Monday, August 13, 2007

Confessions of (Recovering) a Networking Addict

When I was displaced from my job late last year, the employment coaching consultants preached many things: upscale your clothing (the tech-geek uniform of jeans and collared shirts doesn't work during an interview); maintain your grooming (dye, trim, clip, and polish body areas appropriately); and network, network, network because "95% of all jobs are found through networking."

Holy cow pies, Moonshine. Network? Uhm. Maybe you've not gotten it yet, but I'm not exactly the warm fuzzy type. And you want me to talk to people? People as in bipeds? Let me tell you, there's a reason I prefer to work in technology groups for companies that are geographically distributed.
  1. I'm female, which already gives me an edge, mainly in the unpopular Affirmative Action way.
  2. For a female in technology, I'm relatively hot. [Bear in mind "relatively".]
  3. I'm in technology and have a personality and a sense of humor. [Mark one more for the Willowbottom-meister.]
  4. My social skills are at least equal if not better than those with whom I work. [Be afraid, be very afraid.]
  5. I never work with real, live, real-time people in my same location. [So yes, there are days when I can work in my pajamas at home and no one knows.]

Basically, where I work and in what I do, I need to exert very little effort to be the most personable, attractive, and charming cream of the crop. And now, you dare to suggest that I network, as in real time with other human beings who may not shop the clothing line of Oh, dear.

So, the consultant recommended we start our networking journey by getting an account at LinkedIn.

Whew! That was a relief. I thought you were going to suggest I apply makeup and go to cocktail mixers.

Well, the consultant suggested that, too, but I think she realized that for some of us, it's baby steps.

So, I got a LinkedIn account and got totally sucked into it. This was surprising for someone who snottily has eschewed Yahoo! 360* and Facebook and MySpace for so long as Web sites for attention-hungry twits. But yet, here I was ravenous to do as much as possible -- post my resume, solicit recommendations for my past work, etc. Social and professional networking applications have wet dreams about over-achievers like me who determine our own self-worth by how many contacts we have. At first, I was demure, waiting for people to invite me to be one of their "contacts." But I realized that networking is not a place for wallflowers (insofar as anyone who networks behind the shield of a plasma monitor isn't a wallflower). You must be noticed to succeed!

Suddenly, rather than awaiting invitations, I was inviting people to be my contacts from college 11 years ago I'd not spoken to since. Old co-workers who'd been at the same company for 25 years, siblings, professional students, the nanny, even distant relatives who have a Luddite-style aversion to e-mail and would never even see my invitation ... no relationship was too sacred. All I knew is there were people out there who had "500+" contacts and I wasn't yet one of them.

And then it struck me. Most people require a little more of their interpersonal relationships than being contacted whenever they are needed for some reason or other (like a job search). Most don't care for being treated like spices on a kitchen rack: easily pulled out, just as easily shelved. I could add all these people as my contacts, but was I prepared to maintain some semblance of contact with these folks for an indefinite period of time ... even (gasp) forever?

Well, I think we know the answer to that. And so, my visits to LinkedIn immediately became as frequent as when I put eyeshadow on. That is to say, very rare.

So, for the last several months, I've been a recovering networking addict, visiting my profile now and again to keep it updated but really not exerting any effort on this. Hopefully nothing will happen to my situation to belie this self-semi-confident statement, but I've done very well staying employed so far based on the quality of my work alone and my (arguable) charm during interviews. I'd rather try that route than the one I find more painful ... namely, the networking-with-real-live-people part.

My networking inclinations were near dormant until recently when my sorority launched its own networking site. Suddenly, like a hungry koala in search of eucalyptus, my networking urges surged to life again and I felt the flash of adrenaline-fed heat that augurs a competitive race. Here I have a chance to demonstrate my connectedness to my sisters and prove that I am a person worth knowing.

I create my account and immediately begin to add friends. I pause. Wait, think I. Wouldn't a true demonstration of my popularity be if I play hard to get and let them all add me as a friend? Briefly I entertain fantasies last experienced in high school, when I dreamt that as I walked through halls (without a pass, of course) students gaped at my self-confident saunter and the girls cooed appreciatively at my edgy black-and-white tie-dye shirt over my tights and L.A. Gear sneakers. (Yes, I wish I were making that part up.)

In this dream, though, servers crashed and networks clogged due to the number of women sending me "Add as a friend" invitations. Women would ask each other in hushed tones or in furtive e-mail messages, "Has she accepted you yet?" "No, not me either." Meanwhile, my profile would be the among the ones with the highest hits, so much so that when my sorority recruits new members every semester, they would list me as a famous member based on my sorority network hit count, along with the noted actresses, Olympians, and philanthropists. "Oh, yes," the 19-year-olds gasp in breathily excited but hushed tones, "SHE is one of our most respected members. She only accepts a very few as her friends, you know." Of course, they would never refer to me by name, as though I'm Lord Voldemort and far too awe-inspiring.

