I am shy and introverted and the thought of going out with the intention of meeting other people, starting conversations with strangers, and making small talk is one of the activities I dread most.
I can’t deal with silence (which makes me seem chatty and it is really just the fact I am trying to fill the space with anything other than my anxiety). I have a hard time finding common ground with people and therefore struggle with small talk. Basically everything about meeting new people is difficult and uncomfortable for me.
But for my whole life I’ve had ambitious goals. And to achieve those goals I’ve learned that – whether I liked it or not – the best way to get where I wanted to go was to engage with the people around me and earn their respect and support.
I’ve read a slew of books on the art of networking and building relationships. I have forced myself to practice meeting people in spite of how nervous and stressed it made me at first. It will never be my natural personality and I’ll probably always have to work at it, but I have made networking a priority in my life and I’ve been rewarded again and again for doing so.
My network has enabled me to meet so many smart, interesting new people without whom I wouldn’t have had many of the opportunities or successes that have come my way. From brilliant mentors who helped me discover my skill for management, to great friends who have supported me when I struggled, the relationships in my life have been essential to my progress and growth.
Engineers like logic, steps that take us from A to B to C, so I’ve made a roadmap of sorts that is similar to my approach to relationships. So take a moment and step away from the computer network and into your real-world network so you can make the most of the opportunities that are all around you too.
Where are we going?
You use a map to help navigate to a destination. The first step in this journey then is to decide where you are headed.
What do you want from your life and career? What do you wish you were doing that you aren’t right now? And, what do you wish you weren’t doing with your time that you’d like to quit?
Your goals can be personal or professional; the parts of our lives intermingle so much that it is entirely possible the person you meet at the gym who’s also trying to lose 20 pounds could be the same person who introduces you to your future boss. The thing about having a solid network is that the connections you make can surprise you all the time.
For my roadmap, I keep a list of goals written down that I refer to from time to time; I strongly encourage other people to have one too.
- Writing your goals down solidifies them in your mind and makes them *real*, and real plans are ones you can take action on and enlist others to help you with.
- It helps to identify what (and who) in your life isn’t working also. Think seriously about how cutting out toxic relationships or behaviors can improve your overall success and happiness. It’s empowering to let go of things that aren’t helping you, and enables you to engage more deeply with things you do care about.
- Think about who you really want to meet – both specific people (say, Anne Garefino, who is on my list) and people who match a certain description you’re interested in (such as, entrepreneurs working at VC-funded startups, or authors who have published best sellers) – and you can begin planning how to make connections in that direction.
Your starting point.
When you’re first getting started, the process of “becoming someone who networks” can be really daunting, especially if you’re an introvert like me (and lots of other engineers). The good news, though, is that you’ve actually probably done at least a little bit of networking already without even realizing it. So for the first thing, try drawing on those resources.
- Talk to people you already know. Your coworkers, friends, and peers are the first members of your network and hey, you have already talked to these people. All you have to do now is make sure these conversations are positive and productive. Tell them what you’re excited about and express genuine interest in their pursuits too. If you share your goals with people close to you, you’ll get practice at expressing them out loud and maybe find some new connections with these people you already know.
- Maintain your current relationships. Many of us have met or worked with amazing people. The problem is that often we let those connections languish and can go months or years (!) without reconnecting and reaching out. If this sounds like you, setup a plan to start reconnecting with past friends and colleagues who you respect and admire. Look them up on LinkedIn (and connect with them if you haven’t already), subscribe to services like Newsle, which can give you a reason to reach out, and make a point of reigniting those relationships.
- Think about what you have to offer. Consider what your interests are and how you can turn those interests into relationships with like minded people. It’s easy to develop of a mindset of, “Well, what do I know?” and think that you don’t have anything interesting to contribute. If that’s the case, reframe your mindset. We all have knowledge, enthusiasm, and support we can share with those around us. What is your superpower and how can you leverage it to help someone else?
Establishing your route.
This section is all about becoming a positive presence in people’s lives and taking action to grow your personal relationships.
- Look for people who are doing interesting things. Go to meetups, conferences, talks, hackathons – anywhere where people are excited about something and looking to talk about it with you. Surround yourself with the kind of people you want to know, and where you may learn a thing or two.
