Networking Breakfast

by Stephanie Claggett I must admit that networking is not my cup of tea. Unfortunately - or fortunately - for me, we've been doing a lot of it recently. We got a small warm-up with alumni on our last career centre day. Two days later, we had the Leaders Reception, a fancy event in a beautiful location (the fabulous Terminal City Club!), where we got to meet business leaders from all over the community. We also had the pleasure of hearing an inspirational speech from Christine Day, the CEO of lululemon, and eating entirely-too-delicious chocolate covered strawberries.

Our most recent event was this morning's breakfast networking reception at the Westin Bayshore. Now, as I said, I am not a fan of networking in the abstract, and I am even less a fan of 7:15 a.m. for any reason, but I was determined to take advantage of this opportunity. Internship season is almost upon us, after all! So I trudged my way through the slush-covered streets at a completely unholy hour of morning, hoping all the way that there would be a cup of coffee at my destination.

Much to my surprise, when I checked in one of the lovely ladies at the BCC had my shiny new name tag for me! To backtrack a little - I had been certain before our first networking event that my name tag was secure in a particular place in my house, but of course the night before I needed it, I couldn't locate it for the life of me. So, for the past two events, I had been managing with a sticker awkwardly placed on my jacket. It only occurred to me yesterday that I could actually order a new name tag! The BCC told me I could pick it up at some point today, and I had resigned myself to another day of stickers, but in yet another instance of things that seem small but make all the difference in the world, my name tag was ready and waiting for me (thanks Carly!)

This may seem silly, but I felt far more confident entering that room with my official Sauder name tag. I felt like I was part of the team, not an interloper who showed up at the last minute. (I am completely convinced, though, that my old name tag is going to resurface within the next week, now that I have acquired a new one.)

Of course, I was still woefully lacking in caffeine, so I made a beeline for the food table. For the first few minutes, I stuck close to my classmates. I knew I should have been getting a head start on meeting people, but I had two very good reasons for avoiding that. First, I was not nearly awake enough at that point to make polite and/or pleasant conversation with people I didn't know. Before I have caffeine in the morning, I can barely string two words together, and chances are those two words are not going to be very nice. Second, I wanted to avoid that awkward moment where you take too large of a bite of food, which inevitably happens just when someone asks you a question.

Finally, armed with my new name tag and a sugar-filled cup of coffee, I wove my way through the multitude of students, both UBC and SFU MBAs, all avidly scanning the room for the best possible connections. As many people probably did, I took a tour of the room, glancing at the company names posted at the various tiny tables before making any conversational commitments.

The members of the business community - or, as we thought of them, the potential employers - were mostly there in twos and threes, and everyone seemed surrounded by a group of eager MBAs. Some groups were certainly more popular than others - the executive recruiters, for one; the big banks; and Clearly Contacts, who the Sauder MBAs as a class worked with earlier in the year.

It was at this point that I got stuck. So many of the companies were financial institutions, which is an excellent thing for my classmates who are specializing in finance. I, however, am focusing on HR, and while there were HR people there, few if any of them were looking for HR interns. Beyond my personal dilemma, too, we all have the same issue: How do we make ourselves stand out? How can we make the five minutes we spend with this person the most memorable conversation they have out of all the dozens of conversations they will be having in that brief two-hour event?

I floundered. Even with two other networking events under my belt, I wasn't sure how to move the conversation beyond talk of the weather (which, to be fair, was very remarkable) and onto talk of business, information gathering, and those elusive internships.

As I said, I am not a natural networker. I am not a natural socializer, for that matter. I generally prefer listening to talking, especially with people I don't know well. I do best with extraverts who, given any topic, will happily carry the conversation with minimal input from me. However, this approach obviously wasn't going to work in this situation.

My solution? To rifle through my collection of stock questions to come up with something interesting to start off a conversation. How is your morning going? Too generic. Have you met any interesting people so far? Good to ask fellow classmates, but not so much for anyone else, and a close-ended question to boot. How was your commute here this morning? Also generic, guaranteed to start a conversation about the weather. How did you get involved with Company X? Aha! A potential winner! It opened the floor for talk about the company, and about the individual and their experiences. Not exactly a great opening line for talking about me and my internship, but that wasn't what I was looking for.

And herein lies my quandary with networking: I hate asking for things. I hate asking for favours. I despise feeling selfish. And networking, especially when we're supposed to be searching for internships, feels inherently self-serving. To be fair, some employers made it very easy. They started off the conversation with 'What are you specializing in?' or even 'We're looking for an intern to do X'. These conversations were easy for me, but also invariably short. They weren't looking for me. They were looking for someone to work in finance, IT, marketing... everything except what I am able to and love to do.

About halfway through the event, I encountered an employer who I thought could be a perfect fit for one of my classmates. After an appropriate wrap-up to our conversation, I immediately grabbed my classmate and dragged him over to this table. At this point, I had a revelation. This event wasn't about me or my fears of social awkwardness. It wasn't about making connections for myself. I could use this event to help other people make the connections they needed to find their internships.

With this in mind, the rest of my conversations became magically easier. I didn't need to wrack my brain for an appropriate segue into me and my life. I could just do what I do best: ask questions, and truly listen to the answers.

Now, is this the perfect solution to my networking dilemmas? Probably not. It is extremely unlikely to find me a job or an internship. And networking is definitely a skill that I need to work on. But in the short term, it helped me find a way through what originally looked like a morass of daunting task after daunting task.

And in the future, I hope it will allow me to look forward to networking events, rather than treating them like nasty but necessary cough medicine.