As I awake from my reverie, I'm pragmatic enough to be sardonically amused at my own shallow aspirations that, no matter how humorously presented, may have some small sliver of sincere desire. Yet, I recognize that I really am too people-shy and opinionated (and really too lazy) to ever be the Networking Pontiff, whether of my sorority or the professional world. And I don't think I really want to change, either.

So I've let it go a few days since I actually logged into any networking site and I take some small pleasure in being choosy about who may connect to me. For those connection-hungry networkers who aspire to have the "500+" symbol by their LinkedIn profile, they'll need to create some story a little bit more unique than they also used to work at the same mega-sized corporation I did. And please ... make up a good story, like about some night in some pub where I wore a chartreuse feather boa made of emu feathers and danced to the Macarena while listing off the names of the British monarchs from 1066-1603 and you and I conversed about the witty appropriateness of the word abecedarian. Then I might connect with you.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Why I'm Greek

Every once in a while, those who haven't known me since college ask me, bewildered, "where does all your time go?" Apparently they think that when I'm not working or blogging, I must be buffing my nails, gently wiping my husband's sweaty brow with a soft cloth, or smoothing my children's hair into perfect style.

Well, truth be told, I'm Greek. That's Greek as in "Alpha Kappa Mu Mu" (the name my non-Greek brother has given my sorority because he thought it sounded funny), not Greek as in "My Big Fat Wedding."

In the eight or nine months I've had this blog, I haven't talked about my Greek-ness not because it's unimportant to me, but simply because the involvement of an adult woman in a college sorority tends to raise some questioning brows. To save myself the effort of justifying it, I just avoid mention of it entirely except to those who "understand." (Those who do understand would be "fellow Greeks," in case the quasi-vocal inflection and air quotes didn't convey into the blogosphere.)

Had Kermit the Frog been a member of Alpha Kappa Mu Mu, he might've sung "It's Not Easy Being Greek" instead of that other catchy tune. In some ways, it's true. After all, if you don't sport a blonde bouffant, and are not hot, a stay-at-home mom, a member of the modern wealthy landed gentry, and from Texas or Georgia, do you really belong in a sorority? And if you dare mention to some that you were Greek once-upon-a-time, will people even bother investing the time into getting to know you to learn that you're not the stereotype?

I'd like to think yes. After all, at the core of every Greek organization's mission statement is some descriptor that basically means "libertie, equalitie, fraternitie," and something about scholarship and excellence. In no organization's write-up have I seen "rock hard hotness", "PHAT," "bling," "good lay," or "toilet papering."

Maybe it's because those organizations didn't try to recruit me.

The interesting thing about being Greek is the response I get when people "find out." The response is either, "YOU were in a sorority?" or "you were in a SORORITY?" The inflection on that sentence alone tells me right there what that person thinks about Greeks in general.

"YOU were in a sorority?" = You're not blonde or hot, and you're in no way what I picture a sorority member to look or be like. How on earth did you get in?

"You were in a SORORITY?" = You're not blonde or hot, and you're in no way what I picture a sorority member to look or be like. Why on earth did you pledge?

Either way, it's uncomplimentary.

The answer is the same to either question, though. Why did I pledge and how did I get in? Well, my sorority saw in me (hopefully) the same thing that I (hopefully) see in it: The desire, ability, and opportunity to nurture leadership in young women, myself included. Sure, lots of organizations can do that but not many of them are dedicated to that and have the opportunity and organization to recruit at such a significant scale at our nation's institutions of learning. Couple that with the additional benefits of a life-long personal and professional network and bond of sisterhood to others who are all committed to the same and you have a pretty compelling argument for "going Greek."

Sure, being Greek comes with the additional trappings of any organization: jewelry (like religious organizations), robes (like the House of Parliament), sometimes a dedicated facility/house (like honors colleges), parties (similar to corporate mixers), and other paid-for extras. It also may come with some problems, and they are the problems that are native to existence as a young person. Let me tell you, college Greeks didn't invent drinking, snappy dressing, and crazy parties. It's just our leadership abilities that make us so darn good at organizing them.

(Disclaimer: That was a joke.)

But my point really is that being Greek offers the opportunity to give younger people a leadership experience under the advice and counsel of older collegians and, even better, under the auspices of a national organization and chapter advisors. Sometimes it's done well, and sometimes not. But that's how it works anywhere. Hopefully organizations are led by people who make them succeed, but it doesn't always work out that way. Fraternities and sororities are no more and no less failure-proof than any other human-led organization.

There aren't many organizations intended for college-aged youth that accommodate the blend of the quasi-professional and the academic, understanding and even encouraging students to put their school first and volunteer work second. Greek groups also help students understand, even on a relatively micro scale, what it means to be a small part of a bigger whole and of a history that may extend hundreds of years back that they can directly shape for the future. Let me tell you that every Greek member, no matter how "insignificant" his or her participation, can make or break a chapter, a college, an entire sorority/fraternity, or even lead to the elevation or destruction of the entire Greek system. Greek organizations can help shape student leaders by demanding responsibility and hopefully accountability while providing opportunities to every person to showcase their best aptitudes while doing good for their organization and philanthropic causes, even if it is under the guise of a seemingly vacuous t-shirt sale or volleyball game.

