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Nature versus Networker

By Tania Domett

As Professionelle members we are well-versed in the value of networking as an essential part of professional life.  But I am quite sure that, like me, some of you get a little knot in your stomach when the ‘time to network’ gong sounds at a corporate event.

I’ve reflected long and hard about why I’m like this.  After all, I’m no shrinking violet and have no problem striking up a conversation with people I meet at a barbecue or other social event.  I’m a confident public speaker and if you met me you’d probably describe me as outgoing and an extrovert.

Networking Stress

My problem is that when we all leap to our feet, adjusting our little plastic nametags and patting our pockets for our business cards, I feel like a total phony – like some kind of corporate automaton!  To me, networking often feels like a set piece in which we’re all playing predetermined roles with no room for deviation from the script.  There’s the elevator-pitch format of the introductions and the forced small-talk about the buffet offering.  And there’s the rapacious behaviour of some people who, on sensing that you’re not linked in any way to their sector or career aspirations, abruptly move on after scanning your credentials.  I usually leave these events a little stressed-out, feeling disingenuous and, frankly, a bit grubby.

What’s going on here?  After all, as social human beings we network all the time – when we’re chatting to other parents at school functions, when we meet friends of our friends, when we go along to our book club or a wine tasting.  I think my problem lies in mainstream corporate culture and the narrowly-defined notion of what it means to be ‘professional’.

Professional Personas

Everyone has different versions of themselves that they trot out depending on the situation.  How we speak to our mum is probably different to how we speak to a friend which is different again to how we interact with our children.  But I think the professional personas that we create for ourselves are sometimes radically different from our private selves.  This is because mainstream corporate culture constructs ‘professionalism’ as being fairly reserved, formal, conservatively dressed and moderate of speech.  But how many people do you know are like this in real life? Certainly not me and I think this disconnect is a big reason why people often suffer at networking events, most of which are an extreme manifestation of mainstream corporate culture.

When I first joined the corporate world, I really struggled with how to behave in my new, formal work environment.  I was awkward at the beginning of the meetings when the Business Card Exchange ritual takes place and nervous about how to stand and where to place myself.

Meeting Mayhem

I’ll never forget one of my first client meetings where I made a total dork of myself: I leaned across a table to shake hands with him but didn’t realise that it was on wheels.  To my horror, the table took off, I went skating across the meeting room, hand outstretched, and nearly landed in his lap.  What made this experience worse for me is that everyone in the room, instead of laughing or otherwise helping me recover with dignity, just looked faintly appalled and said nothing!  And because I was trying to uphold the very stiff, formal professional persona that I’d created for myself, I said nothing either and quickly sat down, wishing for an invisibility cloak.

I know from speaking to friends and colleagues that we’ve all had experiences like this. I feel strongly that we wouldn’t have been quite so traumatised if we hadn’t been struggling to uphold the ideal of professionalism that jars with such displays of human frailty!

The Dream Definition

I want us to expand the definition of professionalism beyond what is a restrictive, conservative – and frankly masculine – conceptualisation to include other ways of being.  In my day-to-day working life I strive to be authentic, to not button down aspects of my personality, to be myself.  I think my colleagues and clients appreciate it – we definitely have a lot of laughs – and I’ve forged really warm and genuine relationships with many of them.  And, most importantly, we do great work together! The last bastion for me has been the dreaded networking events, but I’m getting better.   Of course not all networking events are the same: those organised by Professionelle for example run to a different script, perhaps because the room is filled with women?

Survey-based research often reports that one of professional women’s main complaints is an inhospitable, masculine corporate culture.  I believe that if each of us reforms our professional persona so that we are, essentially, being authentic and true to ourselves (as cheesy as that sounds!), we can challenge this and in the process make our working lives a whole lot more pleasant.

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