“You’ll get your business through networking” they said. I had no idea how to do that.
A neighbour introduced me to a local networking group (part of a well-known international organisation) and they invited me to their next breakfast. So I went.
I turned up outside a cricket pavilion at some ungodly hour (I am not a natural morning person) in my best suit and shiniest shoes. It was a bright summer’s morning but I couldn’t see anyone, so I tentatively entered the building.
Inside it was dark, the security shutters still locked down and the lighting distinctly ‘atmospheric’. There was a smell of sweat and stale beer as I noticed a large bar on one side of the room. Ahead of me were a group of middle-aged men, mostly in shirtsleeves and trousers, or polo-shirts and shorts. They greeted me and got me a coffee and asked me about my (then new) business.
My entire body was screaming to run back out into the sunshine but I pushed that urge back down. This was ‘networking’, this was what I had to do. Breathe in and carry on.
The breakfast was pleasant enough but the meeting was unlike any other I had ever been to. There was a rigid agenda, a harsh formality to the proceedings. As the guest, I had to wait until last to introduce myself, to no great interest. There were smiles but there wasn’t much warmth.
At the end of the meeting I was taken to one side by the organisers and urged to sign up there and then ‘to reserve my spot and block out other coaches’, which seemed a really odd concept to me. I didn’t appreciate being pressurised and I wanted to think about whether it was the right group for me. “OK, you can come again as a guest but you’ll have to make your mind up then”, they said.
As I stood alone in the car park afterwards, enjoying the warmth of the sun, I looked back at the doorway and into the foreboding interior. “Why couldn’t they open the blinds?’ I thought, “it would have been so much nicer”.
Bemused, confused, uncomfortable, I was a turmoil of emotions. I felt naive, inept, ill-prepared, a fish out of water. The whole experience had been unnerving, unsettling, skin-crawlingly embarrassing. In short, unpleasant and a rather depressing.
But this was ‘networking’. I had to do this. Or so I thought.
After putting myself through a lot more similarly unpleasant situations, I found out I was wrong on both counts. Now I understand myself and what works for me, I do things that suit me and play to my strengths. I have changed my attitude, my outlook and my approach but I had to go through the experience of being a beginner and getting it wrong. I had to fail to find a way that worked for me.
Everyone has a ‘networking’ story. Someone told me a similar tale just the other day, worse, in fact. He wasn’t allow to speak and was marched off to a separate room to be signed up! He declined their kind offer.
You are going to have to be a beginner and work out what’s right for you. There isn’t a short cut but I hope we can help you have a faster and smoother journey.