I'm not so naive that I think it actually works like that at all times, and I realize this is a little pie in the sky. But this is how it can work -- how it should work.

So, really, why do I continue to volunteer for a sorority that stopped being relevant for me when I graduated college, more than 10 years ago? It's because I truly believe that we are responsible for helping others achieve their life's passion and enabling them with the tools to make their little corner of the world a little better. How else can we enable them with those tools unless we put them into real life situations where showing up, paying bills, and fulfilling your word matter and, if not honored, come with real consequences from which your parents may not be able to bail you out? Because Greek relationships are the among the ones that really can last a lifetime, there's great accountability ... if it's done right. Almost anyone can engineer themselves into a supposed "buy-a-friend" network, but there aren't a lot of people who actually make that investment meaningful and lasting. I feel that I'm still involved to help us meet that challenge.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Age of the Tomato

Once or twice in the past, I have been accused of being an over-achiever. I find this to be a poor descriptor because I don't think I've achieved very much. Instead, I prefer to think of myself as someone who puts to use every moment of time that I can. Very little time is spent on TV or idle relaxation. Indeed, in addition to work, parenting, and homemaking, my leisure activities are often combined so more can be gotten out of less. Examples: Movies are enjoyed on the iPod while I lift arm weights on the stair machine at the gym. Books are read while nursing. E-mail is read and sent while I'm on conference calls.

But, the more I try to fit into less, the less truly gratifying it is. This is especially true when it comes to work. While I enjoy, for the present, being a corporate slog and working 50-hour weeks, I don't actually "see" the positive impact of my work. One must go through a long set of connections before my work in managing the development and installation of code for a corporation connects to assuaging the hurts of suffering children throughout the world.

It's at these times that I feel greatest personal satisfaction from good old fashioned manual labor. Painting a bedroom is more satisfying to me than saving $100,000 in production costs. Washing the car and cleaning the garage engenders a greater sense of completion than bringing the count of my unread e-mail down. And, lately, seeing things grow in the garden (however pitifully!) is more pleasurable than producing reports.

In this post you see a picture of a tomato plant (heavy with growing tomatoes). I made this. Well, truth be told, I'm not solely responsible for its creation since I bought the starter plant from a farmers' market and planted it. No matter how much satisfaction I derive from making things, I'm not so foolish to think that I'm attentive enough to living things to do a good job of nurturing them from seeds -- thankfully, children are capable of expressing their ire so I remember to feed and water them. Plants are not so capable.

But the point is that I did make this, with the help of my older son who helped me dig and relocate worms and lady bugs, and my husband who helped me water it, too.

This single tomato (and the ones that will follow) are, to me, a greater testimony of my worth and contributions as a human being than all the certificates of recognition received by my past employers.

This leads me to believe that corporate America can learn something from someone like me. Instead of gift cards to Best Buy and shiny gold coins and signed certificates of appreciation with accompanying recognition points (all of which can be redeemed for more stuff), perhaps we should usher in the Age of the Tomato. Produce is then awarded based on your contributions and capabilities. A sample recognition plan may look like this:

You're the Zest! Recognize with a the gift of a low-cost, easily-used condiment, like a lemon or lime, which comes with paring knife and zester. This is a spontaneous gift that could be awarded following management presentations, a corporate event, or after someone has helped you produce a report. Estimated cost, $7 or less.

Lettuce Thank You! This is for the person whose contributions are a bit more meaningful, probably designed for an experienced entry-level person or a more junior mid-range contributor. The gift would be a small bag of salad fixings, including lettuce, tomato, cucumber, radishes, and a salad dressing, along with tongs and a nice wooden bowl. For the extra special mention, this can be upgraded to include a bottle of vegetable oil (to keep the wooden bowl polished) and a substitution of the standard iceberg lettuce for some nicer dark or gourmet greens (think watercress, spinach, frisee, etc.). Estimated cost, $8-$13.

You're In-herb-spensible. For the seasoned (ha ha!) chef or exceptionally qualified nurturer, reward them with this premium gift of herb seeds with the supplies needed to create a hydroponic herb garden. This is especially appropriate for project or people managers who have made significant contributions. The hydroponic garden can be upgraded, as desired, to a Sur la Table-quality herb seed and garden kit for the senior-level management executive. Estimated cost, $20-$170.

Criteria for award includes not only the person's contributions, but also his/her corporate rank (which may determine overall gift value), and his/her abilities to produce (ha ha!).

This recognition program provides growth opportunity (ha ha! I'm killing me with the puns!), as well as truly useful gifts that allow a person to enjoy the stress-relieving benefits of gentle labor. Additionally, this is an entirely green, environmentally-sensitive program (perhaps it should give partial attribution to Al Gore or Ralph Nader) that provides healthy food into employee diets, potentially reducing health care costs.

I would market this concept, but that would contribute to more e-mail, meetings, and other less-satisfying labor. So, I release this idea into the world for all corporations to benefit. For myself, I ask only for my just desserts and hope to receive a cut of the take.