How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Network Events
How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love Networking Events
Part 1 in the Code Like A Girl Networking Series
I think I’m a pretty high-functioning, well-rounded human. I have a Computer Science degree and 10 years experience creating software under my belt. I am confident and comfortable tackling tough problems, hard conversations, and seemingly unsolvable bugs. Yet, I break into a cold sweat every time someone mentions a networking event.
For a while, I looked at this as a flaw I needed to overcome. My managers encouraged me to go to local events and repeated such helpful advice as “don’t sit with people you know” and “make sure you dress nice[r than usual]”.
The first time I tried this at the Communitech Tech Leadership Conference, I marched around with false confidence, probably looking very busy and unfriendly — not helped by the fact I was wearing uncomfortable (but nice!) shoes. Not surprisingly, I did not actually talk to anyone all day except for the small (forbidden!) breaks I allowed myself to chat with colleagues and former colleagues I was relieved to run into. At the end of the day, while I had thoroughly enjoyed the day’s programming (side note: follow Kirstine Stewart on Twitter if you don’t already!) I had fostered zero new relationships.
Not one to admit defeat easily, I kept at it. Spoiler alert: each time was just as nerve-racking and unpleasant! One time, I sat by myself at a table at lunch and smiled warmly at everyone that walked by. Soon, seats filled up with professional-type guys. I initiated introductions, but the conversations seemed very one-way, with them bragging about their titles or companies, and not in a “hey you should come and work here because it is amazing” kind of way.
Eventually a woman paused and asked quietly if the seat next to me was taken. The guys didn’t even stop to acknowledge her, but we started chatting a bit. Another woman came by, looked relieved to see us, and took the last seat at my table. When I asked her what her job was like, she paused for a moment and then let her story pour out in one big breath. Turns out she was just back at work after a maternity leave, and her job had vanished while she was gone. She was put into a new role that she didn’t like, and she was really struggling, both with the job and with being a new mom.
Well. That wasn’t what I was expecting at a “professional networking event” but boy did I have Things to Say on that topic . The three of us ladies had a great chat and I hope she left feeling a bit better about her chances of making it!
I had an epiphany later that day. I had once again declared my performance a failure, because I didn’t leave with any new business cards in my pocket. However, I had really enjoyed connecting with those women, because I felt that we had something in common. I was going about “networking” the wrong way.
I’m never going to like walking into a room of strangers and talking to them. While I might get better at it with practice, I am never going to LIKE it… this is who I am, and I no longer look at this as a flaw. Networking isn’t a game where you keep score by number of business cards or new LinkedIn connections. For me, networking is about quality not quantity and building an existing relationship is just as important as starting a new one.
As for the “forbidden” chats with former colleagues… well guess what? My network is FULL of those people and they are AWESOME. It is easy and natural for me to keep in touch with people who were kick-ass coworkers, because I want them to stay in my life! I would love them to help me out when I’m looking for new opportunities. And guess what else? My current coworkers may eventually become former coworkers and I really hope some of them would also think of me if a job opens up on their team in the future. If some of these people offer to introduce me to someone new, it’ll be cool because we have something in common already: awesome friends!
Dinah Davis gave me some amazing advice that I sort of shrugged off at the time. She told me that she never eats lunch alone at her desk, and that she spends her lunch time eating with all kinds of different people around the office. This is a great strategy for growing my network, but also helping me professionally, to gain exposure within the company. What kind of problems could I help them solve?
I still like to eat lunch alone sometimes, for my own sanity. But I make the effort to reach out and take lunches and coffee breaks with a lot of cool folks at my office on the regular. I never even realized that this was “networking”… I just thought I was having fun. I’ve also recently joined a Lean In circle with some women at work, and we have a common ground to build on just by showing up and being honest together. They are awesome to connect with, and there was no anxiety on my part about showing up in the first place.
The best part is I no longer put pressure on myself to talk to strangers. I can enjoy an event like the Tech Leadership Conference for what I love and need it to be: a chance to sit back and learn from industry leaders and to be inspired by awesome female tech role models along the way.
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