Remember back in college when we sat around the dining hall table and shared information, swapped stories, and gained the infamous “Freshman 15.” Back then we’d never heard of Atkins, the South Beach Diet, or for the most part, even the term “networking.” Yet, there we were, heaping delicious, full-fat cream cheese on a bagel and building relationships, many of which were to last through our first jobs, marriage, promotions, children, divorce and on into retirement. Sure, some slipped away over the years, but then there were those who didn’t. These became the friends who would take our phone calls at any hour in any time zone, and it would feel like we never moved out of the dorm. And, these friendships would go on to typify the relationships that successful careers are built on.
This is the model that my co-author, Rachel Solar-Tuttle, and I looked to when we wrote Table Talk: The Savvy Girl’s Alternative to Networking. We saw that there were plenty of books with useful tips on how to “schmooze” and “work a room.” But we wanted to provide a complement to those skills, specifically for women who may have been intimidated, yet had the potential to be great networkers. This is why we came up with the term “Table Talk” to describe how we like to network – sitting around a table, looking each other in the eye and sharing a cup of coffee, a cocktail, or even a light Atkins-approved lunch, and making connections that will be the building blocks for our success.
How do you recreate that environment in today’s busy world? It’s not easy, but in the long run, you’ll be glad you made the effort. To help you along, here are five tips to jumpstart your way to table-talking success.
1. Collaborate, don’t compete.
Experts in gender communication often note how men use language to “one-up” each other, while women use language to create a more even playing field and to make everyone feel included. This is a natural skill that leads to building collaborative relationships. Inclusiveness, whether in language or by deed, is a crucial way to let others know that you are open to building meaningful networking relationships.
2. Learn a little from the Old Boys.
Old boys, like old dogs, may be hard-pressed to learn new tricks, but there’s still a lot we can learn from them. For example, while they seem to not be able to multitask, men are masters of seeing the big picture and where they (and others) fit into it on a professional level. How do they do this?
They think long-term. It’s hard for many of us to think past the end of the day, but if you want to succeed, you need to start building the relationships now that you will need in the future. This is something the men do very well. Whether it’s a simple action like picking up the check or sending someone a little piece of business, men know that the other party will eventually reciprocate. They also value helping out young upstarts and hanging out with the competition. They know that either could be a good source of information, a future colleague, or even their boss, someday.
They think mutually. If it’s good for their buddy, then it’s likely going to be good for them. Sure, their nose might temporarily be out of joint if a colleague gets a promotion and they don’t. But they also know the value of friends in high places (isn’t that what the Old Boy’s Club is, really?). They take the time to notice what might help others in business because they know that they will mutually benefit.
3. Meet your Mentors.
The idea of having a single mentor throughout your career has gone the way of pension plans and lifelong employment. You will need to have several mentors throughout your career, and often at the same time. Here are five distinct mentor types I always try to have on hand:
Role Model Mentor (or Mentor from Afar) – You may never meet these mentors in person, but there is a lot you can find out about them and their careers online or through acquaintances.
Decision-Making Mentor – These are the traditional mentors who are in a position senior to us and have some influence over our success at a company. It’s best to find a senior person who is not your boss to be this type of mentor, as sometimes you may be at cross-purposes with him or her (or they may actually be the whole reason you need a mentor!).
Peer Mentor – Your peers have a lot of different skills and often more knowledge than you in different areas. While they may be at your same career level, they might prove more insightful than a senior person who is at a very different stage of life.
Reverse Mentor – Most people over the age of 35 are digital immigrants when it comes to technology. Younger colleagues are likely digital natives who were born with a keyboard in their hands and can help you master what has become a defining element of the workplace—technology. Younger workers can also provide good feedback for managers as to company morale and reputation.
Male Ally – Sometimes the men are just speaking a completely different language and it helps to have someone who can interpret, stick up for you, or even invite you along to after-hours events. If the Old Boy’s Club is off-putting, look around for a male ally who himself may not be part of the “club.”
4. Get to the table and start talking.
Whenever I advise young professionals, I tell them that there are two things they should start as soon as they leave the building – maxing out their 401K, and table talking. The last thing anyone wants to do is start building a network the day after they get a pink slip. Building anything when you’re down and out is not easy. You want to be in a position where you have a network in place to help you survive any professional pitfalls. And, yes, pitfalls and pink slips still happen to very good people. But, those people with support networks can bounce back more quickly and even find new and better opportunities after a career stumble.
5. Shake it up, baby!
We all get stuck in ruts. Same routines, same people. Every once in while shake up your world and make a small change in your lifestyle. It could be going to the gym at a different time, joining a new association or online network, or calling some of those old college pals for a non-Atkins-compliant food and gabfest. Just making a small change in your routine can bring you into contact with new and different people to invite to your table for a good old-fashioned table talk.
About the Author
Diane K. Danielson is the CEO of DowntownWomensClub.com a career website and social network for businesswomen (www.downtownwomensclub.com). She is co-author of Table Talk: The Savvy Girl’s Alternative to Networking (2003) andClicks & Mix: The Savvy Gal’s Guide to Online Networking (2007); a blogger for the BostonWorks section of the Boston Globe, and the Downtown Women’s Club blog, (www.womensDISH.com); the social networking guru for Lifetips.com; and a contributing writer for PINK magazine.