A trip to the local mall turned out to be an amazing experience. I was shopping for clothes & suddenly I heard a voice behind me,”You still have problems deciding what to wear!” I turned around and saw an ex colleague whom I hadn’t met for almost two decades. What was amazing was she remembered what I had mentioned to her. It got me thinking about how important small things are when we build relationships…which automatically led to the thought of networking.
A lot of people seem to think that networking is done for slimy, self fulfilling purposes where in one person walks away with all the benefits. Networking just became part of my lifestyle as my father was in the Army. The frequent moves, making new friends, retaining the old, building relationships on common ground…all happened without me realizing that I was networking.
It only became apparent when I started my career and I saw a lot of people struggle to maintain a semblance of a relationship also with colleagues. Without actually waxing eloquent about the virtues of networking or how to do it, let me share a story written by James Lang, an academician in New England.
“Networking, for me, has always called to mind images of unctuous sales reps glad-handing one another at conventions, everyone acting as friendly as possible because, at bottom, they all want something from each other.
Last month, however, after witnessing an expert networker in action at an academic conference, I was forced to re-evaluate my half-baked notion of networking as a polite term for slimy self-promotion. The change of heart came about more easily because the expert in question happened to be my older brother Tony.
A political scientist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and a scholar of ethics in international relations, Tony told me a few months ago that he would be in Montreal in March for the annual convention of the International Studies Association. Since we live an ocean apart, and I don’t get to see him much, I decided to drive up from Massachusetts and spend a day or two with him at the conference.
“I’ll clear my calendar on Saturday for you,” he said, “but you could even come on up on Friday, as long as you don’t mind going out to dinner with a bunch of political scientists.”
So I showed up in Montreal at around 3 p.m., on Friday. He was still chairing a panel, so I sat down by the concierge’s desk to wait for him. A few minutes later I spotted him coming across the hotel lobby, and stood up to greet him. Just before he reached me, someone stopped him and shook his hand. He disengaged himself, we hugged, and then I turned to pick up my bags. During the five seconds it took me to gather up my things, someone else came up and greeted him.
“I just have to talk this person for a few minutes,” he said to me, “while you get settled in upstairs. Meet me down here in a half-hour.”
A half-hour later, we sat down in the hotel bar to catch up. Before I had three words out of my mouth, someone walked up and put a hand on Tony’s shoulder, and asked if he had plans for breakfast the next morning. Another small group of people walked by, all of whom stopped and greeted Tony by name. Anyone who stayed for more than a minute or two was dutifully introduced to his younger brother, the English professor, before they moved on to their next panel, drink, or dinner plans.
Over the course of the next 48 hours, that same scenario happened countless times. Whether we were in the lobby, browsing at the book exhibit, or walking around the streets of Montreal, we could not go more than five or 10 minutes without running into someone who greeted Tony by name, and who wanted either to catch up with him briefly or talk a quick little bit of shop—their plans for a forthcoming conference, comments on a recent controversial publication, questions about the editorial board of some new journal.
Sometimes, after the person had moved on, Tony would explain the association. “He’s a former Ph.D. student,” he would say, “and he’s teaching in England now.” Or: “I wrote him a letter of support for his tenure case.” Or: “We’re planning a panel together for a conference I’ll be at this summer.”
None of it ever struck me as unctuous, self-promotional, or even directed toward a specific goal. It looked to me like the way the business of his discipline was getting done, as he made and reaffirmed contacts with a host of people who were all invested in the enterprise of conducting research and teaching in international relations.
As the weekend wore on, I found myself returning again and again to my obviously mistaken notion that networking was unimportant to academics. Here was some of the most effective networking I have ever seen, and the environment was about as academic as it comes.
It struck me all the more powerfully because, in comparison, I began to see myself as the worst networker in the world. The last Modern Language Association meeting I went to was in Philadelphia. I took the train down from Massachusetts on the morning of my panel, and came home the next day. Over the course of that 24-hour period, I spoke to about five people—at least four of whom were the other participants on my panel. I spent the rest of my time trudging alone through the streets of the frozen city or reading in the hotel bar.
The first conclusion I drew from watching my brother was for myself: I need to do more networking—a lot more. The next time you see me at an academic conference, the chances are pretty good that I’m going to walk up and introduce myself, shake your hand, and see if you want to have a breakfast meeting.
The second thought that occurred to me, though, was a question: Is the lesson that I learned one that I should be teaching my students?
If business happens through networking, then what should I be doing to help my students understand both why, and how, to network?”
I would love to hear from you about what you think…
Have a successful networking day! 🙂 🙂 🙂