I am an introvert. My consulting business blooms or withers largely on the basis of my networking prowess. Fifteen years ago, this painful dichotomy kept me up at night.
I signed up for a networking event in Washington, D.C., and the anticipation proved nearly as damaging as the networking itself: What was I going to talk about? How would I start conversations with complete strangers? What if everyone ignored me? By the time the event date arrived, I was a basket case.
Fellow introverts, it's possible to do things differently. We don't have to be flaming extroverts to be successful networkers. We just need to think differently.
Think Beyond the Meet and Greets
At its heart, networking is about creating and sustaining relationships. Meet and greets help with only the very first step in what should be a long, thoughtful process. You learn a new name, become familiar with a new face, and make an initial connection. What you don't do at crowded, loud networking events is deepen relationships.
You've got to think beyond the meet and greet if you want to network successfully. In fact, if meet and greets induce debilitating paroxysms of anxiety, you now have permission: Skip them! Instead, think about the venues in which you've already been successful forging new connections. Perhaps you thrive in your Java community of practice or your local Toastmasters group. Maybe you serve on a local committee that yields good leads (and friends). The venue doesn't matter. The relationship building does. So find the places where you feel comfortable, and then go.
If you're an extreme introvert, try taking a leadership role in a populated online forum like Quora. Perhaps you can be an expert blogger at your industry's information clearinghouse or the moderator of an online forum related to your specialty. Just be sure that the venue gets traffic and that you're not talking only to your friends.
Think Quality, Not Quantity
"I have 26,000 LinkedIn contacts," wrote the author of a popular networking book. I read this and thought: Oh, dear! If that's the expectation, I haven't got a chance. Luckily, it's not the status quo, and it's also not effective networking.
Science tells us that we tend to sustain social groupings with about 150 people. These relationships are built on trust, which develops because you believe in a person's integrity, dependability, or expertise. You need to know that you can depend on your network, and your contacts need to know that they can depend on you. It's really that simple.
Instead of wasting energy amassing the largest friend count on Facebook, switch your thinking. Focus on being trustworthy. Keep your word. Follow up on your commitments. Give reliable, accurate information, and, if you can't, say so. Don't try to be something you aren't. Get to know people, and give to them so they come to value you. All of these activities will develop the quality of your network.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone--But Stay in Your Sanity Zone
My comfort zone is watching someone climb a cliff. I leave that zone when I go to tackle a 40-foot climb at the rock gym. I'm scared, but I'm not petrified. I'm exhilarated when I make it up and back without dying. (I'm not being dramatic; living through the experience feels like a genuine accomplishment!) However, free climbing--without a top rope--would drive me completely over the edge. That's way outside my sanity zone and would leave me a gibbering mess.
When networking, get outside your comfort zone. Do things that scare--but don't paralyze--you.
Are you accustomed to connecting with people just like you? Homophilic networks are the norm for most; however, you need difference in your network to help you learn, stay on top of industry trends, hear about new opportunities, and imagine new possibilities.
Eight years ago, when I began my business, I knew that I needed to network with nonconsultants. I formed an advisory board of eight people whom I deeply trusted for their expertise and integrity. At the beginning, I admired and respected them, but I wasn't comfortable with them. I forced myself to interact. Over the years, they've opened doors, connected me to resources, and even hired me. I now count them as valued friends, and I'm grateful for them.
So, introverts, go ahead and be introverted. Don't force yourself to be someone you're not. But do push yourself out of your comfort zone. Find new ways to network that work for you. And focus on quality over quantity.
What other techniques would you add to this list?