Becky Bocklage

Becky Bocklage

*Editor’s Note: CC Biz Buzz is a new monthly column series that will feature insightful commentary from a member of the Columbia College School of Business faculty.

Look up the skills that any business graduate will need, and “effective communication” will be at the top of every list. Aside from learned expertise in the discipline they majored in, employers want students to be able to relate to other people. This is vital for interpersonal relations, both internally and when representing the organization externally. Many times, these external opportunities come in the form of a networking event, something which is part social and part business. To be effective communicators, students should build the skill of networking.

Communication is taught, of course, at Columbia College and every institution, but we’re teaching students to write a good analysis and deliver a convincing presentation. Doing that well builds effective communicators, but it doesn’t round them out. Just last week at a meeting in the business community, I heard a colleague talk about how recent graduates were unable to talk one-to-one to them. Those graduates were clearly uncomfortable, and they simply could not do it. The professional who told this story wasn’t being negative, but rather highlighting a problem and expressing support, albeit with a hint of frustration.

We all know how hard it is to engage in conversations with people we don’t know. A May 2016 Harvard Business Review article entitled, “Learn to Love Networking,” says that many times networking makes us “feel uncomfortable and phony—even dirty.” And many see it as “brown-nosing, exploitative, and inauthentic.”

So, what is networking? I’m sure there are formal definitions I could reference, but for me it is visiting with a purpose. Possibly the “purpose” is why it feels like brown-nosing, but it doesn’t need to be that way. That same HBR article says the research “shows that professional networks lead to more job and business opportunities, broader and deeper knowledge, improved capacity to innovate, faster advancement, and greater status and authority. Building and nurturing professional relationships also improves the quality of work and increases job satisfaction.”

Those are fantastic outcomes and prove the importance of learning to engage in casual conversation. But how do you open that conversation? My first suggestion is to help these new professionals understand that, at its core, conversing is just visiting, just like they’ve seen it modeled by parents, grandparents and friends. Yes, it is in a business setting, but being genuine is key. An authentic engagement doesn’t feel phony or exploitive; it makes the “work” part of networking so much more enjoyable to be able to be “you.”

To get started, it is always ok to open a conversation with something very low-key like the weather. It’s been hot in mid-Missouri, and we are facing drought conditions; that should be a concern to all Missourians. The Show-Me Games are in Columbia as I’m writing this article, and Columbia College is coming off a banner year in athletics while ramping up for another outstanding year. All of those are points of interest you could start a conversation with. Yet when students don’t feel like they have the knowledge to talk about general topics, they clam up. Practice will help, and we can help them practice.

We do this in my classes at Columbia College and the days we engage in deliberate practice of networking are always the most fun. So yes, they can do it with people their own age; it is with us that they have a problem. So, engage them in a conversation while you’re in the waiting room having your car’s oil changed, or at church when they are sitting in the pew next to you. Do it very gently and with very low-stakes topics. “I saw your car, that’s very nice, what model is it?” My son is an 18-year-old car fanatic, so be ready, that is his topic to visit about! Or how about, “Cute shoes! Where did you get them?” You’ll notice both questions are easy to give one- or two-word answers. That’s ok, you are building trust with them. Model attentive listening and active participation. Ease them into a conversation. Find what seems interesting to them, and talk about what interests you as well, since you are also a partner in this conversation and can help them learn how to visit.

You, too, are teaching our future leaders. The rewards for them, and our community will be innumerable. Remember, it takes a village.

Becky Bocklage serves as director of Columbia College’s Fishman Center for Entrepreneurship.