Look up the skills any business graduate will need and “effective communication” will be at the top of any list. Aside from acquired expertise in the discipline they majored in, employers want students to be able to relate to other people. This is critical to interpersonal relationships, both internally and in representing the organization externally. Often these outside opportunities come in the form of a networking event that is part social and part business. To be effective communicators, students should develop networking skills.
Communication is, of course, taught at Columbia College and every institution, but we teach students to write a good analysis and make a persuasive presentation. Doing this well builds effective communicators, but it doesn’t round them out. Just last week, at a meeting in the business world, I overheard a colleague talk about recent grads not being able to speak to them in person. These graduates were clearly uncomfortable, and they just couldn’t do it. The professional who shared this story was not negative, but instead highlighted a problem and expressed support, albeit with a touch of frustration.
We all know how difficult it is to have a conversation with people we don’t know. A May 2016 Harvard Business Review article titled “Learn to Love Networking” states that networking often makes us feel “uncomfortable and wrong — even dirty.” And many see it as “brunal, exploitative and inauthentic”.
So what is networking? I’m sure there are formal definitions I could refer to, but for me it’s a visit with a purpose. It’s possible that the “purpose” is why it feels like a brown nose, but it doesn’t have to be. According to the same HBR article, research “shows that professional networks result in more employment and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved ability to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority. Establishing and maintaining professional relationships also improves the quality of work and increases job satisfaction.”
These are fantastic results and prove the importance of learning to engage in light-hearted conversations. But how do you start this conversation? My first suggestion is to help these new professionals understand that conversations are really just a visit, as they were modeled by parents, grandparents, and friends. Yes, it’s in a business setting, but being authentic is key. An authentic engagement doesn’t feel fake or exploitative; Being able to be “you” makes the “work” part of networking so much more enjoyable.
It’s always okay to start a conversation with something very low-key like the weather at the beginning. It’s been hot in the middle of Missouri and we’re facing drought conditions; that should be a concern for all Missourians. The Show Me Games are being held in Columbia as of this writing, and Columbia College has had a stellar year in athletics and is preparing for another stellar year. All of these are points of interest that you could use to start a conversation. However, when students feel they do not have the knowledge to talk about general topics, they remain silent. Practice will help, and we can help them practice.
We do this in my classes at Columbia College, and conscious networking days are always the most fun. So yes, they can do it with people their own age; they have a problem with us. So engage them in conversation while you’re in the waiting room to change your car’s oil, or at church when they’re sitting in the pew next to you. Do it very gently and with very low issues. “I’ve seen your car, it’s very nice, what model is it?” My son is an 18-year-old car fanatic, so be ready, that’s his theme for a visit! Or how about “Cute shoes! Where did you get that?” They’ll find that both questions can easily be answered with a word or two. That’s fine, you’re building trust with them. Exemplary attentive listening and active participation. Engage them in conversation. Find Identify what interests them and talk about what interests you as well, since you are also a conversationalist and can help them learn to visit.
You too teach our future managers. The rewards for them and our community will be untold. Remember, it takes a village.
Becky Bocklage is the director of Columbia College’s Fishman Center for Entrepreneurship.