This is possibly the most boring thing I've ever written, but maybe it'll be helpful to someone. The title is a tease, of course. It's more like How to discover, after ten years and with little to no strategy, that you are indeed part of a useful and fulfilling network.
Emerging Museum Professionals hui
The EMP group has kindly asked me to give a presentation at their hui the day before this year's Museums Australasia conference in May. I've been given a wide brief ('feel free to speak about any aspect of your career journey thus far that you feel is of interest, relevance and potential benefit to our EMP members') and my talk, and that of the other Australian keynote, will lead into a panel discussion about 'the myths of museum career progression'.
I have a few issues with the 'journey' brief, and I'm also reluctant to hold my career progression up as an example because - frankly - many of my major decisions to date have been driven by shitty moments in my adult life which have miraculously worked out in my favour.
Having said that, I also realised over summer that looking to someone as a role model doesn't mean mindlessly replicating them. In fact, it's more like having the ability to adopt another perspective by thinking through a situation in a 'What Would My Role Model Do?' kind of way.
Having been asked to speak, and having said yes, I'm determined to be useful to the audience. So I emailed out the brief I received to some newer colleagues whose opinions I respect, and asked them what they would find interesting and helpful if they were in the audience.
The responses really surprised me, because through the back and forth, the strongest theme to emerge was networking. Networking seems to be held out as the silver bullet for progress in a congested sector with little growth in employment numbers that faces new and recent graduates. A post-grad degree only gets you through the first cull of the applications pile. Get the right placement, get endorsed by the right person, form the right network - and that will be the difference between having that degree, and having a job that relates to that degree.
You need to network. It's the bit of advice given to every young striver. But what does it mean? You go to openings and public programme events, but you can hardly just bowl up to senior figures and bust into their cosy, gossipy conversations (Can you?). Ask them out for coffee. Who wants to cold-contact a gallery director or senior curator? What would you say? Find a mentor. How? What does that even mean?
The thing is, when you're at the start of your career, networks seem to be something other people (older and more established people, usually) have. You look upwards, and you see this thing that you're trying to break into.
Since that email exchange, I've been jotting down notes for my talk, but also talking about this networking thing with some of my friends, especially people who I perceive to have great networks. Interestingly, they also viscerally remembered that helpless early career stage, where you seemed to have your nose pressed up against the glass, watching people who had their shit and their networks sorted out get on with their glittering opportunities. They shared that same embarrassment and fear about approaching senior figures. They still, in many cases, feel it.
Change your mindset
But after talking it through, we all agreed on one thing. We had all - after ten, fifteen, twenty years - got ourselves to the point of having solid networks. Those networks occasionally included senior figures, but the strength was actually in being surrounded by your peers.
A lawyer friend told me that when her firm was bringing on with new grads, they encouraged them to network with their peers at other firms. The reasoning was that established staff already had networks with their own peers - the firm needed the next generation to get networked. Rinse and repeat, and one day you look around and figure out you're the establishment. (Now you get to ask yourself how you found yourself in this invidious and privileged position, and not be the douche you perceive the generations before you to have been.)
A dealer gallery friend, when I was talking this same thing over with her, observed time was key. Not time put in attending events and wangling pick-your-brain coffees, but letting time pass. One day (one day ten years on, mind you) you look around, and the people you used to hang out with are now your network. The ones you went to uni with, the ones you've worked with in various organisations, the ones you've been on committees with: they're now the ones you ping when you need some advice, who you find yourself calling to reference-check a job applicant, who you send interesting opportunities you can't use on to.
Your friends and professional acquaintances, over time, become the network you always imagined you wanted. Basic, but true.
You are actually going to have to be gregarious
Did anyone who's not a certifiable sociopath ever stand on the threshold of a room packed with strangers and think Oh goody, this looks like fun?
Unfortunately, while your network will grow organically over time, just like a slow-to-rise sourdough loaf, you still need to feed the starter. That means turning up at things and being friendly.
Every Myers-Briggs (coughbullshitcough) test I've ever done has me hovering right between introvert and extrovert. Professionally, I've learned to turn my extrovert up through sheer willpower. I ignore the butterflies in my stomach and I walk into the room and if I don't know anyone I just pick someone who looks approachable and I go over and start talking to them. I'm not ashamed to admit that I have on occasion used 'I don't know anyone here. Can I talk to you for a while?' as my opening line.
I have also convinced myself that at most networking-type events, at least half the people in the room feel the same way I do and will welcome someone else making the first opening.
And sure, over the years I've been frozen out, made a bit of a dick of myself, and felt like I've saddled some poor person with the responsibility of nursemaiding me. But I have survived all these small discomforts and lived to network another day.
Great networkers make connections
The best way of avoiding the hellishness of most networking events is just to stage your own. Talking with my friends, and thinking about those whose seemingly effortless network-enlarging skills I admire, I realised another basic truth. Great networkers make connections, not for themselves, but between others.
I think we start out thinking about networking in a transactional manner. When you've just graduated, all focus is on getting a job. 'Networking' seems crucial to getting a job, and then once you have one, to succeeding in it. You're trying to get into a network so you can milk it for your own ends.
Today, I think about networking more in terms of bringing people together and sharing information, support and opportunities. Maybe I just drank the meet-up kool-aid when I was working on the web, or maybe there's an event organiser inside of me after all, but for the past nearly ten years I've organised or co-organised or publicised or funded all sorts of get-togethers.
