The very first day of the Museum and Heritage Studies course is an orientation day. Students embark on an introductory tour around the university campus and some of the highlights of Wellington City. The day ends at the Adam Art Gallery for drinks, nibbles, and an informal first assignment. The task: strike up conversations with professionals from the sector, collect business cards and report back on the people you meet. And so, here is lesson number one: networking.
I remember the first time I heard the saying “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It was a careers advice course in my last year of high school and I despised the saying from the start. I was outraged. I could not believe that 5 years of schooling counted for nothing if I didn’t know the right people. I imagined this elite, rich kids club, where parents swapped children to become managers in their businesses and partners in their law firms. There was hand-shaking and back-patting and it didn’t matter if you had ever put pen to paper, you were connected.
I learnt the term “networking” when I came to university and the entire concept sent renewed shivers down my spine. Finally a name for this evil. It seemed to be about talking to people only to get something you wanted. Elevator pitches and selling yourself. It was something you could switch on: schmooze and banter, “work the room.” It felt disingenuous, shallow, smarmy, and sleazy. But most of all it terrified me. I consider myself to be a few notches along on the introvert scale and the idea of walking up to a stranger in the middle of a crowded room to initiate a conversation is “my worst nightmare” territory. I have found myself more than once poring over google results for “top 10 networking tips for introverts,” or, “how to not make a fool of yourself at social events where you need to make good impressions and meet people.”
I have tried several different techniques in these situations. The first: don’t make eye contact, hang around the food table, wine glass in hand, trying to muster enough Dutch courage to actually talk to people, leave without talking to anyone. Another good one is approaching a group already deep in conversation, hovering awkwardly at the edge, feeling self-conscious, silly, and rude. At this point you may be able to back away slowly, pretend you were never there, make a run for it. But, if you stick it out for long enough you will be assimilated into the conversation. Hopefully. Otherwise, you can scope out a target, make a beeline for them, hand out ready for a handshake, “hello, my name is…” and suddenly realise that is as far along as you had planned the conversation.
I can’t imagine there are many people who are natural networkers where the idea fills them with some kind of sick, twisted excitement. There are always going to be awkward moments. So, I have had to do a reshuffle on my attitude towards networking. A re-wiring of what the term and that saying actually mean. Of course, the reality is not as simple as the adage makes it out to be. Who you know often relates to what you know: what you know and how well you know it will lead you to the people you need to know. The two are not mutually exclusive. What you know is important. Who you know can often help in getting your foot in the door. This is a relatively small sector, operating in a small country. Networking means you might hear about contract vacancies and opportunities before they have been advertised, or ones that may never be. Recommendations and referrals play an important part in how projects and roles are filled.
But there is more to all this than just job-hunting. Sure, it’s going to help, but if that is your only motivation for doing it then you are missing out. “Networking” seems too shallow a term to describe the possibilities. It’s really about building relationships and connecting with people. It opens up the opportunity to meet like-minded, interesting and supportive colleagues. People who can share advice and, most importantly, their own horror stories of terribly embarrassing small talk and schmoozing faux pas. Why wouldn’t I want to meet these people? I look at the contributors to this site, at those “on the level” and the Tuakana and I am excited at the possibility of meeting them all. I mean really, if sitting down at a Wellington bar with the two creators of Tusk, talking about a subject you all love over a glass (or two) of wine is networking? I can deal with that.
So I’ll keep on collecting those business cards, enjoying the fun networking situations, and toughing out the awkward ones. Keep reminding myself to relax. Take a deep breath. Smile! What’s the worst that could happen?