Friday, June 09, 2006

Stepping Out

I went to a professional group's meeting last night to do a little networking. The wording of this sentence sounds funny to me because I don't consider myself a schmoozy/cocktail party/networking kind of person.

I used to think that this is what people did at professional events:

I circulate around the party like a hungry shark sniffing surfers, perfectly comfortable in my suit and high heels. I see someone who looks important, so I plaster a smile on my face and approach for the kill. 'Hey, I'm glad to meet you!" in the booming voice, laying on a sweat-free, iron grip handshake, oozing confidence rather than sweat.

Now I must follow the steps in the self-help book:
1) deliver my 20-second elevator speech: "I leverage results through innovative partnerships!"

2) quickly find out if this person is important enough to promote my upward mobility so I can move from associate sales analyst to assistant sales analyst! Quickly...time is money!

"So, what do you do?" I ask. "I'm a sanitation management engineer," he says. "In other words, I'm a garbage man."

I choke on a goat cheese cracker. "Oh that's fabulous! Excuse me while I freshen my already-full drink!"

OK, I know that most people aren't so obviously self-serving, though if there's anywhere you get that attitude, it's here in DC, where many of us connect our self-worth with our salary band. In reality, most people would like a good conversation and a laugh and to feel that others are genuinely interested in them.

I used to avoid networking events because I just didn't want to be bothered with 'phony' interactions. I was the Holden Caulfield of D.C., thinking the world is phony so why involve yourself too much? Of course, much of my aversion masked fear of having my sweaty palms exposed. The wet handshake from me, the funny look from her...standing alone, making friends with the potato chip bowl. Ick! It was easier to say "that's not for me" and skip the events than to admit "I'm scared." Then I noticed my colleagues who enjoyed these sorts of events also tended to get more interesting opportunities offered to them.

Over the years, I've relaxed and learned to feel comfortable much of the time at professional events. I've realized that most people don't notice the sweating, and if they do, it's not a dealbreaker. Or you make a joke about it. Most people will still give you a chance. And if they don't, then you just move on! (as you can see, the confident side of me is in charge right now)

My goal is to go to approximately five of these events each year. And while I'll probably never be a total extrovert, I often do enjoy myself at professional events. It's best to think of them as adventures...a chance to meet people with interesting stories. Sometimes they're boring or I'm boring to them or I get left standing alone, but that happens to just about everyone, sometimes. (Except maybe Bill Clinton and Bono. )

OK, so my feet sweated so much that they were stained black by my shoes. But I also left with the business card of someone from a start-up company that is hiring. She wants to meet me for coffee. Plus I get to do an informational interview with someone who has a really intriguing speciality that I had never heard of before that evening.

For an introvert like me, the best part of all is going home after the event. Now you can really appreciate the chance to cuddle up with a book, your cat, and your boyfriend or girlfriend (and if you're really lucky, all three at the same time!)

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