Food for Thought

Networking Is Not Working

By Kate Pumphrey

Share

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that no matter what your job, you will spend a good part of your life trying to dismantle what your friends, neighbours and Aunt Gertrude assume it means about you.

If you’re a lawyer, everyone infers that you’re rich. Mention that you work as a freelancer and your friends will think that you’re always kicking about for lunch on a Tuesday. Say that you are in advertising and you're down as an east-end hipster who steals data in order to flog fragrance or right-wing politics on Facebook.

 

After describing The Hot Breakfast, strangers often say “oh, it’s like networking!” and I smile in a strangled, strained way before launching into a long-winded explanation about why it isn’t (well, not really; at least, not in the way they’re thinking).

If you’re reading this article you’ve likely cottoned on to the idea that The Hot Breakfast is designed for people who value networks and like people but hate “networking” and loathe "networkers" (and, yes, are quite possibly flooded with a prim pedantry about the verbification of the word).

One study found that people rate soap and toothpaste 19% more positively after picturing themselves trying to make professional contacts at a cocktail party. It’s that grubby. 

However, occasionally we are all required to sally forth into a sea of suits.

Here are four suggestions about how to make the whole experience less grim, borne from several years of scrutiny and reflection on the practice.

Problem #1 - THE DULLNESS

The stereotype of a networking event is depressingly well-earned. 

It's a drinks party, kicking off just when you've not quite finished your work and going on just late enough to get in the way of dinner. 

It takes place in a large, low-ceilinged office space, where a trestle table has been converted into a bar thanks to a white table cloth that immediately becomes a magnet for red wine rings. 

The main offerings are a tepid chardonnay and some form of dubious arancini ball that is too big for a single bite, but disintegrates when taken in two.

The waiters are smiling and inexperienced and usually PhD candidates in molecular biology.

THE SUGGESTION

If you're organising: don't do this, for god's sake. Not unless you truly believe that it is an attractive proposition for your clients and partners. 

Ideally you want to create an event that is an incentive in and of itself and quite apart from the "networking" possibilities - perhaps because it is held in a private home, or involves a (genuinely appealing) activity or is framed around a workshop about some covetable skill.  You want to create as many reasons for busy, brilliant people to make the effort to attend your event as possible.

If you're attending: consider whether the aforementioned busy, brilliant people are really likely to be there. 

If you think they're not: don't go. 

If you go, but they haven't gone: chat to the waiters.

Problem #2 - The Randomness

You enter a packed room. When confronted by a battery of unknown bodies, you will seek refuge with the one person you already know.  (As the science has confirmed, we don't mix at mixers.)

Thus whether you meet your future wife, next client or Adam from Accounts is down to whether you head to the bar for a re-fill within the same minute as them or the luck of the loo queue.

THE SUGGESTION

Organisers frequently forget the magic of small events; they're much more personal and much less intimidating for many people.

Alternatively - and this is hard work, but always hugely appreciated - those staging the event could put time into considering who needs to meet whom and ensure that there are enough hosts on the ground to effect those introductions.  

As a guest it's worth checking the list of attendees in advance if you can. You could even consider warming people up by getting in touch to suggest that you ensure that you meet.  (This approach needn't be as sickeningly forward as it sounds, but it does risk blinding you to serendipitous encounters.)

PROBLEM #3 - THE POINTLESSNESS

Networking events are meant to be about purposeful connectivity (as opposed to strictly social events, where the connectivity is usually purpose-less). 

The point is not simply to trade business cards as though they were Pokemon characters that you can cash in on LinkedIn, but actually create the basic framework of trust on which a relationship can build.

THE SUGGESTION

If your intuition is sufficiently honed then it doesn't take long to work out whether you like someone, whether they have ideas that interest you, whether you rate their judgement. It's worth considering how much you need to know about a person before relinquishing more time in your diary to meet them at a later date, and making sure those basic benchmarks are met.

"The ease with which we can now discover products & services online means that we need only work with people who we know, like & trust"

PROBLEM #4 - THE OVERTNESS

The flip side to Problem #3 is when it all becomes too grubbily utilitarian and transparently self-serving.  The trouble is that the people who enjoy "networking" in the modern sense are all too often the people you don't want to meet, who clearly calculate  every encounter as a transaction that either increases or depletes their net value.

THE SUGGESTION

One of key rules governing Hot Breakfast events is that no one is allowed to hard sell.  While not strictly necessary - because we don't attract people who are in the habit of pitching themselves aggressively at others - simply stating the rule is useful by way of reminder and reassurance to all attending.  In over 150 breakfasts, there has only been one instance where we felt that this line was crossed.

And of course you have a responsibility as a guest: you are as accountable as anyone for the tone that is created, and you can assess your own performance by monitoring your ratio of questions asked to answers given. 

Above all, don't take an accountant's approach to the giving and taking that flows from any exchange. Outcomes are often oblique and rarely immediate, and it may be that all your first impressions about the lawyer / freelancer / advertiser you met were misplaced.