Recently I was spectating at a half marathon. As the field of racers made its way past my viewing spot, I saw one runner who looked significantly different from the rest. His legs were molded titanium. In awe, I let out a cheer for him. He was a clear example of the difference between not wanting to do something, and not being able to do something. Many people, and certainly not just archivists, see networking as a chore. It is something they don’t want to do, rather than something they are unable to do. Regardless of whether networking is something you want to do, something you enjoy doing, or something you rank up there with certain types of dental work, it is very often one of the keys to success in your career. If a guy with three prosthetic limbs (an arm, as well) can run 13.1 miles, you can certainly learn to network with minimal discomfort.
At the beginning of the race, I was watching with a woman who has run numerous long distance courses. She pointed out to me that every runner has a different gait, their own style. The same holds true for networking. Overall (to use a common analogy), your career is a marathon, not a sprint. It will have a start and a finish, but the exact steps we take over the years, and how we take them, will vary. This is good! We are all individuals with different personalities, and while there are certain conventions most of us will follow, what makes the world interesting is that our gaits will vary.
I was initially asked to write this blog post in part because of an article I tweeted about networking that was in the Wall Street Journal. I encourage you to read it. There are some great tips that are relevant whether you stay in archives till the day you retire, or move on to something else. The article’s focus is body language and non-verbal clues. Those quoted have studied networking far more than I have, and I defer to them. I do, though, want to expand on a couple of their points.
Among the techniques they suggest avoiding is measuring your success by the number of business cards you collect. I will add to that Facebook friends, Twitter followers, LinkedIn connections, and whatever tomorrow’s social media craze may be (for simplicity, I will refer to all of these as “contacts”). These are all tools that have value. I use them, and I’m not about to say they won’t help you. I recommend, though, that you think of them as the titanium legs. The legs have to be secured to the runner’s torso in order for them to be productive. Each of those business cards needs to be metaphorically secured for there to be any hope of the contact resulting in a future opportunity. And an opportunity may not be a job. It may be a seat on a committee, or the opportunity to write an article; something with the potential to help you move forward in your career.
Each of us has our own style as to how we collect contacts, and different preferences to how we secure and maintain the contacts. I have one acquaintance who recently went through her LinkedIn contacts and disconnected from everyone who isn’t in our field. About the same time, I took an opposite tactic; I accepted a connection from my hairdresser. My rationale was that geographically this connection was beneficial. I hope to stay in this area, the hairdresser works with a variety of people nearby, and she is willing to put people in touch who may have a mutual interest. Most importantly, though, I see the hairdresser on a regular basis. I keep her up to date about the public aspects of my career. If she is going to put me in touch with one of her other clients, she has relevant, up to date information.
Just because you wish someone a happy birthday on Facebook, or they favorite your tweet on Twitter, doesn’t mean you have a secure, meaningful connection with a person. If I am looking for an additional panelist for an upcoming conference, am I likely to ask the Twitter follower who doesn’t use their real name, or the person who has chimed in during Twitter discussions about the topic, and with whom I’ve exchanged emails? The latter (there are reasons why people do not use their real identities on Twitter, but it’s beyond the scope of this post to discuss why). However, just because they read your posts doesn’t mean they are a useful connection. Running a mile a day over the course of two weeks doesn’t mean you’ve run a half marathon.
I have focused on social media to show that not all networking takes place in a party environment. We tend to think of networking as taking place at large gatherings. A common refrain at SAA is, “Oh, I have to go to the All-Attendee Reception to do some networking.” That might work, and there have been times it has, but it is often much easier (as Kathleen Roe mentioned) to strike up a conversation in the coffee line. One time I saw someone I tweet with while we were standing on a Metro platform in DC. I went up to her and introduced myself. Was I nervous? Sure. Did it secure the connection? Definitely.
As I just mentioned, I was nervous when I approached the person I’d never spoken with before. Generally, my natural inclination on a train platform is not to socialize. Yes, on the Myers-Briggs scale I’m an introvert. Introversion and extroversion, though, explain how we store and use energy. They do not have any impact on your abilities. I may not have wanted to approach my Twitter contact, but I certainly had the ability to do so. The marathon runners may not have wanted to run up the hill I stood alongside, but they all had the ability to do so. Networking is a hill, and no matter your gait, you can climb it.
Another one of the techniques in the WSJ article is to be “prepared with topics to discuss or experiences to share.” I have mentioned Twitter several times because it has proven to be a shared experience, and a fairly painless way of getting the conversation started. It is perfectly understandable, though, that social media may not be your preference. A former co-worker of mine, back in the pre-social media days, made an art of showing up at events with a story to share. As a side gig, she had led canoe tours of Hartford’s buried river. Few of us have experienced it, but all the natives know about it. Watching my co-worker instantaneously grab people’s attention was amazing. Granted, few of us will have a story that engaging. But we are all smart human beings! You will be able to come up with something, even if it’s how horrible the drapes are. On a related note, step away from the drapes. Position yourself somewhere other than the edge of the room in order to increase your chances of making contacts. It is one of the hills you have to climb to finish the marathon.
Just as it takes practice to run 13 miles, it may take some time to find your networking comfort level. Another similarity between marathons and networking is there are a variety of ways you may earn a prize or recognition. No two of us will do it exactly the same way. Some of us may grow to love it, others may continue to loathe it. This is natural and healthy.
Most people don’t start with half or whole marathons. Often there’s a fun run, perhaps a 5K or 10K. Similarly, you can take your time building your network. Find your gait. Try a regional conference before a national one, or concentrate on meeting people at a roundtable meeting rather than a reception. When I am at a conference, I try to meet at least one of my Twitter contacts in person, and at least one person I don’t know from social media. Sometimes it is easier than other times. If it doesn’t happen, the world doesn’t end. I can try again at the next conference. Having been the person standing by herself, I also make an attempt to speak with someone who is alone.
Really, truly, we are all climbing this hill together. You may have been born with networking legs, and you may have had a pair custom made. Either way, you have the ability to do this. With time, practice, and some determination, you will find your gait and continue, up and down the hills, to the finish line of your career.