By Chere Estrin
Networking. No matter how you tweet ‘em up, link ‘em out, face ‘em down, or otherwise socially media-ize, if you are not doing it, you are clearly committing career suicide. And let’s not leave out the importance of the old-fashioned, rarely done, one-on-one face-to-face, in-person meeting, where you busted your budget by just purchasing the latest designer jeans complete with built-in dirt and precisely structured tear in the knees for the discounted price of $469.00 so that you can send the message that yes, you can and do fit in with the oh—so-influential-wanna-be-Melrose crowd.
There’s no such thing as accidental networking. Networking is a mission. When you’re headed to a function to meet and greet people who can further your career, you have a strong sense of Purpose. Even a chance meeting can provide a networking opportunity.
Once you discover that new acquaintances have professional power, you instantaneously decide to make the meeting worthwhile. There’s no real secret to it. Most people, myself included, hate to admit we network because then we reveal we’re actually using the world’s greatest career-building trick. Maybe we think it smacks of cheating. You know you do it; I know you do it; others know you do it; and you read that you’re supposed to do it, but somehow you deny you’re doing it. I mean, only the etiquettely-challenged would introduce themselves by saying, “Hi, I’m Jane. I’m here to network.” Yikes.
Now, basically I’m shy. Oh, I know I give lots of seminars and speak in front of hundreds of people, but those one-on-ones are a killer. Chit-chat with strangers makes me nervous. I never know quite what to say. I solve the problem by avoiding it as much as I can. But following this prescription can lead to a very lonely life, not to mention a dearth of contacts. So, when I was invited to a book-signing party at a very exclusive old-money private club (which to join, costs your entire savings account, requires a vote from the secret selection committee and a Daughters-of-the-American Revolution background), I didn’t know if I should go. I tried to rationalize. I’m CEO of a continuing education company and Editor-in-Chief of three magazines. Members of this selective club could become important clients. And, someone obviously thought I was worthy enough to grace the hallowed halls of haughtiness. The downside? I didn’t know anyone there so I had no one to hide behind.
Then there was another possible problem. For the past 50 years or so, the club was rumored to be anti-Semitic (not to mention what their attitude was toward other non-majority types). My grandmother would turn over in her grave if she even thought I was considering putting one tiny toe in this establishment. And now I wanted to go in hopes of furthering my career? Was I nuts? When I ran this past colleagues, they scoffed at me. “That ‘problem’ doesn’t exist anymore. This is the 21st century,” they said.
Yeah, but in my mind how long ago was long ago? And did any of the people who had had that ‘problem’ long ago belong to the club today? But the critical need to network and the idea of spending one more evening by myself watching reruns of “Law and Order” overruled my sensibilities. I made up my mind, boned up on my small talk, and headed to the chi-chi club with the iron barriers to entry.
I get all dressed up in my casual-but-elegant business suit, careful to make it black so people won’t notice the slight weight problem. (OK, OK, slightly more than slight.) I’m tooling down the road practicing my elevator speech: “I provide timely education and communications for the legal field.” “Oh, I see, a lawyer. How interesting!”
And then one of those uncontrollable things that happens at precisely the wrong time happens. I start to perspire. I can’t stop. Either I’m very nervous or this is the longest hot flash in history. Maybe my grandmother has gotten wind of what I’m doing. “Oh, God,” I plead. “Not now.” I turn on the air conditioner. I have one hand on the steering wheel as I fan cold air waves onto my face, which at this point, is dripping makeup and forming little brown dots on my clean white collar. I’m panicked but determined to make a go of this. I reach the club, take a deep breath, put a smile on my face, nod to the doorman and march right through the double mahogany doors, onto the marble inlaid floors and past the authentic Biedermeyer furniture. I’m on a mission.
Confidence notwithstanding, the first few minutes after making your entrance can be disconcerting. Do I head for the bar? Do I find the hostess-with-the-mostest whom I’ve never met? Do I mosey on up to a group that is obviously engaged in appropriate chit-chat and chit-chat myself? A waiter with an elegant silver tray doesn’t even ask, he just hands me a glass of wine. Good. Now I look the part. As I take a look around, I realize the room is loaded with potential clients but even my quick read on “How to Work a Room” hadn’t prepared me for this crowd. The room is dripping with Armani and Versace. Poor Anne Klein. So nineties. Her pantsuit seems out of sorts and I happen to be wearing her. Not quite brave enough to go say howdy, I go up to the table stacked high with the author’s new books. I tell myself I’m doing the right first move. After all, this is a book signing party.
Seeing a gentleman seated behind the table, I assume he is the author eagerly waiting to autograph purchases. I decide to help him out. “So Michael,” I say confidently, “who was your favorite character?” The woman next to me sniffs and sighs. “This is Andre, dear, the cashier. The au-thor is o-ver there with the hos-tess.” (That’s how she talked, really.) Oh. Well, one faux pas isn’t going to kill me. I stroll over to the hostess and introduce myself. “Oh, yes,” she says graciously and turns to the group. “What with the NBA playoffs tonight, I really had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to get people to come.” The group laughs. I stand there with my glass of merlot frozen in my hand. I decide the comment wasn’t aimed at me and she’s probably just as nervous as I am. I ignore it and prepare to chit-chat.
