I HATE networking events. I hate standing in a room full of strangers, trying to balance a plastic cup of lukewarm white wine, some stale crackers and my overstuffed shoulder bag. Reaching out to shake someone’s hand, hoping my grip is firm and my palms are not sticky. Inevitably stumbling over my thirty-second elevator pitch while simultaneously scanning the room for the next person to meet. All the while thinking how I’d much rather be at home reading my kids a bedtime story.
I always felt awkward at these events. And because I hated them, I thought I was bad at networking. What I learned over time is that I am actually a stellar networker. Excellent, I would even say. Essentially every job, client and professional opportunity I care about has come through my network of friends, former co-workers, work contacts, neighbors, LinkedIn connections and friends of friends I had coffees with. And even people in their networks. Networking events just happen to be one element of networking I do not enjoy.
There is no right way to build and cultivate your network. Like everything else in life, it is all about customizing your networking strategy to your own needs, strengths and style. So, how can you also find your own networking bright spot(s) and network your way to success?
Get to know yourself, to get to know others.
Reflect on when you are most successful at connecting with others: when you feel at your best. Some people can “work the room” like nobody else. They should go to more networking events than someone like me! Others are better at building community on social media. They should think about how they can leverage those connections to disseminate information about their work and to secure new opportunities.
For me, rather than trying to impress people at one-time networking events, I realized that I am much better at getting to know people over time or what I like to call “slow networking.” As I get to know people, over time, I start to tell them about the things I care about, what I’m working on and my hopes and goals for my future. I also get curious about them. I try my best to show my friends that I care about them. When I need help, the collective power of my network has yet to fail me. The most recent example being when I decided to become an executive coach three years ago and my community instantly had my back.
Whenever you are excelling at connecting with others, then this is your asset you can use to build significant relationships. What’s your networking strength? Or rather, what are your strengths that you can leverage to network like a superstar? Do you write the funniest, most engaging Facebook posts ever? Do you come alive in small group gatherings? Do you love connecting with people one-on-one? Is it when you are volunteering in big groups? If you have trouble thinking about this, ask your friends. Ask your family. Try taking assessments like Strengthfinder 2.0 or try re-reading your past performance assessments and see what resonates with you. Then build a strategy around that thing that works best for you.
Be your whole self.
Yes, using the photo of you crying and laughing after the birth of your first baby as your LinkedIn profile photo is inappropriate, unless your business is something that supports mothers who just gave birth. However, we can be professional, and business appropriate without losing sight of the fact that who you show up to work as and who you come home as are the same person.
This also means you can feel free to share about your work with people you meet outside of your work. Of course, don’t be a bore. If they are not interested, please stop talking. But by sharing your career aspirations and projects you are working on with your neighbors at potlucks or with your mom friends at pick up will help them see you as not “just the woman next door” or “just a mom at school.” Instead you will be seen in your full, interesting, multi-dimensional, whole person glory. And you never know who will have just the thing you might be looking for. My first four paid coaching clients came from my nervous Facebook post about starting a coaching practice and a “Mommy friend” recommended me to her colleague.
Advanced move: Don’t be afraid to tell folks on the soccer sidelines what you’re thinking about or would like to do. You never know who they might connect you to.
Take the long(er) view.
The dread around networking I hear most from my clients is that it feels fake like a used car salesman. “I don’t want to be THAT lady,” is the feeling. And most of the time, the expectation is too high. What are the chances that the three cards I collected from the networking event lead to a new job or new deal? It feels demoralizing. But what happens if we take a longer view and broaden our networking goal?
I nurture relationships with people who are doing interesting work within and outside of my field. I also value people that are simply lovely and positive to be around. The process of uncovering an organic rapport with others as we collaborate on projects we’re passionate about is invaluable. And more often than not, it leads to great things: Friendships, partnerships, new ideas, and yes, even jobs.
You shouldn’t network for four weeks, interview for four weeks, get the job and stop all communication until you are looking the new job. That does feel fake.
Give. Don’t always expect to get.
No matter what networking strategy you pursue, relationships are only meaningful when they are two-way streets. I also help my network whenever I can, because I can, and because I want to. Do what you can to keep up to date with the people in your network: how is their family doing, what projects are they focused on and how can you help with an issue they may be experiencing. If you see a job description or news story someone might be interested in, send it with a friendly note without any expectation to be thanked. Introduce great people to one another. If your friend is putting together a fundraising event for her favorite cause, try your best to show up. Send around an email to your friends about it.
For this networking thing to work, you will not be the one “getting” each and every time. This is fundamental to developing genuine relationships, and you will gain inspiration from those you surround yourself with this mentality.
Have fun and enjoy the process.
By trying to force myself to succeed at networking events instead of taking a strengths-based approach, I was building a network strategy based on the one aspect of networking I hated. If we are in tune with how we connect best with others and build our networking approach with our inherent strengths, then we can succeed at networking without sacrificing our authentic selves.
Think about when you are your best self, and start your networking from there. If we reframe the way we think of networking, we will realize it is truly about building meaningful relationships with our community so that we can all thrive genuinely and let our passions shine. In this way, networking has the power to shift the future of collaboration and professional development for all of us, even for us women who think we hate networking.