Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Why is networking so hard when it's not social?

I remember when networking was  the buzz word for new graduates. There were career fairs galore and final year students would be advised to attend all of them and to network. It was certainly an exciting time and most of us being young and naive, believed that all we had to do was to wow the HR director from Freshfields or any other top Law firm and the job would be our's. Some of the go-getters even went further and ensured that they were only friends with those they felt were going places, it was all about securing your future. So rubbing shoulders with the Oxbridge graduate who was heading for the top city law firm meant that some of their success would rub off on you too. I confess that I was one of the ones who paid little attention, although I knew I wanted to be successful in whatever I did, I realised even then that I wouldn't find happiness or peace of mind at these top commercial law firms and as such I opted out of what I considered the painful exercise of networking. I say painful because it was the employer's market then and is probably even more so now, therefore they could have their pick of the cream of the class and would either dismiss the rest or worse still patronise them with comments like 'You're very bright and I wish you all the best in finding a training contract' - read 'You're not smart enough but we are completely out of your league'. You had to be extremely thick-skinned to not realise then and there, even before knowing your results that you had as much chance of getting on their trainee programmes as you did of being discovered on the streets as the next Naomi Campbell.
Having entered the workforce and found my way into the international civil service, I began to realise the value of networking however inadvertent. It was less about telling potential employers that you were open to offers and more about making the right impression with people knowing that you could never be sure when your paths may cross in the future. I tried to live by the motto 'Don't burn your bridges.'
Having joined the 'professional' networking site Linked In - and spent the first few months with a bland profile, I thought it was time to update the 'about me' section and reacquaint myself with those key contacts I'd made over the years. The reactions were unexpected - ex colleagues were happy to touch base and catch up personal news, the new baby, new house, new town and even a new job but then when it came to something more concrete like trying to introduce friends to old and useful contacts, people seemed more reluctant and almost put out. I noticed a familiar unease which I had found when I worked as a consultant years ago in New York - everyone assumes you're looking for the next contract so you can become something of a pariah.
Most people were almost possessive about the organisation they work for; some gave the impression that you had just asked them to slip you a £50 note or to give you a room to sleep. General banter would be met with immediate replies; the more concrete stuff like asking people if they know of opportunities or good contacts for a highly qualified friend looking for a job - would be met with an uncomfortable silence or evasion. I recognise that people sometimes feel as though they are not in a position to influence a recruitment process and far from wanting them to hand people a job on a platter, what I believe the networking exercise is designed to do, is simply broaden your scope as a jobseeker. There is always someone who knows someone who might be looking for someone, so how better to make that 3rd degree connection than with a simple introduction.
I must confess I do judge people who are guarded and who do feel put out by professional networking because I think we all need to acknowledge that we've been given a hand at some point. None of us were born experienced project managers, human rights officers or economists, someone had to give us the break which made all the difference.
As a woman networking in the East and West African countries where I've worked, has been largely about stroking the egos of powerful businessmen or government officials in the hope that they will sign on the dotted line without you having to compromise your education, intelligence and experience. It can be frustrating and at times humiliating because you wonder why your Masters degree counts for so little and why you have to resort to the same feminine wiles your mother and grandmother had to use.
In the West, networking can be even tougher because the competition tends to be fiercer. The window of opportunity to impress on paper and in person can last from a few seconds to a few minutes at most. It can be endlessly tedious trying to think of clever ways to say that you are the best person for the job because you are the smartest one they've probably seen and let's face it you can probably do this job with your eyes closed. A lot of employers tend to take on people who have the gift of the gab but often fail to deliver when they start the job they so cleverly campaigned for.
And yes it is still an employer's market so we have to play nice and expand our professional networks with a view of securing that little extra, that edge that you hope will make a difference. It can be even more of a minefield when so many people are uncomfortable with professional networking and feel inclined to act as though you had an empty begging bowl outstretched.
I'd like to think I've come to acknowledge the importance of expanding one's network, regardless of your position, short of handing someone your job, there is no reason why we cant give useful and impartial advice. Whilst I can't guarantee you'll get the job, if I can atleast give you some useful information or willing contacts who knows what he outcome will be. What's more we live in a time of such professional uncertainty that the jobseeker of today could end up being the recruiter of tomorrow and then you may feel some relief that you did the art of professional networking such justice.


JBH said...

"... we all need to acknowledge that we've been given a hand at some point. None of us were born experienced project managers, human rights officers or economists, someone had to give us the break which made all the difference...."
So true. Since you've worked in different parts of the world, have you found it's more common in one place than the other or is it a general, across the board thing everywhere. I'm always happy to "hook up" people where and when i can but realize i might be floating on that boat alone sometimes. Some people think it's too much competition. I think, if i can't get it, maybe someone i know will and no harm in that, right?

The Hibiscus Notes said...

To be honest with you, I've found its across the board. But if I'm honest, U.N people seem to be the most guilty of that - when I joined so many people were extremely ageist - against the 'younger' candidate and felt that you should suffer the way they did. Some treat the organisation like a 'members only' club - which is a huge shame as it can really benefit from some 'new' talent.