The conversation was revolving around Mr. Harriweather’s trip to Tuscany. I’m comfortable now. I’ve been to Europe. The conversation turns toward Paris. We’re home now, baby! This stuff I know. I decide to chime in, “Paris,” I sigh and sip my wine slowly. (I had learned three things in the 5 minutes I had been there: sniffing, sighing, and sipping slowly seemed to be important.) “When I took this American Express tour a few years ago…What was that?? A loud tsk tsk to my right. The dyed-blond with the recent Botox injections and fake pearl earrings is rolling her recently reconstructed eyes and shaking her head. Uh, oh. Obviously, no American Express trips here.
I quickly change directions. “Oh, I agree,” I say. “The best thing about that whole disaster was pulling into Paris at dusk and seeing the gorgeous lights on the Eiffel Tower.” Whew. That should score a few points. But the group is looking a me funny. I realize I had started to sweat again and now my mascara has slipped off my eyelashes and settled into dark circles under my eyes. A couple of people actually take a step backwards. I really want to leave. But my guaranteed-to-fit-make-you-look-ten-pounds-thinner-panty-girdle was slowly rolling down my stomach. Obviously, a quick getaway wasn’t about to happen.
The hostess-with-less-than-the-mostest chimes in. “You know, a nice Jewish girl like me has to be sooo careful when I travel to Europe,” she trails off. I wonder what that’s all about. Why would she even bring up being Jewish? What point was she trying to make? Did she feel uncomfortable being here? “Oh, speaking of that,” says the ever-ebullient Mr. Harriweather with the affected English accent, “whenever I travel in Europe, I always claim I’m Canadian instead of American. You know, they don’t hate Canadians there.” Well, that much is true. There aren’t enough of them. This was one of those situations where they built a whole country and no one came. But I remain quiet and sip my wine (slowly).
But Mr. Harriweather isn’t finished. I wonder whether he knows that tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows are not exactly GQ anymore. “And my friend who travels with me claims he’s Canadian too. And, guess what? Everyone buys it, and he’s Jewish!” I spit my wine out all over what’s left of the white on my blouse. He thinks his story is very funny. Now, I’m already having trouble reconciling the fact that I’m in this silly club to begin with, plus the fact that I’m preoccupied with how to shrink from the crowd because I can’t seem to control this perspiration, coupled with the fact that the makeup that is supposed to be on my eyes is now smeared from ear-to-ear. I can’t control my reaction. “What?” I blurt out. “Do you really think no one is Jewish in Canada??” The room goes silent. I get the distinct feeling I have just stepped outside the guidelines of the handbook to good taste networking. In any event, no matter what my personal feelings are, I’ve definitely gone beyond a faux pas.
At that moment a little bell tinkles. “Ah,” says the hostess-with-the-mostest, “It’s time for our author to begin his talk.” Saved, I guess. I sit down. I notice that no one sits next to me. In fact, I’m the only one in the entire row. Well, I say to myself, maybe I’m getting a little raunchy here what with all this sweating. I’m horribly self-conscious. The author talks. I listen. When the author concludes, the hostess/no mostest announces it’s time for dinner. I get up. I do the only thing left available to me. I pretend I’m leaving briefly for the bathroom and without even thinking, I head right past the authentic Bidermeyer furniture, onto the inlaid marble floors, and right out the double mahogany doors. I realize that there may be some future explaining to do. But one thing I am certain: At no time will I ever again compromise my value system in order to further my career.
Hopefully, no one has noticed I’ve left long before I’m supposed to. On the other hand, they’re probably relieved after what went on and all. Unfortunately, the valet has lost my car. I wait what seems an eternity. Finally, he locates it and brings it up. As I’m about to make my getaway, I hear “Yooo-hooo!….Oh, Ms. Esssss-trin!” Rats. Caught. It’s Mrs. Macintosh, the head of the library committee, coming toward me waving one of those dang books. “You aren’t leaving are you, dear?” Oh, Lordy, girl, get a grip. Of course I am. “Why, no,” I say. “I’m just looking for something.” Yeah. The front door. “Well, you’ve left your autographed copy of your book,” she says in her sing-song voice. Great. A memento of the evening.
As I drive home, I realize that I made the right decision choosing to leave. As much as I wanted to meet new people and hit the networking circuit, this particular scene just wasn’t for me. I found myself desperately trying not to be who I really was so I could fit in. What was I thinking? I didn’t need to do that. Would I try networking again? Sure, but for now, I knew that networking doesn’t work unless you feel comfortable, self-assured, and choose scenarios wisely. On that, I needed a little work. I decide that next time, I’ll feel more confident and know what I’m getting into. As I drive up to my front door, I begin to feel safe again. I take off my wine and Cover Girl spotted outfit, wash off what’s left of my makeup, and flop down in my comfortable Lazy Boy. I count my blessings as I switch on the TV. Wouldn’t you know? I’m just in time for another rerun of “Law and Order.”