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There’s Nothing Wrong With Using Playdates for Professional Networking

Playdates are ideal for networking with people you might otherwise not meet. Take advantage of it.

A little less than a decade ago, a friend invited me to speak about media trends to a networking group of a dozen young finance executives and entrepreneurs. They were up-and-coming bankers, a Bitcoin pioneer, an emerging real estate guru, a serial startup investor. All male, all childless. The week following my talk, they asked me to join the group as a member. We met after hours in boardrooms, or over cocktails, exchanging ideas and news about our respective fields. Often, as they discussed Sharpe ratios or debated subtleties of the Dodd-Frank Act, I pressed to understand what they were talking about. But I loved it.

It was, in essence, power networking. The group dissolved after a couple of years, in part because it’s hard to keep organizing, but mainly, I think, because we all started having kids. I lamented the dissolution of the group (which eventually did strive for diversity and added women); how else would I get to exchange ideas and interact with people outside my usual circles?

Today, ironically, I do most of my networking with the dads and moms of pre-K and elementary school children (mine are four and seven). These conversations happen not in conference rooms with views of Manhattan’s skyscraper-lined canyons but elementary school classrooms, within view of paint-stained easels.

At first, I felt weird or opportunistic about leveraging story time to explore potential job upgrades — not to mention the awkwardness of having a serious discussion while seated in a tiny kindergarten chair — but then I thought, when else am I going to meet a creative director from a powerhouse agency or the editor from that magazine I’ve been pitching, now that my nights involve more bedtime reading than post-work socializing?

Turns out I’m not alone. Fast Company wrote about “power playdates”; that is, networking with a fellow parent while children cavort on the neighborhood playground. It’s silly not to take advantage of it — if done wisely.

Paula W Beck, a New York City professional and career coach, instructs job-seeking clients to create a “mind map” or diagram that organizes a professional network, including everyone from close friends to former colleagues; the idea is to then tap into this network to create new associations that can help you in your search.  Drop off lines, play dates, and playground chats all fall nicely into those buckets.

“One thing I hear from clients and friends who live in the city and have kids is, as you get older, sometimes it’s hard to make new friends,” says Beck. “But parents of the kids that your kids go to school with is this ripe landscape for making new connections in life, be it personal or professional.”

Recently, I’ve started looking to find a position with a more mature company than the past few for which I’ve worked and, at first, the reality of networking with connections I met through my kids felt awkward, as though I’d be taking advantage of a situation where you’re supposed to focus only on your kids. Or maybe distract another parent from taking care of his or her son or daughter. No one wants to become that dad, whether it’s the recently separated one looking to score social invites, the guy trying to nudge his son into the cooler clique, or the opportunist who turns every situation into a networking mission.

This last one especially applied to me. So I resolved to mention my search to a few key fellow parents but to avoid overreaching. One-on-one, if the moment felt right, subtle networking would be fine, but in a more social setting like a parents’ get-together or during one of our frequent double-date-nights, I’d avoid talking about my own work.

So when did the moment feel right? Well, never perfectly, but I spotted a friend from a couple with whom my wife and I have socialized frequently during a pre-K end-of-year classroom party and used his innocuous “how’s it going?” greeting to mention that my job had hit a snag. This fellow dad, a successful media and tech agency co-founder, picked up on my signal and encouraged me to grab lunch with him during the slow summer months, so we met for pizza in Manhattan. Even though we’d dined together with our wives a half-dozen times, the change in dynamic threw me a bit and I worried that he might judge me from behind his designer glasses. I pushed aside any nervousness. It went well: he offered sage advice as well as promising-sounding connections in my field.

Now, I’m adding more parents to my mind map: the accomplished documentary filmmaker, the best-selling author, the jet-setting fashion photographer (brownstone Brooklyn life does have its advantages). They could all help me as well as, if not better, than the peers I’ll meet with at a morning networking meet-up I attend on occasion.

They’re also much more accessible. For one thing, the meet-ups occur at the same time as school drop-off, and the chance that I’ll make a meaningful connection on the sidewalk as parents chat after their backpacked spawn scurry into class now seems just as, if not more, likely than while sitting around a stranger’s conference table trying to sell myself.

Not that I’ve mastered the art of networking. My conversation with Beck sobered me up and made me realize that my tactics need work — for one thing, I owe the agency co-founder a thank you note or at least a thank you email for our lunch meeting.

My initial approach needs work, too. Beck says that it’s best to be direct when asking another parent for career help.

“Authenticity is important,” she says. “Always be real about it. Don’t pretend like, ‘Hey, I wanna go for beers because I want to get to know you better,’ but really your angle the whole time is to try to get information or connections.” So, when I feel it’s the right moment to network, I’m going to be more upfront.

Of course, the desired response doesn’t always appear. I recently hit a wall on a project and needed to quickly solicit high-profile writers. Wracking my brain, I remembered that I’d once searched a familiar-sounding fellow parent’s name and discovered that he’s a well-known author and magazine staff writer. As we stood in the playground watching our kids play something approximating soccer, I was upfront about my needs. He demurred and changed the subject. Dejected, I returned to the usual parental small talk.

I exited that networking opportunity empty-handed, but Beck says that I handled such a situation correctly.

“You have to read that other person,” she says. “If you try to broach the subject and they’re not biting, that’s probably a sign that they can’t help you or for whatever reason they’re not interested in helping you.”

But hey, maybe he’d be into setting up a playdate?