For many people, the idea of networking engenders less than positive feelings. For those (myself included) who consider themselves introverts, networking can seem especially daunting. Although introversion is not the same as shyness, spending time in large groups, engaging in small talk, and/or approaching strangers can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining.
In response to a post on the Facebook Aspiring Mormon Women (AMW) discussion forum one woman commented, “I had a talk with one of my bosses about networking not long ago, and he told me, ‘Networking is just talking to people about what they’re working on.’ No ulterior motives, just ‘so what have you been working on lately?’” When I attend networking events, I make it a goal to really focus on each person wit3.h whom I speak and make her/him feel important and interesting. Doing this takes away a lot of the pressure I feel when I start to worry about what to say or how to present myself. While it is important to think about those things, my primary objective is to get the other person to feel positive about our interaction so that we can continue to build a professional relationship.
During summers in college I worked at a retail store in the mall. My mom came in one day and remarked on how outgoing and bubbly I was with the customers; I told her that once I put on the uniform, it was suddenly easy for me start and carry on conversations with complete strangers. If approaching strangers or interacting with large groups of people is difficult for you, try creating an alter-ego for yourself and step into that persona in the moments when you need to be more outgoing, bold, or fearless than you normally are. I even give you permission to create a superhero name for your awesome networking persona!
Meeting new people is much more comfortable when you don’t feel like you have to ask for or get something out of everyone you meet. On the Facebook AMW discussion forum, a commenter explained, “I think generosity needs to be a big part of networking, not just ‘what can you do for me?’ but ‘What can I do for you?’ If you meet people, stay in contact, and look for ways to help them, people will remember you, whether that means sharing an article they might be interested in, introducing them to someone else, etc.” I really like this exercise from the book The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha: think of the 10 people that you would reach out to if you needed help right now. Instead of waiting until you need something, reach out to those people now to provide an update, share information, make an introduction, or provide help in some way. Of course, there is room in networking for you to ask favors, but when meeting new people, focus on establishing relationships first and making an ask second.
On the Facebook AMW discussion forum another woman wrote, “So how I see networking right now isn’t scary; it’s ‘use volunteer opportunities to network,’ since I will already be in contact with local business owners, government workers, and non-profit organizations once I do start to volunteer.” This can be an especially valuable tactic for young professionals or those changing fields, who may feel that they don’t have much to offer in terms of helping other professionals. If you’re interested in working for a particular organization, volunteer to help staff events. If getting involved in a professional organization makes you feel uncomfortable, sign up to serve on a committee or staff a registration table. As I’ve gotten involved with various committees and organizations, I’ve been able to meet professionals in my field under circumstances that feel much more natural to me than making a cold call or approaching someone at a networking event.
So far this advice has been pointed toward strategies to use when attending networking events or large gatherings, but there is certainly something to be said for one-on-one networking.I’m a huge fan of the informational interview. If there’s a field, topic, or organization that you’d like to learn more about, find someone who can provide the information you’re looking for and request a 20-30 minute informational interview. LinkedIn can be especially helpful for identifying contacts. Once you’re in a settled place and don’t have immediate needs, don’t neglect your network! Invest time in the occasional lunch with a former co-worker or send an email update to someone who helped you get your job. I set aside a small amount of money each month to be used for networking and professional development, that way I don’t feel guilty about spending money on eating out for lunch with a co-worker or paying the registration fee for a seminar.
Examples of using technology for networking involve participating in discussion forums, interacting with professionals on Twitter, or emailing the author of an article to let him know how helpful you found it. For some especially great discussions, join the AMW discussion forum on Facebook. Using technology for networking can be especially attractive for introverts, because many of us feel more comfortable crafting our thoughts in writing than being verbally put on the spot.
In her article, “An Introverts Guide to Networking,” Lisa Petrilli talks about the importance of taking time to re-energize. Allow yourself to leave a networking event after an hour if you’re not having a good time. Let yourself have an evening alone if you’re at a professional conference. Tactfully communicate to your co-workers that you prefer to spend your lunch hour reading, although you’d be happy to have lunch together to shoot the breeze every couple of weeks.
The idea of networking can feel overwhelming, but when broken down into smaller steps and principles – have a conversation, look for ways to help, get involved, use technology – it becomes much more manageable.
Do you consider yourself an introvert? What networking approaches or techniques have worked for you?