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Networking Without the Fluff

Do you, like me, cringe every time you encounter the word 'networking' ? It has come to stand for so much -- from the five-second exchange of business cards to a serious sales call -- that it now effectively stands for nothing. In fact, if I mentioned my recent trip to Las Vegas to speak at the Women's Annual Leadership Conference, a networking event held by the Women's Foodservice Forum, you'd be forgiven for thinking: Vegas ... food ... networking ... count me out. But you'd be wrong. Because this event truly did networking well. Sure it had all the accoutrements of the traditional boondoggle -- fancy hotel, fabulous food, and some great entertainment. But the bulk of the time wasn't frivolous at all. Sandwiched into four days was a hefty schedule of executive education of a kind that would sit comfortably inside any business school: learning to manage conflict, understanding industry trends, estimating risks and improving communications skills. These were substantial training seminars, not fluffy feel-good sessions.

Of course the meals in between were excellent; what else would you expect from a food-industry gathering? But what chiefly struck me was the eagerness with which senior executives interacted with junior attendees. Veterans went out of their way to meet and welcome new entrants. At every sit-down meal, conference veterans made a point of sitting with people they did not know. They would introduce themselves and ask everyone what they most wanted from the conference. To the degree that they could help then and there, they did. Otherwise, they handed out cards and encouraged the younger attendees to get in touch when there was something they needed. Leading industry executives were at pains to discuss how using the WFF proactively had significantly advanced their careers. They listed the mentors they'd found, the boards they'd joined. Those of us who were there to teach quickly picked up on the conference's serious intent; we all gave more and learned more. Because the veterans talked openly about how they'd used the conference to find mentors and seek out board appointments, or used conference committees to meet industry leaders, they made everyone feel confidence in following their examples. You started to feel that if you did not ask for help, you were wasting your time.

This was networking without the fluff and nonsense. It was serious, concerted and real. I don't even work in the food service industry, but when one young woman asked me for some legal advice, I felt obliged to give it -- and to connect her with a lawyer I know who works in that space. I sat and watched as a senior salesperson recruited two eager newbies over lunch. And I overheard a meaty discussion about bun suppliers and new trends in condiments. Not my cup of tea, perhaps, but crucial if that's your business.

Could you have wasted your time there? Only if you were foolish enough to want to. If you came with serious intent, you might have left with winnings -- in the form of insight, connections and mentors -- more valuable than anything the casinos had to offer.

Now that the word 'networking' is so degraded, I wish there were a better way to describe events like this that are social but serious, educational but fun. Any ideas?