Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Who’s got your back?

One of the things I read over and over again about finding work is that most people who land jobs do so because they network – they target a job and maneuver through the cyberworld to make contact with someone in that company to get an inside line on the position.

That’s all and well, but in many ways it seems so manipulative: See something you want, find a person who can help you get it, introduce yourself (or find someone to introduce you) so you can cultivate that relationship and ultimately get what you want.

That’s the example taken to an extreme, and it is one that rubs me the wrong way, even if many relationships start out as self-seeking.

After all, what draws us to another person? Perhaps it is not so altruistic. Something attracts us to the individual. Why? Perhaps because something about that person elicits a response in us. Something about that person – his or her personality, abilities, talents, skills, or perhaps simply a smile or purely physical attractiveness – satisfies us at some level.

So at its core, networking is in some way a very natural way to seek out what you want. But at that level, it still rings hollow to me.

I enjoy people – I am not ashamed to say that. They are all sorts of people – all shapes, sizes, colors, temperaments, abilities. One of my favorites over the years was a journalist who was 40 years my senior, loved tennis, hated Wyoming weather, was an avowed atheist and as cantankerous as they come.

His name was Kirk Knox, and we shared very little in common. In fact, in many ways we  were diametrically opposed. Yet I really loved that old guy, and we got along well – well enough, in fact, that he asked me to be a witness to his will. And about five years ago, the person representing his estate contacted me, asking that I affirm that I had witnessed the signing of his will. Kirk had died at 86, ending a career of more than 50 years in journalism.

My point is that he and I had little in common, yet we genuinely liked each other, and we developed a good relationship over the four years we worked together.

Over the years, I have come to genuinely like a lot of people. That does not mean I have always maintained contact with them, but I have cherished those relationships for reasons as diverse as the individuals themselves. Sometimes those relationships started at work, other times at home, while out and about, or in at least one case for me, in reading a very touching blog post.

That said, I continue to be amazed at how the “networks” I’ve developed over the course of my life continue to reach out to me and bless me when I least expect it.

Right after I was laid off in December, phone calls started coming in from all over – folks with whom I had worked, family, others I worshiped with, all friends – to encourage and to comfort me at a time when I hurt badly.

But the support from those “networks” I had inadvertently built up over the years did not end there. From time to time there would be a phone call to say "hi," a “tweet,” an instant message, a Facebook post – even an occasional “e-wad” (I’ll explain that later) – from some of these friends.

There also have been requests from some for copies of my resume to forward to others, or e-mails sent to me with job leads. More recently, there have been a couple of phone calls from potential employers, one of whom specifically mentioned a guy I worked with more than 10 years ago and who has rightly developed a reputation as a no-nonsense journalist.

These kinds of things represent to me what networking should truly be about – relationships based on mutual value and respect. This is or should be at the heart of every relationship. In the workplace, it manifests itself in collaboration, coaching, mentoring, encouraging. Moreover, in every relationship, at some point it means extending a hand, an ear, even a hug to someone who is down.

It’s been more than 5½ months since Sun-Times Media laid me off, and the people who have been part of my “networks” over the years – family, friends, former colleagues – have given me the encouragement I needed when I most desperately needed it, have sent me, unbidden, a job lead or who have recommended me to someone else.

In many ways, I find this humbling, but in a very warm, very tender way. I hope my own actions and attitudes toward these individuals and others I have known or worked with over the years in some way merited this kind of attention – that perhaps I have blessed them at some point in some way, just as they’ve blessed me.

If nothing else, I find in their actions inspiration to do the same for others.

Now for the e-wad.

I once worked in a newsroom where people largely got along well, in spite or because of their varied opinions. It was a good-natured group of professionals who knew how to do their jobs well, and do them professionally. But sometimes, everybody has to blow off a little steam to ease the tension.

When I started in this newsroom, at times people would disappear into the supply room, which had been built like a bank vault – it even had a steel door with a combination lock – only to emerge shooting rubber bands at select individuals in the newsroom.

Over the years, the box in one file drawer that once had held an abundance of rubber bands was emptied; our cache, as it were, had been depleted.

Nevertheless, journalists are an innovative bunch, and the most abundant thing around in a newsroom is, after all, paper: sheets from the copy machine, printouts of pages for proofreading, printouts of photos for page designers to use as references.

So it was only a matter of time before there was the sound of a crumple, a zing and a thump as a tightly wadded ball whizzed between computer monitors and struck someone in the head, occasionally an eye (sorry Gloria), nose or ear.

Some managers, however, frown on such behavior as unprofessional, although I am fairly certain those who participated prided themselves on their paper-wadding skills or their aim. We were a group of finely skilled professionals who let loose once in a while.

Later, however, the company consolidated and eventually combined some of its newsrooms, and with the mix of unfamiliar faces, our passion for paper play faded.

But one day by chance I found a photo of a paper wad on the Internet and downloaded it to my desktop. Then, using e-mail, the whiz-zing-thump was renewed, although no one ever got hit in the eye again. It was the e-wad, a quick reward for a lousy pun, a particularly poor wise crack or a very apt if unflattering character description.

And a little fun in the workplace occasionally among friends and colleagues is not a bad thing.