I am a wallflower at parties.
Yet there I was standing in the grand ballroom of one of the swankiest hotels in Manhattan. I was wearing a sleek black suit and stilettos that made me want to chop my feet off. I clutched a cocktail in one hand and flexed the fingers of my other one, reminding myself to shake hands firmly. I was there to network.
Career networking is a tactic that has a nasty reputation. For some, the networker’s slogan can be summed up with these choice words: It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.
I soon caught the eye of a smartly dressed woman in her 30s, clearly schooled in this form of networking. Her eyes flicked to my name tag and they widened as she saw what publication I represented. Of course she had no idea that I was a mere student intern at that publication, a veritable bottom feeder who had been sent to this event because the higher-ups had no time or interest.
She immediately pounced, shook my hand and made small talk for five minutes. Then – almost mechanically – she reached into her purse, withdrew a snazzy business card and handed it to me. She looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to pull out a similarly fancy business card bearing the famous logo of the company I was working for.
“Er, I don’t have a business card,” I said awkwardly. Her smile faded as she realized that I must not be anyone of importance, before she slithered away to solicit a more prominent person.
Such a cold and calculating philosophy makes introverts, myself included, balk at the entire practice. Thankfully, this philosophy is also dead wrong, according to many of the most powerful and successful in business.
Scott Gratson, director of undergraduate studies at the School of Communications and Theater, agrees. Gratson, who is also director of the school’s communications program, regularly gives his students advice about career building, including networking techniques.
“Networking is something often as simple as finding out something about someone else. Not necessarily about their position, but about their background,” he said in an interview. “One of the best parts about networking is finding out people’s life stories, how they became what they became and what their interest areas are.”
Still, Gratson admitted that networking, if done the wrong way, can be tacky. “I think it becomes slimy when someone’s got this slick, selling mentality and yeah, that does feel awkward,” he said, adding that it’s also ineffective.
This isn’t to say that networking shouldn’t be done. In fact, you’d be nuts not to network. But networking isn’t just about figuring out how you can get ahead.
“It’s about figuring out how a better product can be created by collaborating with others. We can achieve great things together,” Gratson said. “That’s networking – to realize that there is a greatness that is larger than our individual parts.”
So instead of cold-calling strangers and searching for cheap shortcuts, form genuine relationships with those you already feel comfortable with, such as your professors and peers. Focus on working hard and developing your skills. Being known for good work is the most powerful career-building tool. If you’re great, people are bound to notice you.
And get business cards.
“You’re spending $40,000 for an education, so spend the $30 for business cards,” Gratson said.
Sadly, that’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.