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Job Connections Start as Social Connections

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

Back in November, Mike Campbell did what so many people do these days: He went on a date with someone he met through Match.com.

What came out of it wasn't a romantic relationship. Instead, he found a job.

Campbell met his date at a sports bar, as per Campbell's suggestion. Unfortunately, his date wasn't so crazy about sports. "There wasn't much chemistry between us," he said.

But during the conversation (the parts in which they actually had something to say to each other), Campbell's date, the chief executive of a nonprofit group, mentioned that his organization was trying to hire a director of communications. Lo and behold, Campbell's background was in communications. And he was on a freelance assignment that was about to end.

Campbell later told a friend about the date, mentioning that this guy sounded like he had a perfect job opening. His friend told him to send a résumé. "What do I put in the cover letter?" Campbell asked with a laugh.

But he built up his courage and sent a cover letter and résumé through the regular channels, and then Campbell picked up the phone and called his ex-date. He left a message saying he had sent a résumé in and that, though it might seem strange, he felt he was a good fit for the job.

Almost a month later, the CEO's assistant called Campbell to schedule an interview. When Campbell showed up, the honcho whispered, "I told them we met at a party," then sat down with a few other managers and interviewed Campbell, later offering him the job.

Campbell didn't realize it at the time, but in following up after the lame date, he was networking.

Despite our crazy, technological world with so many job Web sites and easy ways to post our résumés online, the personal network still is the No. 1 way to get a new job, promotion or partner.

Yet most of us shudder at the sound of the word "networking." Even nice people, even extroverted people, even people-people cringe when they hear it. It seems so forced. So suck-uppy. So fake.

But that's not always the case. Networking is about socializing. The people you meet at the grocery store, in line at a concert, while stuffing envelopes at a volunteer event may be the people who move you along your career path.

"If you treat it like you're just meeting a friend, it's more social than having all the anxiety of the business slant to it," said Melissa S. Fireman, founder of Washington Career Services, a career consulting firm. "We do it all the time."

Indeed, we do. Fireman herself is where she is today because of an easy social setting.

She was at a conference a few years back, chatting with people who worked at New York University.

They hit it off. Then they invited her to skip out on a few sessions and join them at the pool. There, she met their boss, executive director for NYU's career center.

The boss and Fireman were in the pool when they started chatting about what Fireman did before her current job. Fireman told her how much she loved training.

After a while conversing about their backgrounds and experiences, the director asked Fireman to do a training session at the career center. "That's what launched the business. We were in the pool together," Fireman said.

So maybe that's all it takes to find our career path. Hanging out. Well, if only it were that easy. It scares most of us because of that old fear-of-rejection thing. (S ee also: Campbell's bad date. )

Diane Darling, founder of Effective Networking Inc. and author of "The Networking Survival Guide," is a self-proclaimed introvert. She admits to playing solitaire on her Palm during intermission at the Boston Symphony recently.

"I completely understand the pain of introverts," she said. Which is why she feels it is her mission to teach people that networking can be fun and easy. And that they should realize they are networking in essentially every conversation they have.

But many people balk at the thought of networking because they think they have to sell themselves just to the higher-ups. That's not always the case. And in fact, it may not even be smart because then the person is using untested skills on someone who needs to make the final decision, not the first one.

Start small, Darling says. She likes to talk to people in airports about their roller bags. It gets a conversation going, and she never knows where it will end up.

People often find clients, work and contacts through things that have nothing to do with their jobs, she said. "People who let themselves be something other than their profession," she said, find they are networking without realizing it.

Volunteerism is how Darling got her start. Years ago, she was helping to put together an organization for women in technology. One of the women at the event noted that Darling was a great networker.

"I was insulted. I didn't think I was networking because I was so authentic," Darling said. But she thought about it and ended up giving a workshop to 30 of the women about how she networked.

You guessed it: Someone in the group later wanted to hire her.

Fireman also has seen how volunteering at events in the D.C. area has helped people land jobs. "I'm a big believer in: If you live and breathe the space, something's going to happen."

She recently held a networking event at a club after work, where a hip-hop artist performed. She's not sure if anyone got a job or contract out of it yet, but two people who went to the networking event are now dating.

And so it may be that networking works both ways: Campbell's friend jokes that he should look for a date at Monster.com.

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon on Tuesday to discuss your life at work at washingtonpost.com. You can e-mail her with your column ideas at lifeatwork@washpost.com.

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