The best networkers I know run public or private events that bring people together, not for their own immediate benefit, but for the greater benefit of the group. They build their own networks, they build trust and reciprocity with the members of their networks, and they build communities of interest. Everyone's a winner.
These skilful networkers are also generous with their introductions and recommendations between people, and seem to get a real kick out of introducing people to each other.
Diversity makes great networks
I need to make a pre-emptive statement. My first point above, about networking with your peers, suggests your network could easily become homogenous in terms of age and profession, and potentially gender and culture.
I am particularly fortunate to have been supported throughout my career by more senior professionals. I try to pay this forward now by finding ways of supporting those younger than me. In turn, I'm regularly introduced to new thinking by these younger colleagues, whose education (now that I'm more than a decade out of uni) and generational outlooks are quite different from my own.
I'm also fortunate that by virtue of having worked across libraries, museums and web, and having gotten myself involved in cross-sector activities and topics like Creative Commons and the open data movement, the range of people I know is much wider than it would've been if I had have achieved my dearly held university dream and become a curator. Not getting my dream job actually opened things up for me. (There's a cosmic lesson for you.)
Recently I've started following more Maori and Pacific artists, writers, curators, museum professionals, journalists and media outlets on Twitter, as well as a couple of American collaboratives working on diversity issues in museums. I keep pretty quiet in this world, but I'm learning. Likewise, finally committing to te reo lessons - just through my Council - is widening my network and perspective.
Most of the great networkers I know are part of the web world, and their commitment to accessibility and inclusiveness is fierce. They call out examples of straight-white-ism and they work hard with all they do to not fall into the easy grooves of their own social and cultural backgrounds. They keep themselves honest, and their networks and their outlooks on life are all the richer for it.
Some practical advice
So all of this is great in theory. What can you actually do? Here are four ideas that don't involve having to go on a $3000 leadership course:
Learn to introduce yourself
When people ask me what I do, I say 'Oh, I work in an art gallery'. Which is so dumb, and which I am working on changing to 'I run The Dowse, it's an art gallery in Lower Hutt'. Because the first answer doesn't give the person enquiring any actual information, and puts the onus on them to draw you out. That's lazy and unhelpful.
My morning routine is to haul myself through the shower, make us breakfast and coffee, and then spend 45 minutes clearing my feedreader. I subscribe to the Washington Post and NYT culture sections, ArtsJournal's full feed, the tech blogs from Brooklyn Museum, Cooper Hewitt and ACMI, the books section from the Guardian, and about 50 individual blogs. I've done this for about 10 years now, and it helps me not only in my day to day job, but with keeping a finger on the wider arts and tech sectors, so I can think about how they intersect with what I do. It's part of the diversity thing, especially as every interesting person you follow online leads you to another.
Ditto following interesting people using whichever social media network suits you (I'm still totally Twitter and zero Facebook or LinkedIn, YMMV). Twitter has a really lively sub-culture of New Zealand museum people who are sharing and discussing all sorts of interesting topics - I can only imagine that FB has the same. I'm still surprised by how few New Zealand museum people I find on Twitter, compared to, for example, writers and book reviewers.
Find free or cheap things you can attend
I came of age professionally at the beginning of the age of the meet-up, when social media started to support the existing culture of people coming together around special interest topics. Again, the most valuable opportunities for me have always been groups and events that coalesce around interests or topics that cross various industries or sectors. For me, it was things like the Open Data movement, and Creative Commons, along with NDF and Webstock.
I'm a bit out of touch today with regular meet-ups, but try the NDF barcamps around the country, and the Refactor event in Auckland. The forthcoming Women Who Get Shit Done unconference, to be held in May near Wellington, could also be interesting (though less cheap).
Take control of your professional development funding
This is something I never thought of doing before I was in control of my own PD budget, and wish I had. No one gets enough funding in our sector for professional development - the budgets everywhere are pretty miserable, and it's a great shame.
At The Dowse, I've tried to amplify our budget by doing one or two events a year that bring smart people/training opportunities/hui to us so as many of us as possible can attend, rather than sending one or two people away. We've done disaster preparedness training, training with Autism New Zealand, a LEOTC hui, a curatorial hui, and this week's Four Waves of Feminism event, among others: all times where I've used our PD budget to underwrite a training and/or networking opportunity.
There's nothing stopping you from doing the same thing. Make the choice, and ask your manager if you can use your allocation this year to organise an event, rather than attend one. Or get together a group and make it happen together. There are all sorts of ways to do this: bring people together for an afternoon to share case studies from their discipline; keep an eye out for visiting speakers (e.g. Museums Aotearoa, NDF, the nearest university) and convince them to add your organisation to their itinerary; approach senior managers or people you look up to and ask them to help you secure speakers and look at something like the Refactor event again as a model. (Remember that if your organisation hosts the event they get to share the glory and count the visitor numbers, so it's all win-win-win.)
Organising events stresses me out. I don't enjoy it at all - in the lead-up or, usually, at the time. But it's been the single best way that I've grown my own network, and when you're running something, you don't have to worry about turning up in a room full of people you don't know, because you've got a job to do. Playing host is also a great way to build your own public speaking confidence.