Episode 126: The Hell of Networking

Show transcript: 

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This week I’m re-releasing a show I first put out almost exactly four years ago and women and networking, and women's attitude to networking. And how we can get better at it if we so desire. 

And I have to say I still don’t love going into a room full of strangers at a conference or event and starting a conversation. But networking is about much more than that, as you’ll hear in the episode.  

Also, a technical note, back then I wasn’t yet mic-ing myself when I asked my questions so you will hear my questions are a little off-mic.

I hope you enjoy the episode – as always, get in touch if you have anything to add. You’ll hear from me again at the end of the show.  

OK so here’s me back in 2014:

This time on the show…the horrors – and delights – of networking. We read this an important part of our careers…but a lot of women can’t stand the idea.

“We think of networking as, I’m going to meet this person so that they will do something for me. And I think that is toxic on so many levels.”

Coming up.

Back when I had a regular job I basically didn’t do any networking. I rarely went to after-work events where I might meet new people in my industry because I thought hey, I’m busy, I’m tired, I’d rather do something else at the end of the day. I saw it as a chore, not something that could potentially help me. And frankly the whole idea of networking seemed more like schmoozing. And I wasn’t comfortable with that.

Then I started working for myself.

And I began to go to lots of events, because I needed to meet people - but I’d be lying if I said I looked forward to these occasions. I hated walking up to total strangers with a nervous smile plastered to my face.

In this show we’re going to talk about how to get over the dread of networking and why you should bother. And we’ll meet a star networker whose contacts list has – she claims – kept her in work and helped out a lot of other people too.

First I sat down with Kimerbly Weisul. She’s had a long career in business journalism and she’s the co-founder of the site One Thing New, a startup she describes as re-booting women’s content.

I began by saying that from what I could work out, at least some of women’s discomfort with networking has to do with how we feel about other people…

“I do think women set great store by their relationships and when I put this out there on my Facebook page the responses I got were along the lines of it’s icky, it’s fake – it all has to do with how we value our relationships and I think a lot of women see networking as using someone.”

“Absolutely, well I think here are two reasons why women potentially hate networking more than men. One, in a business setting, you are very likely to be networking with men, so that right there socially is uncomfortable. Because socially men are the ones who approach us, we don’t just go up to men and start asking them about their lives. And we often don’t want to. It’s much more comfortable even if I’m in a professional setting to approach a group of women, right, but a lot of time you’re at event where that is not possible. The other reason is the way we frame it – we think of networking as, I’m going to meet this person so they can do something for me. And I think that is toxic on so many levels…I think if you’re not a natural extrovert it’s really, really hard to think of it as I’m going to meet some new people.”

Even people who consider themselves mostly extrovert can quail at the thought of a roomful of strangers. Dorie Clark agrees with Kimberly that we need to simplify the idea of networking. She’s the author of the book ‘Reinventing You’. She also blogs for Forbes and Harvard Business Review. I confessed to her I have a problem with the word networking – it kind of makes me cringe.

“Yeah, networking and personal brand are like the two most loaded phrases in the business world right now. But you know, it’s about…it’s about meeting people. I think if you ask most people would you like to have a circle of interesting people you know they would probably say yes. People turn it in their heads into something scary they don’t want to do and it’s really unfortunate.”

It’s unfortunate she says because it’s how you find out about opportunities, and meet or cement relationships with people who can help you.

Research shows women do not make these career contacts at the same rate men do – they simply do less networking. It’s one of the reasons cited for the absence of women in companies’ higher ranks.

For years Kimberly Weisul dreaded walking into a room where she didn’t know anybody. She went to networking events purely out of duty. Until a male colleague gave her a tip – and she discovered how to work a room.

“The natural inclination at a networking event is to find the person who is by themselves…go early, because then they’ll talk to you…”

Cling to them for dear life…

“Right. And that doesn’t work well because then you’re stuck talking to them for the whole night and then it’s just as hard to extricate yourself as it was to start talking to them in the first place. So what you need to do is find groups of two and introduce yourself to people in a group…and I said no, that’s rude, they’re already talking to someone, they don’t want to talk to me. And he pointed out to me you don’t talk to any group of two, you don’t interrupt people canoodling in a corner. But you can tell through body language…and the thing about introducing yourself to two people, one, you have twice as good a chance of having an interesting conversation…and it’s easier to leave if you need to leave. And if you look at it from their point of view, they’re talking to eachother, either they know eachother well and they know they should be talking to someone else and happy to see you, or they don’t know eachother well and they’re worried they’re not going to meet anyone else all night and they’re happy to see you,… so either way they are happy to have you join their group. Which I completely did not understand. And then I tried it and could not believe how well it worked.”

