Wednesday night I was at one of the many events organized by MDG (MedDev Group), the area’s premier networking organization for medical device professionals. This annual event is on making the transition into the medical device industry, so naturally, the room was filled with a lot of job seekers, and those willing to help in that transition. Including me. Although I often have a tough time convincing people that I work for the client, and I’m not in the business of helping them “find their next challenge,” I do believe in supporting the community as much as possible, so I try to share my experience with both newcomers and with veterans who find themselves without a W-2.
The event included an interactive component, with the organizers encouraging attendees to stand up and tell the room what they were seeking. It was great to see that several connections were made on the spot, with one person offering what the other happened to be seeking. As I watched, though, I was struck by how often people don’t take full advantage of opportunities like these. It may cost you $35 - $50 to attend one of these events. If all you do is stand around with a mediocre tuna wrap on a paper plate, I can make you a much better sandwich for a lot cheaper. And I’ll serve it on a real plate.
What occurred to me at that event was that even though there had been an hour of networking prior to the actual panel, the connections that were made in the interactive session hadn’t already been made. I think I must have seen about a million articles on networking by now. Everyone has their take on it; some advice is good, and some is horrible. What I DO NOT recommend is walking up to every person at a networking session and shoving a business card in their hand, or interrupting a conversation, or forcing your elevator pitch on people. It’s an art, and I appreciate that it doesn’t come naturally to some, but general politeness and common sense will always win the day. Successful networking doesn’t mean standing (or worse, sitting) along the sidelines eating your tuna wrap. It involves engaging. I wondered if those connections in the interactive session could have been made in the networking session with a better executed strategy.
Coincidentally, that same day, Katrine Bosley tweeted about a blog post from Steve Blank. He (correctly) points out that starting out by asking to have coffee to “pick your brain” is about the worst way to get someone’s attention. As a recruiter, people in transition are constantly asking to meet and want to “tell me about their objectives” and “get a sense of the market.” While I try to respond to every email and phone call, I simply don’t have time to meet everyone. More importantly, as a retained firm, we are only interested in meeting with you when we’re on an assignment for which you may be an appropriate candidate. If I meet with you today, and tomorrow get a new assignment, I’d have to interview you (as opposed to having a coffee with you) in the context of that assignment’s specification, so it really makes no sense.
Where I depart from Steve, though, is at his suggestion that you offer me something in return (and not just a nice coffee). I’m simply not that mercenary to take a meeting just because you’re going to “teach me something” or make an introduction. Indeed, I may ask you for referrals some day, but I would hope you would treat me with the same courtesy that I would treat you: if you know a potential candidate, a quick intro; if you don’t, a simple “sorry, can’t help” is fine. If those folks last night had walked up to each other and, as Steve suggests, offered something of value, would it have worked? Probably. But that’s a scattershot approach, isn’t it?
Look, there are two types of networking: trying to meet new people, and trying to get in front of a specific person. If you’re just trying to expand your network because you’re looking for a job, or raising money, or selling a product or service, then maybe “cold calls” work. Go ahead and “work the room,” but just be clear about what you are seeking, and close by asking if your new acquaintance can think of anyone who might be able to provide it, or anyone looking for it. Be polite, don’t force it, and people will respond. A follow up email to say a quick thanks is always appropriate.
If you’re targeting a specific person, that’s a different story. In that Twitter thread, Ryan McBride suggested just using the honest approach. I agree. You need to be prepared that the other person won’t accept your request, but we all know that cold calls have a limited likelihood of success anyway, don’t we? But if LinkedIn has shown us anything, it’s that we all know a lot of people who know a lot of people. Someone, someone, in your network knows the person you’re trying to reach. Work your own network first, and you’re sure to find a pathway to the person you’re seeking. Networking is an art, but that doesn’t mean sitting at a sidewalk café with a beret sipping an espresso. There are clear tactics, and working to identify a pathway to your target is key among them.
I’ll tell you one thing that gets under my skin: when people introduce themselves to me over and over again as though we’ve never met. There are two people on “the circuit” in the Boston area who are consummate offenders. I’ve already heard the pitches, and I’ve got nothing for them. The likelihood that they’ll ever get far with me is pretty low. I’ve certainly forgotten that I’ve met a given person, so I’m happy to let one by. But after about the fifth time, I’m ready to hit someone.
So don’t be intimidated by networking events, but use some common sense. If you’d like a decent sandwich, they’re not the best places for them. You probably don’t like tuna anyway.