/Future Issues committees, so I am hopeful to start one up for WACAC in the near future!)
3) Remember, the loudest voice in the room doesn’t always have the most to say.
At some point or another, we have all been trapped in a group “discussion” where it seems people are trying to talk over one another, and those whose voices are the highest volume appear to have the most insights into the topic. I wonder, though, if we were to print a transcript of the discussion, we would see that there was little substance to anything they said. But it can be intimidating to be stuck in those situations. Furthermore, when it has happened to me, I’ll find myself feeling bummed out afterwards because I wasn’t quick enough on my toes to contribute. Would it then appear to others that I’m less qualified?
I have resigned that it is inevitable that every now and then, I am going to get stuck in a discussion where one or more people are dominating figures in the room. But a few years ago, to make it more bearable, I began participating in such debates in my mind while they were going on in front of me. Rather than just sitting back and taking in the show, I try to be an active participant in the discussion, albeit inside my head. When the discussion comes to a close, I feel like I was able to learn something, and if/when the moment arrives where I will be able to express my thoughts, I will have already thought things through.
To close, I do not mean to bash anyone who is able to succeed at networking. It is an enviable skill, but just one that I have never been really good at. So to all the good networkers out there, I salute you. And to those of you who dread networking as much as me, maybe we can meet up at a conference sometimes and have discussions in our heads with one another. Nothing weird about that, right?
By Michael Gulotta