She says that night she approached eight groups of two, and every conversation went well. She felt like a new woman.

“So now I feel like I want to go to another one, which is totally new to me. 

No, yeah, I’m definitely going to try that because I, I suppose I’ve always been that person who would look out for one person but nowadays you go to these events and that one person seems to be in an intimate relationship with their phone.

 “Exactly. And they’d probably rather talk to you but you don’t feel comfortable interrupting them…”

It’s so awkward. 

“It’s got to be awkward for them too, they’re at a networking event and they’re staring at their phone…you sort of feel like you’re doing a public service by talking to them, yet it’s easier to talk to groups of two.”

Still, she says, that’s no reason you shouldn’t approach the phone scroller – in all likelihood that phone is their security blanket and they’re just waiting to start an actual conversation with a real human.

But what about why you’re making these approaches in the first place? Dorie Clark says too many people see networking as an opportunity to sell their services – which she says is a mistake.  She says networking is not just about you. And this is something I’d hardly thought about before. Networking is a two-way street. Dorie says you have to think about how you can help the other person. She says when you’re meeting peers, that’s fairly easy. But it can be tricky when the person you want to connect with is a lot more senior than you.

She admits she screwed this up once.

“So a few years ago I was a speaker at a technology conference, and by surprise I ran into a really successful author who was the keynote speaker at the conference. At the time my book hadn’t come out, I was a speaker, but not at his level. I was leading a breakout session, no one had realistically heard of me. And so I was so surprised and really unprepared for meeting him that I handed him my card and said oh, I really love your work, if you’re in Boston let’s get together…and that’s fine, that’s perfectly nice, but it didn’t give him a compelling reason to reach out to me and so he didn’t. And I’m not really surprised. Because what I’ve learned subsequently is you need to do a better job. If someone is much higher than you in status – and I don’t mean that in terms of your generalized worth as a human being, but I just mean he’s got a lot more people out there who want to meet him than wanted to meet me at that point in my life, you’ve got to find a way to break through the clutter. And ‘Hey, if you’re in Boston let’s have coffee,’ is not going to cut it.”

She didn’t know he’d be at the conference. If she had she could have done some research on him and seen what she could offer in return for him helping her in some way …

“What I would like to posit for people is you can offer them something, but it’s a little bit of a trick. It’s a puzzle, it’s a challenge, and the challenge is that you have to figure out what you can offer them. They’re not going to tell you because they probably don’t know. But if you can figure out what you can offer them, that is your way through the gate.”

Thinking hard about what YOU can offer the other person – that’s something Mary Kopczynski is also a big believer in. She is CEO of 8 of 9 Consulting – so named because she’s the 8th of nine children. The firm helps financial services companies handle changes in US law that affect their business. But she came to this area via a winding path.

After college, Mary worked for the Christian non-profit WorldVision. But after 10 years of fundraising, she was ready for a change. She decided if she acquired both a law degree and a PhD, the world would be her oyster. The degree took 5 years to complete. While she studied she applied for summer jobs…mostly what she calls ‘save the world’ jobs…

“The truth is I couldn’t get a job. I have over 300 rejection letters from every non profit, Amnesty International, I’d offered to be a free intern, the only place that would hire me was financial services industry – and so I got a job as an intern, I had never taken a class, I knew nothing about banking. And I was assigned to the area of CDOs and fixed income derivatives and credit default swaps in the summer of 2007 when Bear Stearns went down.”

She started learning about those securities just as the financial system was beginning its meltdown in large part thanks to them. She was learning a lot, but she was still holding out for a save-the-world job when she graduated. In 2009 she finally did…but by that point…

“I didn’t believe in the nonprofit business model, I didn’t want to be a banker, I didn’t want to be a lawyer…so I realized I had no idea what I was gonna do. So I went back to Seattle for one week, and emailed all my friends, my friends’ parents, my high school English teacher, because of course I was still in touch with all of them…and said I’m going to be here for one week, I’m going to sit in a coffee shop and I would like you to sign up for time slots and I would like to hear what you do for a living, how you got to that position and what you like and dislike about your industry.” 

Mary had always been pretty outgoing and she loved meeting people – so she thought, why not find out more about their lives and maybe get some ideas for her own? One of the people she met with that week? Bill Gates’s dad, William Gates Senior. It turns out Mary’s father had been to law school with him decades earlier. He was so disgusted that his daughter didn’t intend to use her law degree he begged his old classmate to give her a talking to. But she says he was just one person she spoke to. She listened to scores of people that week.

