Networking. The one word that makes my students cringe each time I mention it -- and I mention it a lot in my coaching sessions. No matter what college you attend, you will inevitably hear about networking and how important it is to your job search and career success. Although networking is a challenge for most people, it is especially so if you are an introvert. At least that’s what you probably believe.
Networking is about meeting and engaging with people, and if you are an introvert, that sounds like an energy-draining activity. That may be because you don’t know how to approach it in your own way. Similar to any other activity, success in networking depends on using what works for you and not what works for others. According to Devora Zack, an introvert and author of “Networking for People Who Hate Networking,” introverts are reflective, focused and self-reliant, and need to be aware of those characteristics to maximize their networking experiences.
As an introvert, you may want to consider the following when networking:
Engage with Influencers Virtually
If you find face-to-face networking nerve-racking, there are quite a few options for initial outreach online. Most educational institutions have online alumni networks you can peruse so you can reach out to members. Through professional websites such as LinkedIn, you can connect with hundreds of influencers and thought leaders from around the country and the world.
In her book, Zack writes, “introverts do well by strategizing an approach, researching options and clarifying goals in advance of taking action.” Relying on this trait, you can carefully research alumni online and identify two or three you’d like to talk to. You will then be better prepared to draft a meaningful outreach message. Review each person’s professional profile and jot down four or five specific questions you’d like to ask them. Next, send an initial email to inquire about a one-on-one meeting in person.
With conferences and other professional events, be proactive and research attendees ahead of time. This will give you the opportunity to learn more about them and help you identify a few you may genuinely want to meet. “Reach out online to identify individuals with whom you share a similar interest or business need, and make a plan to connect one-on-one or in small groups," advises Laura Arthur, director of career services at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.
Arthur, who is an introvert, was recently at a conference attended by over 2,000 professionals in her field. “With a goal of identifying individuals whose work most aligns to mine, I posted a message in the professional association’s discussion forum," Arthur said. "Two individuals who were also attending the conference agreed to join me for lunch, and in our hour together, we shared so many ideas.”
Set Realistic Goals
When attending large events in person, have specific expectations. Michelle Jones, an associate director of coaching and education at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and an introvert, points out, “I set realistic expectations for myself whenever I attend a conference or event.” She does not focus on working the room, trying to meet as many people as she can. “My goal whenever I attend a conference or event is to leave having met one or two people with whom I’ve had a meaningful conversation and topics I want to follow up on,” Jones adds. “If I walk away with more contacts, then that is just icing on the cake.”
People who normally dislike networking are better served to focus on just a few individuals, Zack writes. In order to maximize your networking experience, make sure you understand what's comfortable for you. Setting realistic goals ensures you will network, develop meaningful relationships and leave the event satisfied. With no goals, you may speak to one person and have an engaging conversation but leave the event feeling like a failure because you spoke to only one person. If one person was your goal, however, you would have met it and felt good about yourself.
Networking does not have to involve crowded happy hours and staying late after work. In fact, a great approach to networking is to seek opportunities that align with your interests. One of the ways that has worked for Jones is volunteering for leadership roles with professional associations. “By joining professional association committees as a volunteer or in a leadership capacity, you get to meet and work with people across your city, state, region, country or worldwide that you may not have approached and met if you just went to the professional association event as an attendee," Jones said.
The approach also offers you control over who you meet. In her book, Zack points out that people not comfortable with networking shine “when in a designated, structured role,” and volunteering allows for that. As you focus on the task of making an event a success, you forget that you are at an event with the goal of networking. You will probably meet more people by being a volunteer and will not have to worry about the stress of initiating conversations. In fact, I’m willing to bet that most people who approach you will not even guess that you are an introvert!
Pause and Recharge
Face-to-face interactions in large crowds could deplete an introvert’s energy quickly. Knowing that, you may want to schedule time before a networking event to recharge. “Having some quiet time before an event, like savoring a cup of coffee, helps me bring more presence and energy to conversations, which tends to yield a more meaningful interaction,” Arthur says. And in her book, Zack advises having a quiet lunch or leaving work a bit earlier prior to an event. You may want to pick an activity or context you know will energize you. Arthur also allows for time after an event to recharge “by doing something relaxing or mindless, or better yet, reflecting on the interaction and how I can make the most of that new relationship.”
When you arrive at the event, don’t feel pressure to jump right into a conversation. Use your superpower of observation. Take in the room and make a note of who is there and what different groups look like. As you pick up your name tag, identify a person or a small group that you may want to join. You may even recognize a familiar face and can approach that person instead of a complete stranger.
Whichever combination of the above tips you consider, keep in mind that the purpose of networking is not to make you miserable. Rather, it’s an opportunity to engage with like-minded people and grow as a professional. So next time someone mentions networking as an activity to build professional relationships, don’t cringe. Follow the advice of Jones, Arthur and Zack and enjoy yourself.