I was at a client meeting with some colleagues last week (five consultants and one HR Director – finally we’ve got the balance about right.  Shame there weren’t enough plugs for all our laptops and PDA chargers).  About half an hour into the meeting, someone poked her head round the door and told us she had the meeting room booked and we would need to go.  Our client, eyes blazing, squared up to the individual in question, and we waited patiently while they indulged in a game of ‘my PA’s more reliable than your PA’.

I’ve been freelance for ten years now, and I rely on incidents like this to remind me how ghastly working inside an organisation can be.  But it got worse.  Having seen off the challenge, we returned to our Gantt charts and pivot-tabled spreadsheets, but after 10 minutes the disgruntled territory claimer returned, with someone else in tow. 

This was the key witness for the prosecution - the woman who was in charge of the room booking system.  Brandishing a computer printout, she confirmed that our interloper did indeed have the room booked.  But the HR Director, eschewing Tort in favour of the law of the jungle, simply refused to budge.  We waited patiently for another 10 minutes while they stared each other out, wondering at what stage they would resort to hair pulling or throwing furniture about; eventually the challenger backed down, saying: “OK – we’ve got another room we can use.”

That did it for me.  What kind of a world is this, in which someone who was expecting to use one room but has another available, spends 30 minutes trying to claim the first room just on a point of principle?  (She will realise that tangling with an HR Director was a mistake when she wakes up and finds she’s been transferred to the Bratislava office as head of boiler maintenance).

In what turned out to be a fascinating ‘compare and contrast’ exercise, I found myself the following evening at a large scale ‘networking’ event specifically for individuals who used to work for large consulting firms (well, the paint I was watching had dried by then, and I craved variety). 

Before we go any further, for the uninitiated, I suppose I should explain this term ‘networking’.  Depending on your point of view, it means either cynically exploiting relationships for personal gain, or sitting around drinking coffee with other people who haven’t got enough work.  Should you hold either of these shallow views, I refer you to the definition used by Andrea Nierenberg (“The Queen of Networking” – according to the back cover of her book anyway).  Networking, says Andrea, is “the process of developing and maintaining quality relationships that enrich our lives and empower us to achieve our goals.”  Since my goal generally is to sit around drinking coffee with other people who haven’t got enough work, I will happily endorse this. 

I was reading a book on networking, I should add, in an attempt to sharpen up my ability to connect with people I’ve never met before.  (Up until now I’ve followed the ‘build common ground’ principle, which will work brilliantly when I eventually find someone else who collects antique maps of the Swindon area.).  Anyway, once I’d finished patting myself on the back for managing to interact meaningfully with complete strangers for a full two hours before finding myself in my usual position in the corner of the bar, I reflected on the different views of human nature afforded by this event versus my experience in the client meeting.

Whatever your feelings about networking, I submit that that a world in which people treat others as interesting and worthy of positive attention is infinitely preferable to one in which people treat others as out to make their lives difficult (although a networking event based on that assumption would be fascinating: everyone shuffling round the walls looking furtively right and left, not speaking to anyone, but perhaps tutting loudly when someone gets too close).

I’ve noted before in this column how different the average workplace would be if people behaved like freelancers (see, and the daily organisational bouts of pro-celebrity room wrestling are a case in point.  As an independent, I don’t expect to like everyone I meet, but I do expect to treat everyone with respect; to do anything else would destroy my reputation overnight.  To treat someone who’s sitting in the meeting room you booked as ipso facto your sworn enemy is to ensure that your personal network has a membership of one.  If all you have to do in order to get paid is turn up to work every day it’s easy to forget how valuable relationships can be.  Sadly, we often only remember when it’s too late.


(c) Phil Lowe 2006.  All rights reserved.