“I realized my whole network was already super-powerful in itself…of course he was one connector, but all of the friends’ parents, and the high school English teacher who had alumni who were now running companies…immediately I was just meeting CEOs… and so I traveled around the States and I met with the CEO of one of the largest metals recycling facilities in north America…I put on a hard hat and got a tour of the metals recycling plant to see if there was something I could do for metals recycling. So it was very experimental but learned a lot. And the key is I’m still in touch with every single one of them.”

No, she didn’t go into metals recycling. But she says that’s not the point. All those people she connected with during that time have expanded her network. She’s landed clients through them and she’s also done her best to help a lot of them out. And she says something I have never heard anyone else say about making connections.

“It’s funny, people think it’s the weirdest advice but I really have found the most powerful compliment you can give someone is that they were memorable…and so I find that I’ll go to a conference and everyone will LinkedIn you within the next day and it’s absolutely forgettable. What is great is getting email out of the blue saying hey, I met you 6 months ago…it’s more endearing. And this goes for so many different things. When I was doing career search I really wanted to learn about the US Trade Representative…which is an agency in Washington DC. And I looked at who was running it and I did a search and discovered he had once spoken at Rutgers and I went to Rutgers for law school. And I didn’t go to his event or anything.”

So she didn’t know this guy. Had never met him or heard him speak – she just knew through online research that he’d spoken once at her university. And this is where being bold comes in handy.

“I wrote him and I said you’re probably not going to remember me in any way at all, but you spoke at Rutgers and I wondered if you’d be interested in telling me about your experience as a trade lawyer. And the head of this entire agency totally took time out of his day to tell me what it was like to be a trade lawyer…”

On the phone, in person?

“That one happened to be on the phone – and for the record, go for in person. But it’s funny because I’ve kept a relationship alive with him too. It’s much more flattering than people realize. So don’t stress out. If you’re like oh no, I missed the window - you can reach out to people 4 years later. It’s a compliment.”

It’s generally more of a guy thing to exhibit the kind of chutzpah Mary did and go for a cold approach. And Mary says she knows plenty of women don’t go out of their way to make connections even at work – they say, I don’t have time for this kind of extra-curricular activity…and they’re so guy-focused anyway…

“I think guys are more into the golf scene and doing these traditional late night drinks. And I can stay out with the best of them, no doubt, but I do see how many women just feel obligated that they are not number one in their family and they have other people that are more important they need to focus on. And I think that’s great but I think there’s a lot of everyday things – like take lunch, take a 20 minute lunch and force yourself to walk out to the local park with a friend at the same time.”

She says it’s worth doing these things to cement your office relationships and just to be in the know about what’s going on at work.

And she says there’s another reason to keep up your relationships both inside and outside your company.

“I was once given the advice that you never know who your boss is going to be. And it’s really funny because I was once an intern at this giant investment bank. And there was somebody who worked there that was just not interested in meeting anybody outside his circle. Well of course the crisis hits and he’s freaking out and he’s looking for a job. Well guess who now runs a company doing regulatory change management and could totally use his skillset?”

Yes, that was Mary. The intern was now in charge of her own operation. After all those meetings and investigation of industries she decided to start her own consulting company serving the financial services industry she’d known so little about a few years earlier.

“It had to be very humbling that he came to work for his former intern. But the truth of the matter is do not underestimate the people around you.”

“Don’t be snobbish about either the age difference or the experience difference or what you perceive the experience difference to be…”

“Critical. I had someone that was meeting me for career advice and this was in my early days and I was like, oh, she’s like 21, she’s not going to be able to help me, it’s just a waste of my time to go and give her career advice. We talked, it was great, and then later I had a project come up that had to do with Muslim-American relations, and she was the absolute lynchpin to every single mosque in all of New Jersey. And I thought wow, never ever underestimate what the smallest relationship can mean to you. It’s never about who someone is right now, it’s about who they’re going to be.”

Mary Kopczynski of 8 of 9 Consulting. She says her network is 4,000-strong and on average she interacts with 250 to 300 people a month.

Two things we didn’t cover in this podcast – other than how to have as much energy as Mary - were the usefulness or not of online networking and women’s-only networking groups. I’m going to get to those in a blog post over the next few days, so check out TheBroadExperience.com for that.

OK, so here I am again in 2018. One thing I’ve come to believe during the last few years is that if I go to a networking event it’s OK if I come away from that event just having had a good, substantive conversation with a couple of people. I don’t put too much pressure on myself to work the room. Also, I will never be able to maintain a massive network like Mary but little things that have happened to me since I made this show have reiterated that it’s so worth keeping even loosely in touch with people from past work lives. You never know when your paths may cross again and one or both of you might benefit.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time.

As usual I’ll be posting show notes under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com. And if you enjoy the show and you haven’t reviewed it yet on iTunes or Apple Podcasts as they’re calling themselves now – please do. It all helps the podcast come to more people’s notice.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time