Far and away the best way to explore career options, and the best way to land a new job, is networking. It’s an essential business skill that needs to be cultivated through practice. But the word “networking” strikes fear into the hearts of most people. In this post I will explain why it needn’t.
COMMON ISSUES WITH NETWORKING:
1. I'm bad at striking up conversations with strangers
Particularly for introverts, initiating conversations with strangers is intimidating (in fact, it’s difficult for the vast majority of people, even most extroverts). Beyond intensive rehearsal of networking conversations (see #4 below), here are three suggestions to make starting conversations less painful easier:
a) For “live” events (as opposed to virtual ones), don’t feel that you necessarily have to make cocktail parties your primary networking venue (although they are good places to network; a couple of drinks loosens people up and can make it easier to engage with them). Consider choosing venues in which you will be more comfortable because you share a common interest with the other people you’ll encounter there. For example, if you’re a baseball fan you might consider joining a softball league, or if you’re an animal lover you could volunteer at a shelter.
An excellent place to network is at a Meetup group. Meetup groups are informal gatherings of people who share an interest in a particular subject or activity. There are a couple of thousand Meetup groups in the metro DC area focused on different areas of interest, e.g. hiking, reading, filmmaking, gardening, foreign languages. There are also Meetup groups focused on professional interests: entrepreneurship, real estate, finance, technology, the law. The great thing about networking in Meetup groups is that the conversation starter naturally begins with “So what brings you to this group;” and conversation flows from there.
The August 29, 2013 issue of U.S. News and World Report contained the following sage advice: “Remember: Networking is all about making real, authentic, human connections. Get personal. Get curious. Everyone has a story to tell. Ask questions and listen. It's not about putting on a show or making a sale or getting that one awesome lead. It's about hearing what others have to say, finding ways to help, and connecting on a basic level. Doesn't that feel nice? Think of it as a party or a room full of future friends”.
b) For virtual networking you have several choices. LinkedIn has numerous professional discussion groups to which you will periodically be alerted if you’re a LinkedIn member. Today I was alerted to three that I might be interested in: one for mental health professionals and another titled: Innovative Marketing, PR, Sales, Word-of-Mouth and Buzz Innovators. These groups enable you to post opinions and join discussions; smart, incisive commentary on your part can lead to connections with truly influential people.
Remember that you share potentially important links with an awful lot of people. If you went to a small- to-medium sized college or university; if you live in DC but were brought up in Idaho or Alabama or Brazil - if you belonged to a fraternity or sorority; if you are Phi Beta Kappa, these are commonalities that can serve as door openers. LinkedIn and/or websites for the groups to which you belong/ed allow you to identify people who will be quite likely to engage with you because you both share similar backgrounds.
2. People will think I’m pushy
Perhaps some people will, and they are certainly people who won’t respond positively to your initiative - but some will. What’s more, how much should you be concerned about negative reactions to networking: since they’re strangers does their opinion of you really matter to you that much?
3. I don't want to impose on people
I hear this one a lot. The fact is that if someone is truly reluctant to engage with you, they’ll most likely signal that pretty clearly. Or, if they’re hesitant to turn anyone down they may agree to get together with you for coffee, or send you the names of a couple of people to contact, but not follow through.
4. One of the following: I’ll feel phony; I’ll look dumb; I’ll draw a blank in the conversation
The way around these fears is to rehearse. Practice does indeed make perfect. Rehearse your conversation opener until it feels natural to you. Rehearse explaining why you’re looking to change jobs or careers, and what you feel you have to offer. Practice the art of asking questions of the person you're going to be speaking with - the easiest way to get a conversation moving is to ask someone to talk about themselves. But be sure that when you are asking for one that you are well prepared and professional about it.