When you imagine yourself networking, what do you picture?
Standing in an enormous hotel ballroom wearing a nametag, making forced, uncomfortable small talk with strangers, clutching a glass of dreadful, tepid chardonnay, and counting the minutes until you can leave?
If so, you are not alone.
A lot of my clients relate similar feelings about networking. They know they need to do it but they really don’t want to. Every bit of it sounds awful and only seems doable for super outgoing extroverts who are already really good at it.
Well I’m here to tell you that you, yes you, CAN network and you can do it in a way that feels authentic, decidedly-not-cheesy, and even enjoyable.
1. Play to your strengths.
Are you more comfortable talking to people one-on-one? Are you a good writer? Do you like to bring others together (as long as you aren’t the focus of attention)? If you are better at chatting one-to-one, then build your networking strategy around coffees and lunches with individuals you already know. If you like to write, then posting articles to LinkedIn or contributing thoughtful comments to industry-specific blogs might be your best way to network. If you are someone who enjoys connecting others, then introduce two people you know who could benefit from linking up and invite yourself along to the first meeting. Bam! You’re networking and looking like a well-connected, altruistic rock star at the same time. One of my favorite low-stakes ways to network is to set up a dinner or happy hour for a group of colleagues from a past job. Everyone gets to catch up with each other and I end up learning about all of the new places they are now working.
2. Bloom where you are already planted.
Another part of playing to your strengths involves taking a look at the groups of which you are already a member. Committees, working groups, and larger multi-team projects in the office are all opportunities to widen your network. Maybe there are some people in one of these cohorts you could reach out to for a getting-to-know-you-better lunch. Don’t forget your personal life. Book clubs, houses of worship, your kids’ school events – these are all fertile soil for planting your networking seeds. The next time you’re standing on the sidelines watching little Emma’s soccer game, strike up a conversation with one of the parents around you and find out what they do in their professional life.
3. Flip the script.
The number one thing I hear from clients when they talk about their barriers to networking is that they feel that it’s asking someone else for a favor. They know that the people in their circle are very busy and they don’t want to “waste their time.” When you feel this way, I invite you to flip the script on that. Ask yourself if there is any other way you could look at it. Some helpful questions to explore include: how do you feel when someone reaches out to you to get together for coffee? Sure you’re busy but are you also glad they asked? What if a colleague wanted your advice and guidance about their career? Would you feel annoyed or flattered and happy to help? Is it possible that you reaching out to someone could actually be good/fun/informative for them? What would you tell a friend who was on the fence about reaching out to someone she knew for an informational interview? Would you think they were definitely going to waste the other person’s time or that it was a good idea that could lead to something in the future?
Keep asking these questions until you can open up your mindset about networking. Remember that everyone everywhere has at some time needed to do some sort of networking. Either to get a job, stay on top of trends in the field, find sales leads, or even to meet their future life partner.
In my next post, I’ll tackle what to do when you find yourself at one of those tepid-chardonnay-serving, impersonal, big ballroom events.