Reed Thompson stood outside a tony country club in Winchester, Massachusetts, trying to work up the courage to walk into his first networking event, a cocktail party thrown by the local chamber of commerce. It was 11 years ago, and Thompson had just quit his job as a controller for a medical software company to found Thompson & Associates, a financial advisory firm in Wakefield, Massachusetts.
The event, packed with wealthy businesspeople, represented a prime opportunity for Thompson to start building a roster of clients. But when he opened the door, he saw a room filled with strangers gathered in small cliques--and he froze. Ten minutes later, he was back outside, heading for his car. "I found it incredibly difficult to break through the psychological barriers," he says. "I didn't have a plan."
Business owners are often characterized as outgoing and boisterous, born to glad-hand and network. But that's not always the case. For many entrepreneurs, mastering the psychological aspects of networking--gathering the confidence to approach a clique, say, or simply making small talk with strangers--is as much a challenge as developing a product or drafting a business plan. The sheer number of new networking options, from speed-networking parties to local and international business associations, has made the process even more overwhelming, which may help explain why more business coaches are adding networking lessons to their menu of services.
But even the most socially awkward people can overcome networking anxiety, says Lou Perrott, a business psychologist and co-founder of Peak Performance Consultation, a management-training firm in Roanoke, Virginia. Walking into a room full of strangers can trigger fears about being excluded or saying the wrong thing. The key to breaking through this, says Perrott, is to acknowledge those fears and go into networking situations with a plan for managing them. When people network, he says, they need to remind themselves of their goals and why they're putting themselves in tense situations.
That's no small feat for naturally shy people like Thompson. After the unnerving chamber of commerce gathering, the newly minted business owner forced himself to attend one networking event a week, hoping it would become easier over time. It didn't. Thompson was a whiz with financial plans, but he didn't know the first thing about promoting himself. "I'd go to events sick to my stomach," he recalls. He hit bottom while manning a financial advisers kiosk at a local shopping mall one weekend, attempting to engage passersby in conversation. "It was awful," he says.
A few weeks later, Thompson hired a networking coach. Working with the coach for two or three hours a week over the next two months, Thompson revamped his entire networking strategy. His first mistake was a boring introduction. It's not enough to simply tell people what you do, he learned. You also have to keep them interested. To that end, he stopped telling people he was a personal financial adviser, which usually prompted glazed-over expressions and a change of subject. Instead, he began describing himself as the founder and president of a company that helps people take control of their finances. Suddenly, people began asking questions about him and his services.
Next, Thompson took a hiatus from events that made him uncomfortable, focusing instead on gatherings of people with whom he had similar interests, such as skiing and private aviation. Surrounded by like-minded individuals, he practiced his new introduction and eventually worked up the nerve to attend more intimidating events. To avoid the familiar sinking feeling of walking into a room full of cliques, he started arriving at functions early. Thompson also accepted the fact that networking is an ongoing, and often discouraging, process. In some cases, it has taken up to two years of schmoozing to turn a contact into a client, he says.
Ten years after his networking makeover, Thompson's firm now has 200 clients, more than half of whom he met at events, at parties, and even on airplanes. Those clients, in turn, have become his most valuable resource; indeed, he refers to them as his advocate network. The once-shy business owner, who used to cringe at the thought of asking for referrals, now hosts regular dinners for clients at Boston restaurants and encourages his clients to recommend his services to their friends and families. And Thompson no longer dreads events thrown by the Winchester Chamber of Commerce. In fact, he's one of the organization's directors.