I won’t lie: A year ago, I was someone who went to networking events and stood in the corner — munching on pretzels, sipping on seltzer and largely waiting for it to be over. Networking events just always seemed so inauthentic. They felt like groups of people pretending to make genuine connections, while guarding themselves with “professionalism” (read: stiffness) and personal agendas. I consider myself intuitive, but in these settings, I never understood when to make a joke or when to bring up an accomplishment. Networking felt like a limbo between the personal and professional, and I couldn’t settle into either.
Recently, I was invited to an event for professionals in my industry by a friend who (hopefully) didn’t know how much I hated them. Knowing she’d be there — with one of my favorite baked goods, no less — I decided to give it a try. And I'm grateful I did. It completely changed my perception of networking.
The event was simple. We sat in a circle around a table of food and answered a single question: “What is your greatest professional challenge right now?”
When I first heard our challenges were the topic of conversation, my jaw dropped. It takes real vulnerability to talk about those with friends and family — much less in a professional setting! But people blossomed when given the space to share what wasn’t perfect about their career. They shared what was going right, what was going wrong, what they wished they could change. Their openness about what they needed to learn allowed people to give real advice that went beyond the general “be confident” or “always have a plan B.” You could feel the energy of true give and take in the room.
When it was my turn, I was given space to set my intentions for the event and for my career. People tuned into what I was saying and gave concrete advice. I left feeling more than bloated from an overdose of finger foods.
After that event, I realized networking can yield authentic advice, action steps and relationships if you get to the heart of what the other people are seeking — both from the encounter and from wherever they are on their career path. Now, I ask “what’s your biggest challenge right now?” to get there.