A LinkedIn study revealed that 80 per cent of professionals consider networking to be important to career success, with 70 per cent of the same group indicating they were hired at a company where they had a connection.
Networking is clearly important; developing and maintaining a prospective disposition to connecting and communicating with other professionals can undoubtedly open doors and reveal opportunities that might otherwise be hidden. Yet this crucial career-enhancing behaviour can present a real challenge for introverts. Its association with needless self-promotion can often jar with those who prefer quieter social interaction. However, there are a number of ways for introverts to find their own authentic networking groove. Here are some ideas to consider.
It’s a good time to be an introvert
First of all, it is getting easier for introverts to access ideas and resources that speak exclusively to their needs. Susan Cain’s influential 2012 book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking provided inspiration for introverts around the world. For many, it relieved them of the heavy expectation that they needed to change (and become inauthentically extroverted) in order to advance their careers. Indeed, noted introvert Bill Gates has called Cain’s related TED Talk one of his favourite of all time. Cain’s more recent attention to the quiet revolution website is one of an ever-expanding range of advice and support tools available to introverts navigating career and workplace complexities.
But when it comes to networking…
Nonetheless, networking can present a particular challenge. More introverted individual may say things like: ‘I just don’t know what to say’ and ‘I hate talking about myself’ in response to the mere suggestion of networking. Yet initial steps towards networking confidence needn’t be filled with such fears. Here are some ideas to help locate and lock-in an introvert-friendly networking groove.
Expertise, depth and enthusiasm in specific areas of interest can come naturally for introverts.
1. Rethink and redefine ‘network’
The first step is to reboot your networking definition. Orienting to the actual dictionary definition of a network, namely: ‘a group or system of interconnected people or things’ is a good starting point. Through this lens, the idea of networking as something you are already part of and can cultivate and grow further can be crystallised — you have the power to explore and engage in ways where your strengths and interests can come to the fore.
2. Add some breadth to your depth
Expertise, depth and enthusiasm in specific areas of interest can come naturally for introverts. Sharing content on social media, such as LinkedIn and other professional forums, and inviting comment from others, can help add network breadth through active curatorship of your interest areas. Dorie Clark from Duke University says: ‘If you’re a thoughtful curator of the best ideas in your field, even if you’re not developing them yourself, others will start turning to you for guidance.’
3. Plan and commit
There still, however, is a need to step into face-to-face networking opportunities, be they formal or informal. To relieve the ‘pressure-to-attend’ introverts often apply to themselves, Cain recommends that a personalised ‘quota system’ is put in place (for example, one event per month), which also helps focus attention on events that you are really interested in (so quality rather than quantity drives participation).
Step into conversations with curiosity
Cultivating networking-friendly conversational skills may be more liberating than you might expect. Firstly, remove the pressure that self-focus can bring (for example, ‘I won’t know what to say!’) and instead shift your spotlight to the other person. Be curious and engage them with open-ended questions… without a need to download pre-rehearsed sound bites. Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind, co-authors of Talk, Inc: How trusted leaders use conversation to power their organizations, strongly endorse the ‘unpredictable vitality of dialogue‘ as a means for promoting open and fluid communications (as opposed to directive, closed interactions). Stepping into dialogue in this way can open some career-enhancing doors, and a good place to start honing your skills is at your own workplace. You never know where a simple ‘how was your weekend?’ enquiry might take you. In extending these skills to formal events, Clark’s conversation starter suggestions include: ‘what’s the coolest thing you’re working on now?’ and ‘how did you hear about this event?’ She appends her suggestions with a fail-safe option: ‘I don’t know anyone here — can I talk to you?’ A request that has delivered her 100 per cent success.
5. Body language
A more extroverted leader I know expressed her frustration with the introverts among her staff with an exasperated ‘I just cannot read them!’ Your feeling of I-am-trying-warm-engagement-here may not be working as intended. The simplest way to be read positively is by leading with a smile. And pairing a smile with expansive body language as recommended by Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy can also increase you own confidence in unfamiliar conversational territory.
6. The event
You are now ready to transform your event attitude from trepidatious to expectant. If going solo, getting there early can provide a chance to establish rapport with organisers and other early-birds — a fast-track to the in-crowd. If joining later, Cain employs a ‘searching for kindred spirits’ approach, where she looks for fellow soloists. If you wish to join a group, then engage your introvert powers of observation. A pair of people in a ‘V’ formation, rather than talking face-on, is likely to be easier to join. Also, if you are in a pair joining another group, taking the lead as ‘introducer’ can ease self-consciousness.
In gaining your networking wings, support can come in a number of forms:
- Wingperson(s): As the saying goes, ‘opposites attract’, and this is often true when it comes to introverts and their extrovert colleagues. Buddy up and include them in your event attendance plans. Alternatively, you may wish to reach out to peers who may be similarly introverted and potentially interested in the same event. There’s strength in numbers.
- Independent support: Reach out to a mentor who knows your style or engage an experienced executive coach to support you as you move beyond your comfort zone. Growth will be initially discomforting, and coaching can help you reflect, recalibrate and stay on track.
- Yourself: Networking will be taxing, and introverts need their solo recharge time. Don’t ease up on self-care as you navigate new frontiers.
Now, go for it
In an increasingly introvert-friendly age, purposeful networking that authentically brings your strengths to the fore can really take you places. There is no time better than the present to plan and get going — your networking starts now.