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By Theresa Condito

Career Development Coordinator and Counselor, Sotheby's Institute—LA

While attending a National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) career coaching training with my career services colleagues from the Claremont Colleges, I was struck with a bit of a revelation. In an afternoon breakout session, one topic of conversation kept cropping up: networking. More specifically, the discomfort and anxiety some people experience with network building. Turns out, the term networking now has such negative connotations that it’s actually going out of fashion in some circles.

Regardless of what word you may choose to describe it, relationship building is incredibly important to career building, especially in Los Angeles. The entertainment industry’s penchant for the “who you know/who knows you” style of hob-knobbing seems to have permeated the entire city, and nepotism reigns supreme in many professions here, including the visual and performing arts. So, there’s no escaping networking. It’s a professional necessity. But how can you cope with the anxiety? Here’s how I handled it:

Think of it as “informational interviewing”

I can certainly relate to those who experience networking anxiety. I often tell students about my job search the year after I graduated from the Arts Management program. I met with an advisor, and she gave me the names and email addresses of three alumni to contact on a pink Post-it note. I’m very extroverted and love talking to people—in fact, I am sometimes the dreaded extrovert who talks to you in line at the grocery store or in an Uber Pool ride—but yet, the concept of reaching out to someone I didn’t know paralyzed me with apprehension.

I held onto that note for over a year. At first, I stuck it to the wall above my desk right in my eye line. I moved it to my resume portfolio folder, telling myself I’d reach out to them sometime when I was working on the job search at a coffee shop. I taped it to my computer. A year of post-graduate part-time work, fruitless searching, and seemingly endless online applications came and went, and I eventually mustered up the courage to email one of the alumni and ask him to coffee for an informational interview. He agreed, and we had a wonderful chat and he gave me a tour of his performing arts space. I kept in touch, and a few months later a position opened up at his organization for which he was the hiring manager. I applied, forwarded him my materials directly, and was offered an interview.

This is when I began to understand a vital truth: informational interviewing, or as I like to call it, the Coffee Grind, is the way out of the quiet hell of online job applications. How many individually tailored, grammatically superior resumes and cover letters did I send that year, applying for jobs I was well-qualified for, only to never hear back? I felt like I was just sending my applications out into the ether and thoroughly wasting my time. Well-crafted application materials are definitely important, but for me, networking—Yeah, I said it!—has been the key to my success.

How to “tackle the tension”

It’s generally accepted that networking will yield positive results, but it can be difficult to work through the nerves and start asking for informational interviews. My group at the NACE training came up with some wonderful ideas to start tackling the tension and move forward:

First, can you identify any barriers or resistance to networking that you may have? Many people fear rejection when asking new people to connect, and worry they will bother busy professionals. In my experience, the worst thing that can happen is the person you reach out to might not respond, even after a polite follow up. Also, being asked for an informational interview can be very flattering, and most people want to help others.

Next, try examining how you view the nature of professional relationships. Are you approaching this contact solely for your own benefit, or have you thought of ways you could provide value? Generosity and reciprocity are important in relationship building. Even if you don’t have a lot of work experience, you still have a lot to offer. For example, their organization might be looking to hire interns and could access your network.

Students at Sotheby’s Institute of Art-LA have access to our extensive alumni network and respected faculty of art professionals. Don’t let the pink Post-it note torture you! If you work through the anxiety, you will be rewarded with fruitful professional relationships, and likely a few wonderful friendships along the way.

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