A Networking Hater’s Guide to Networking
I have two coffees with strangers on my Google calendar for October. That this is a major professional milestone is a testament to how diligently I have avoided networking. It’s not that I don’t like meeting people; I am an enthusiastic extrovert. But as soon as a transactional thread is introduced — the thought that someday, my “connection” with the person I’m talking to will “pay off” — I feel very unsure of myself.
At the same time, I’m aware that networking is important, and that it’s especially important for women. In February, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study showing that effective networking looks very different for men and women. For men, it was enough to be central to their professional networks: Men with a lot of industry acquaintances were way more likely to be placed in high-up leadership positions.
But for women, that wasn’t enough. “Women who have networks that resemble those of high-placing men are low-placing, despite having leadership qualifications comparable to high-placing women,” the study authors wrote. In addition to wide networks, the women who were placed in the most senior leadership positions also had an “inner circle” that was dominated by women in their field.
Basically, it wasn’t enough to meet other people in my industry; I had to make industry friends. I had to meet a lot of women, and then I had to suck them into my life like a squid sucks prey into its gullet, immobilizing them with its tentacles and then drawing them ever closer.
Historically, my networking strategy has been more like the feeding habits of a sea anemone: I wait passively on the seafloor for the currents to deliver fish into my mouth. If the current does not pull the fish away, then over time he or she becomes a “connection.” My network was composed of people who have been delivered to me by various jobs and, through minimal effort on my part, stuck around in my life. It was a solid network, but it was small.
That wasn’t a problem when I was working in an office. But when I left my job and started freelancing last year, my universe immediately shrank. I felt professionally lonely.
So I started to actively broaden my professional network. From home, I LinkedIn’d, I followed. And then, after many months of working alone in my home, separating my “work pajamas” from my “night pajamas,” and eating cold cuts with my hands, I joined the Wing, which calls itself “a growing community of women across the country and globe, gathering together to work, connect, and thrive.” It was cheaper than renting office space, plus everything is pink and the flatbread is amazing. (I pay $234 a month, plus $15 for lunch every now and then because — and here’s the racket — you can’t bring in outside food.)
In some ways, the Wing is uniquely well-suited for networking. Every day, you’re in close proximity to Twitter goddesses whom you probably wouldn’t meet in the wild. But I was too intimidated to take advantage of that. I didn’t really know how to start conversations in a non-workplace, where I couldn’t immediately connect with people based on our shared work complaints. I did elevator chitchat with some cool-looking women, but nothing went anywhere. I asked a few women where their jumpsuits were from (every single jumpsuit at the Wing is from LACAUSA) but never saw them again.
I had to change tactics.
I bought Keith Ferrazzi’s bestselling networking book Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time. Ferrazzi is a small talk genius. He small talks the crap out of people, and he makes it sound shockingly easy. “The goal is simple,” he writes in Never Eat Alone. “Start a conversation, keep it going, create a bond, and leave it with the other person thinking, ‘I dig that person,’ or whatever other generational variation of that phrase you want to use.”
I usually fall off the small talk wagon right after “start a conversation.” I can ask a woman where her jumpsuit is from, but when she answers me, I fumble. I’m like the guy who offers to buy a woman a drink at a bar and then says, “Okay, hope it tastes good,” and darts off into the night.
To get past that first step, Ferrazzi says the key is to use what he calls “the compliment of candor.” Allow yourself to be less than polished. Vulnerable, even. “More than ever, the lines demarcating the personal and the professional have blurred. Being up front with people confers respect,” he writes. “The issues we all care about most are the issues we all want to talk about most.”
Ferrazzi’s advice echoed another piece of counsel I received, from literary agent Sarah Smith. To be a literary agent, she explains, you have to convey to writers and editors that you can be taken seriously, but also that you can hang. I was soothed to hear that when Smith started out, she was as daunted by that professional mandate as I would be.
Smith tells me she got over her anxiety by asking a lot of questions — not as a way of filling dead air, but because she really did want to know the answers. “I did my research on people before I met them, and then thought of topics of conversation relevant to their work beforehand. This may sound like overkill, but being genuinely curious about someone goes a very long way,” she says. It’s way easier to connect with someone when you’ve already piqued your curiosity.
I liked Ferrazzi and Smith’s advice because vulnerability and curiosity are things that come very easily to me. What doesn’t come easily to me is the kind of affected confidence that we’ve all been taught is a prerequisite for networking. I’ve gone to several “how to network”-type events, and they built networking up into something scary and boring. I was told to “be bold” and “fake it until I make it.”
I’m sure that type of swagger is reflexive for some people — a lot of men, for example — but I find it unnatural to put on and off-putting to witness. Especially now, when startup culture has made corporate culture way more casual, and the line between “professional connection” and “friend” is much more fluid. Networking can be more casual, too. Corporate bluster is out, authenticity is in.
Committed to — casually, naturally — making some new connections, I went back to the Wing, prepared to approach a stranger. But a stranger approached me first. She waved me over from a (pink) chair, taking out her headphones and sucking me into her maw like a beautiful dream squid. She did everything Smith and Ferrazzi recommended. “You’re going to think this is so creepy,” she started in. (Vulnerability, check.) She said she recognized me from the building where we both used to work. “I’m such a stalker,” she said, then complimented a story I’d written a few years back.
She was self-deprecating, and even borderline obsequious, but it didn’t make her seem less confident at all. She’d been bold enough to flag me down; I was already in awe. She was playing a role — “I’m so creepy” — in the same way old-timey briefcase dudes played a role for each other when they were doing their super-confident networking over martini lunches.
The study I read this winter suggested that women have an extra burden when networking: We don’t just have to meet people, we have to befriend them. But that goal is freeing, too. Conventional networking wisdom says that you should impress others with your self-assurance, but I don’t tend to connect with people who are unshakeably self-assured. I admire them and like them, but I don’t feel comfortable with them. When I’m trying to actually connect with someone, I don’t fall back on the restrained LinkedIn small talk that has historically made me so uncomfortable. I try to make them comfortable, a move that feels more like a friendship overture than an act of self-promotion.
In an attempt to put my Wing-friend at ease, I fell into the same role she did — “No, I’m impressed, I would be way too shy to introduce myself to a stranger” — and was immediately at ease myself. We compared notes about our old companies, and then we started talking about, like, life, man.
“We vibe, right?” she said. “We can do a coffee?”
We were networked.