Network like a ninja. Every time I hear or see this expression it reminds me exactly what I hate about networking. Or at least the kind of networking that seems to be completely in your face, over the top and just LOUD. As a self-proclaimed, fully paid up member of the introverts club I always approach the topic of networking with some trepidation. After all, what advice or tips could I possibly have to share? I actively avoid social gatherings and have a Pavlovian response to the ‘p’ word…party, in case you’re wondering.
Here’s the thing: I’m certainly on the extreme end of the introversion spectrum but that doesn’t stop me working in a people oriented culture, where I regularly deliver training and workshops. I’ve even presented at conferences! Does that sound like a contradiction? Well, maybe, but you might be surprised to know that just as white men (well some of them) can dance, so too can introverts network. They just have their own style.
Facing the fear
Ok, here comes the bad news: you will have to network. Career success depends – partially, at least – on your ability to forge relationships and make connections. In other words, networking. You may be very competent at your job, but this will only get you so far. Working in splendid isolation sounds appealing but you’ll soon find your career horizons start to narrow.
And the good news? You can do it. Introverts can be just as effective, successful and socially adept as extroverts – just ask Barack Obama or J K Rowling. But they tend to do it by stealth, and without the fanfare. How? By working to type, not against it.
As an introvert you can…
Play to your strengths: many introverts I know like to research and gather information and use this to plan ahead and inform their strategy. Why should networking situations be any different? Whether it’s a meeting, conference or after work event, do your homework – you’ll feel much more comfortable if you’re familiar with the hot topics and discussion points. Check people out on Twitter and LinkedIn to give you some background info and conversation starters.
Many introverts are great listeners and often pick up on important clues and signals because they listen attentively. This is an enormous asset and can really help you get the most from the conversation. There’s nothing more off-putting than getting stuck with the networking bore, who’s confused monologue with dialogue. Active listening is the first step towards finding common ground, and moving the conversation forward. Don’t underestimate its importance…or value
Surprisingly, this is where you can really harness the power of introversion. Draw on your thoughtful, reflective, measured side to pose one or two meaningful questions. If, however, you’re particularly anxious about opening or closing the discussion, try to ‘rehearse’ the scenario beforehand. Start with an open question: What are you hoping to gather from this event? and close with something polite, but final: Sarah/James, I’ve really enjoyed our discussion – particularly hearing about your experience with X – can I get your contact details and connect on LinkedIn?
Form quality relationships
Introverts typically look for depth, not breadth, and this can bear fruit in networking terms. You don’t need to be a ‘power user’ on LinkedIn to be influential – look to create a manageable network of valuable contacts. A culture has developed where the name of the game seems to be collecting the most friends/followers/connections – but short-term measures (and crude numbers) don’t reflect the quality of your network. Make sure you follow-up and follow through: this is where the real networking takes place. Don’t obsess about the many, focus on the few.
Manage your space
If you prefer small groups to large gatherings, don’t assume this is a social handicap – it doesn’t have to spell networking disaster. The accepted mantra seems to be ‘work the room’ but this can be counter-productive if you’re looking to foster worthwhile conversations. Serial networking is unlikely to yield positive results, and you risk appearing superficial and dismissive. Some of the most effective networking takes place in one to one situations, or quiet corners, not just the conference hall.
Networking can be a draining activity for introverts – even for the most skilful and experienced – so invest your time and energy wisely. There’s no point trying to emulate your more extroverted friends or colleagues and ‘putting yourself out there’ more than is necessary. Manage your social interactions and intersperse face to face activity with online networking – this can be just as productive. If you do have to attend a day-long event (*gulp*), then factor in breaks and downtime to help you re-charge. Give yourself one or two specific goals – someone you want to meet, a question you need answered, a request for help or advice – as this will give purpose and structure to the event. And feels more comfortable.
Do it your way
There’s no question that for many introverts face to face networking will always be something of a chore. Although I get a real buzz from public speaking and will happily talk to (or should that be at!?) a room of 30 or 300, this hasn’t yet translated into a love of networking events. And I’m not sure it ever will, but I don’t feel the fear any more. Why? Because I’ve stopped trying to pass myself off as a rather poor extrovert. Last year I read a great article by fellow introvert and careers writer, Mildred Talabi, memorable for its title: Reign like Obama: 5 career climbing tips for introverts and for its content. It was a really good antidote to many of the networking articles I’ve read online, most of which seemed to inspire fear and panic. Networking is vital and you will need to build, develop and nurture your relationships but you can do this on your own terms. Occasionally, you’ll need to step outside your comfort zone – who doesn’t? – but you don’t have to be a super-connector to be a success. (but it won’t hurt to have a few in your network!)