Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid learns networking skills

I don’t know what possessed me to pick up a book about networking. I daren’t read it in public as people will assume I am some Machiavellian schemer after a favour, or some sad loner type. I am neither. However, I am so bad at networking, I quite often don’t even bother to talk to anyone.

I have a friend, also in HR, who sprinkles her conversation with the names of key players in the industry like fairy dust. She looks at me quizzically sometimes and declares that I simply must know So-and-so; he is head of reward at Household-Name-Corp, or Thingy who is VP of HR at Massive-Company-Limited. Well, I don’t.

Confessions of a benefits manager

I am quite sociable, and perfectly confident about talking to people as long as it is not called networking and I don’t have to force anything. I will remember someone’s name if I like them.

Now I am off to another HR event, I feel I should make a bit more effort. The book says I must have the right mental attitude: networking is not about what’s in it for me; it is about what’s in it for all of us. Hm. It still makes me cringe.

I should also go with a clear goal in mind. A good strategy might be to aim to get to know three people and get their business cards. Alternatively, one could aim to meet as many people possible and hope that some of them ‘stick’. Yuck.

Body language

There is a short chapter on body language. Apparently I need to stick my arms in the air to feel more confident. Well, I am not doing that at an HR gathering; someone from health and safety will cart me off.

Alternatively, I can stand with my legs apart and my hands on my hips like some superhero character. I am sure that posture will make me look confident, but it will also make me look weird and bossy. I settle for standing with legs slightly apart, and try to avoid crossing my arms. They dangle at my side awkwardly. I feel sure I’d actually look more approachable if I didn’t look like a slightly uncomfortable gorilla.

Starting conversations

I head for the coffee. It is easy to start a conversation with a tall, handsome guy who is pouring himself a cup. He works for a company I have actually heard of, which helps. I listen carefully, looking for opportunities to ask questions. I am finding it quite hard work, but then he isn’t trying as hard as I am. Perhaps he hasn’t read the book.

It sounds like he has a very senior role for someone who looks like he just left university, but I try not to feel threatened by that. After all, he is very cute. Perhaps he reads my mind, as he casually drops the subject of his girlfriend into the conversation. I don’t know how he managed it when we were talking about work. I do hate it when they do that; men who find you attractive never mention their girlfriends. I make an excuse to head in the opposite direction before he can ditch me altogether and make me feel worse. The networking book gave lots of pointers on getting away.

A little guy called Shane comes straight up to me. I know his name because he offers his hand and introduces himself immediately. Then, bizarrely, without even waiting to hear my name, he walks off. I hadn’t even said anything. I hadn’t put my hands on my hips or done anything scary. This isn’t going particularly well.

The book suggests going up to a group of three or more. I guess if you pitch up to two people talking it will seem more like an interruption. I stand with a group of three women hovering around a tall table. As the book advised, I don’t join in straight away, but just listen. Luckily, I can find something to add fairly smoothly. However, no sooner have I started chatting than Shane comes along and introduces himself to me again. He also shakes the hands of the other three women and then walks off. I watch him go round and shake hands with pretty much everyone in the room. He is clearly going for the quantity approach.

Benefits issues

Finally, the actual event starts. We are divided into small groups to talk about our benefits issues. I panic. I have plenty of benefits issues, but none I want to share. There is the fact that neither my boss nor my colleague do any actual work so I am left to run the department single-handedly.

There is the fact that the rest of HR can’t manage anything to do with numbers, so we can’t rely on them to communicate anything effectively.

There is the fact we are not allowed to spend any money on improvements, yet we are constantly harangued for failing to offer market-leading plans. Ah, perhaps I can talk about needing to balance continuous improvements with cost savings. It is important to sound good as one of these people might offer me a job one day. I say my bit, and I see the other benefits managers nodding. In fact, they mostly say the same thing. There is one woman, Claire, who manages to say it rather more eloquently. Somehow she manages to make herself and her team sound truly competent while discussing her work issues candidly. I want to be like that.

During the break, I get chatting to Claire about her company, which turns out to be based quite near to where I live. How interesting. But before I can get any further, Shane comes over to introduce himself to me and to Claire. This time he doesn’t walk off, but starts to tell me all about his networking numbers strategy. Claire takes this opportunity ‘to make a call’.

There goes my next job. Sigh.

Next time… Candid looks at intangible rewards.