Remember to talk and connect with people. This one may seem obvious – if you’re going to a networking event, you’re going to talk to people, right? I have proved that statement wrong many times! If you’re shy, it is completely possible to spend an entire night in a crowded room of people and never really speak to anyone else; or to speak to people in such a superficial way that you have no reason to remember them anymore than the chips and dip. Summoning the courage to go to one of these events at all is good, but it’s not really a valuable use of time if you don’t connect with anyone while you’re there.
When I first started going to meetups and conferences, I made a goal to go to at least one event per month and connect with at least two people at each event. This was a challenge, but not an unreasonable goal, which made it possible for me to continue going to these events without getting discouraged. When I would come home I would send them a nice note and connect with them on LinkedIn.
And if you don’t know this yet, LinkedIn has an awesome feature where you can add your own private “notes” to a person’s profile. Information about where you met and what you talked about can be super useful later. And as a bonus tip, this is also a fantastic place to store the names of their spouse or children. Remembering these personal details can be very powerful (and it helps to have a cheat sheet.
Ask people to lunch, coffee, happy hour.Deepen your connections with people you meet at events by following up and asking if you can take them out for a meal or a drink. This can be intimidating to begin with, but really does get easier the more often you do it.
You can start out with a simple script like: “It was so nice to speak with you about [your startup ideas, your dogs, your marathon running]. I’d love to talk with you more about it over coffee sometime.”
The purpose of this is to pursue meaningful conversations and relationships with people beyond one-time encounters at an event.
Become a person who radiates positivity and encourages the people who talk to you. Networking and relationships are not a one-way street, so if you’re an introvert who feels intimidated by the idea of talking a stranger’s ear off, remember that being a good listener is just as important (if not more!) than being a good talker.
People love to talk about themselves. One of my favorite Dale Carnegie quotes (author of the famous How To Win Friends and Influence People) is this:
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
So if you can position yourself as someone who enjoys hearing what other people are working on, offering enthusiasm and support and, most importantly, being a positive sounding board for others, you’ll draw people wherever you go. Not only that, these people will remember you in the future, when they too, have become more successful.
The home stretch.
Maintaining relationships is just as important as establishing them. The end goal of all this networking is to have a community around you and in order to do that, you have to tend to it like a garden.
Create an online presence.If you’re not already, get on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. You may even want to consider starting a blog. With all of the resources available now for staying connected to people online, there’s just no reason not to. Add the people that you meet at networking events and conferences to your communities on LinkedIn and Twitter so you can reach out to them with ease (and they can reach out to you too).
You can also engage with entire new communities online by joining discussion groups and forums. I think of this blog and the Technology Leadership Newsletter I put out every week as a way of staying in regular touch with my network and sharing valuable information among these people.
- Stay connected in person.Even though online connections are valuable, it’s important to maintain relationships with the people around you regularly. Take people out for coffee, schedule catch-up sessions, go to happy hour with your team.Committing time and energy to relationships is what makes them valuable, and is what makes the other person in the relationship feel that they are a priority to you.
Become a person people want to know. Who wouldn’t want to know and connect with a thought leader and accomplished expert? Mastering your craft and honing your skills can help establish you as an expert. Hard work, knowledge and accomplishments are the payments that create good reputations. Being the a frequent committer on a high profile open source project, or writing amazing article or blog posts can be a great way to showcase your thoughts, ideas and achievements – in a form that isn’t bragging, but adding value to other people.
Another great option is presenting at events and conferences. When I started public speaking, my network grew exponentially with each talk. In fact, public speaking is my preferred method of networking for introverts who can do stomach it. Being up on stage gives instant credibility, and everyone in the audience will know your name (and if your talk is good can establish you as an authority in your domain). In addition to the notoriety, becoming a speaker makes any evening networking events or hallway conversations so much easier; you will always have something to talk about (small talk is essentially your talk topic). Genius.
The more you invest in the people around you, the more they will invest back in you. It’s all about how much you want to put in and how much you want to get out. So when you’re feeling reluctant to head out to the next networking event, reframe the issue in your mind:
Instead of thinking about how much you don’t want to put yourself out there, focus on what positives will come from making new connections.
The benefits of networking will come back to you throughout your life and career, in the form of support, knowledge, and even jobs (around 80% of new hires come from personal networks and referrals) so it’s worth it to make the push and try it out yourself.
Have you struggled with networking in your career? How did you overcome it? What benefits have you seen from building a strong personal and professional community?