Networking Noob

Part 1 of 3

Location: The best Hotel Conference Centre in my country town.

The guest speaker handled it really well when I put my hand up and asked “What do you do when you are in a meeting and feel like punching a bloke because he won’t take you seriously?”

An Ex Army Logistics Officer, I was underemployed in my role as an office lady working for a local manufacturing plant and had reached the point where I’d had enough. Manager number six (or was it seven?) and I were nose to nose over some management practices which (while not illegal) did not exactly fit with my military expectation of accountability. He was gaslighting me at every turn and undermining every gain I had made towards business efficiency in the seven years I had been with the company. After all – to him I was just the office lady – what would I know about managing anything?  I’ve always been too blunt and direct to manage up very well. And remember, my anxiety (undiagnosed at the time) makes me fight. Time proved me correct on the issue but that’s another story.

I had completed my COMPAS course at WithYouWithMe, and as result had joined a local businesswomen’s networking group to try and meet some other women in local business.

The first event I attended was held at the best hotel in town and was attended by around a hundred business women. Being a country town, pretty much everyone knew everyone else. There was lots of cheek kissing and asking how the baby was going – all that girlie small talk I have always been useless at. Four women guest speakers/mentors from Sydney spoke on various topics such as managing up, dealing with harassment in the workplace, dealing with men who don’t take them seriously, experience on various boards and establishing a startup business.

I attended the event straight after work and walked in the door dressed in my Hi vis gear, jeans and bright pink steel capped boots. Everybody else was in heels, skirts, corporate wear. I know how to be a lady when needed but I’m not a particularly “girlie” woman. Small talk is a social skill I’ve never really picked up. For me to walk into a room full of strangers and make small talk is the definition of hell – especially if I don’t know anyone. I basically grabbed a glass of water and did my best to disappear in a corner until the Q&A started. I spent the entire event in a nervous sweat. Until I asked the question that made the whole room stop in stunned disbelief.

Her response?

“I just make sure I am better than they are”.

Part 2 of 3

Location: WithYouWithMe Networking Event, Luna Park Sydney

A 0400 start, forty minute drive, late plane, two trains and a ten minute walk (getting lost at the entrance to the park) and I was only five minutes late to the WithYouWithMe Networking event held at Luna Park in Sydney.

An even bigger noisy room, full of more strangers, and facing my extreme uneasiness about interacting again with ex military people. I’ll admit to being in a cold sweat and almost hyperventilating as I faced the door when a message pinged on my phone:

“You’re late. You haven’t chickened out have you? I’m third row back eight from the right and I saved you a seat.” So no escape with a quiet retreat to the Art Gallery.

I walked in the door and the noise stopped me. Bek Nugent looked up from the registry table with a wide smile and “Mel – you made it – it’s so good to see you, come in, here’s your tag and there’s the coffee.”

As I walked into the conference room my very loud and confident friend (who I hadn’t laid eyes on in twenty years) was almost standing and waving to me as Tom Larter was trying to do the introduction. So much for the quiet sneak in. I remember thinking “I bet I’m the only person in the room wearing bright red cowboy boots under my tailored slacks”. When the briefs finished and hugs, tears and hellos were complete my friend still wasn’t going to let me escape – he stayed with me, and was a tower of support the whole day. I doubt I could have stayed without him. My interview was not a complete disaster and the interviewers were very supportive. I even actually managed to introduce myself to some complete strangers and have a normal sounding conversation. I might have even smiled a couple of times. Hey, the photographer cheeky and kind of cute. I had to leave half way through the brief on RPA to catch my plane home but I definitely wanted to know more about it.

Will Lewis couldn’t believe I had flown to Sydney that morning specifically for the event. No big deal – that kind of travel is part and parcel of living in the country. I decided to go – so I went.

I got home emotionally exhausted, but I knew that the day was the best thing I had done in my own interest in a very long time. I started to see a path ahead out of my boring job. I had shown myself that I could do the networking if I tried, and that it wasn’t as scary as I had feared.

Part 3 of 3

Location: A paddock not quite in the middle of nowhere, but not far from it.

I had been looking forward to the UNE Smart Region Incubator Ag Tech Field Day for weeks. I donned my best cowboy hat and signature silk scarf, unearthed my lipstick, and reminded myself to smile and breathe.

Field Days are the country version of networking events. They work much the same way except you sometimes have to look down to dodge the cow poo.

I had already met a few of the vendors or had connected with them on Linked In. I had researched the businesses I wanted to talk to and had my business cards ready. I had prepared my questions and I had my little pitch rehearsed. I wanted to see where the opportunities might be for a Veteran Data Analyst in the Agtech sector – both for myself and on behalf of the WYWM student body. I found myself smiling every time I met someone new and quite naturally asking them about who they were and what they did. I couldn’t believe I found myself joking around with real honest to goodness complete strangers. Networking easily and comfortably, showcasing veteran skills and value like I had been doing it all my life. I even fielded a slightly condescending explanation with a smile when I didn’t recognize the terminology explaining “I understand the concept thanks – I just didn’t recognize the acronym.”

I had a very interesting conversation with a man who holds a Doctorate in Ag Data Analytics – and followed up the conversation the next day with an email. His view? No reason why a veteran shouldn’t find a place in Ag Data Analytics – just keep talking to people and be patient.

So why the huge difference? Where did this confident, relaxed, happy, smiling woman appear from?

Practice, determination, and the encouraging support of the right people.

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