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Thought Leadership| Women in Leadership

Networking for Introverts (To Start, Stop Referring to It as “Networking”​)

September 3, 2019

Some people thrive on networking, and make it look effortless and fun, whether they’re working the crowd as a social event or walking the halls at the office. “Hey, hi, how are things? Let’s catch up later!” The rest of us marvel at how they seem to know everybody, and their social media feeds are a parade of group selfies at industry or company events.

For others, networking can feel like yet another burden on their “should” list – “I really should do more of this but I don’t have time.” Or they simply have decided not to do it, because they’re shy, it makes them uncomfortable, they’re not built for it or that it feels too political and inauthentic. “I’m not playing that game, and if it holds me back, so be it,” they say to themselves.

If you’re in this second group – and I’m raising my hand here, as a card-carrying member of the introvert club – we’ve seen some patterns that you might find helpful. At The ExCo Group, where our core business is one-to-one mentoring with senior executives, we often talk with our clients about the importance of building and maintaining professional relationships as a foundational pillar for managing their careers and getting things done.

For leaders, the skill is particularly important because so much of their impact will come from influencing people and inspiring them to do their best work, especially as companies organize themselves around more collaborative and cross-functional teams. Winning in this environment starts with the ability to build relationships.

Need more convincing? Here are a few more reasons why this skill is more “need to have” than “nice to have.”

    • The business world is a matrixed world. Knowing people in your direct chain of command is no longer enough for driving results or building your career.
    • No matter how self-aware people think they are, it is the human condition to have blind spots. We’re all trapped by our own perspectives, creating narrow fields of vision that hamper innovation and seeing around corners. Broadening your circle of people who view the world differently, and who can give you honest feedback and input, is one of the surest ways of illuminating those blind spots.
    • When you hit inevitable headwinds in your career – when a strategic initiative falters, when a disruptive competitor appears on your radar, when your company restructures and you’re suddenly out of a job — it’s late in the game to start building relationships. The time you spend investing in others will pay off when you need it most.

For a series that my colleague Kathy Murphy and I are writing on tips for navigating some of the challenges at work, we recently sat down with a group of our ExCo Group mentors to come up with a playbook of our best tips for this all-important skill.

Our top seven suggestions:

1) Change the framing. The problem with the idea of networking is that can feel transactional, as in, “I’m interested in getting to know you because I need something from you or you might need something from me at some point.” So why not stop calling it networking? Think of it simply as building relationships in the same way you build your circle of friends and acquaintances outside of work.

Get to know them as people first, before you talk business. Remember the mantra, “It’s better to be interested than interesting.” People often respond well if you approach them with genuine interest, and the icebreakers are easy: “Tell me about you. What do you do? Where are you from?” Ask about their lives outside of work. Or pretend you’re running a podcast, and you’re interviewing people to draw out what makes them interesting and unique. Make it your goal to learn something from everybody you meet.

2) Weave connections into your workday. Rather than feeling like you have to carve out a dedicated chunk of time to talk to people outside of your normal meeting schedule, you can take small steps to build it into your workflow. When you’re going to a meeting, get there a few minutes early and make a point of sitting next to somebody you don’t know, or don’t know that well. Or find a reason, as the meeting is breaking up, to go over and ask somebody about what they thought about a particular point that came up.

When you’re walking the halls or in an elevator, lift your head up from your phone and have a quick exchange with someone. “What’s new?” Because everybody’s going about their business, you don’t have to worry about an awkward exit from these conversations. Heading to the cafeteria for lunch? Have a couple of fast conversations. These quick interactions should be built into the way you do every part of your job where you’re meeting or working with other people.

It’s a good habit to develop, because the higher up you move in an organization, the more important it is for you to be out there and communicating with people. If you stay in your office or are always focused on your phone when you’re walking the halls, people will start creating narratives, like, “He seems to be ignoring me. Is he mad at me?”

Your network should be constantly under construction; you can’t just build it when you need it. And you have to maintain the network. Keep it fresh by reaching out to connections with quick notes about an article that you came across that you think they’d like to see, or about a meeting where their name came up. Keep up a steady cadence of touch-points. You may say to yourself that you don’t have time to do all this, but the reality is that you can’t afford not to do it.

3) Be a joiner. A big reason people don’t like the idea of networking is that they need to feel that they have an authentic reason to start a conversation and get to know someone. So pick a group to join – if there’s a committee being formed around an issue you care about inside your company, sign up, because you can meet people from other departments and work on a project together, rather than just engaging in small talk.

Or join an association related to your field. Other members will probably feel like your tribe of like-minded people, making it easier to start conversations. “Hi. I’m new here. Who are you?” People generally respond well to positive energy and a smile. It won’t happen every time, and if it doesn’t, don’t take it personally.

Those connections you make at industry gatherings can pay off over time, as they may lead to tips about new business opportunities. And you’ll have a broader circle of people to call on if you want or need to start looking for a new job. With everybody you meet, make a habit of connecting with them right away on LinkedIn.

4) Build your pool of advisers. Because everyone is so busy, make sure that when you do reach out to a colleague at your company, particularly if they are more senior, make a small and concrete ask. After all, asking someone “Will you be my mentor?” can turn people off because they have no idea what kind of time commitment you’re asking for (if your company offers a formal mentoring program, by all means take advantage of it).

But if you reach out to somebody and say, “Can I buy you a coffee, because I’d love to get 20 minutes of your time to ask you about X?” then that is much more likely to get people to say yes. Make the topic and agenda clear up front – this is what I want to ask you about and why – rather than something vague. Make sure to follow up with a thank-you email, and be specific about what you learned or how their piece of advice helped you do something. Make it a positive experience for them, and they’ll be open for a second meeting.

There’s a #MeToo point that needs to be acknowledged here. You’ve probably read some of the headlines about studies that suggest some men are pulling back from mentoring women because they believe such meetings now carry an element of risk. That backlash is troubling, of course, and women need fewer headwinds at work, not more of them. But given this unfortunate new reality, be sure to start building relationships with meetings that will feel like lower stakes and lower risk. Meet for a coffee or lunch in the cafeteria, rather than drinks or a meal after work.

5) Beware the blind spots. When managers and senior executives are pressed for time (and who isn’t), they tend to narrow their focus for where they need to spend their energy, and typically that means they spend energy on managing up, with their boss, and managing down, with their direct team. As a result, they don’t invest the time to build relationships with their peers.

That oversight can be costly in two ways. People on leadership teams, and executives at the same level, often form alliances to drive their particular agendas and win more influence and resources. This can be a zero-sum game, with some people winning and some people losing. If you don’t have the support of your peers, you can find yourself marginalized.

You also need your peers’ support if you ever hope to move up and lead them. That’s a tricky step – to become the leader of the people who were your equals – and the way to succeed is to have their backing. That will only happen if you invest the time to build relationships, and to look for opportunities to help them succeed. Building political capital with this group is important. Not to put too fine a point on it, but at very senior levels, your peers can make or break you.

6) Be an on-boarding ambassador. This one hits the sweet spot of low effort and big payoff. When somebody new joins the company in your department or at your level in another department, reach out and offer to buy them coffee or lunch. Everybody’s a bit nervous when they start a new job, and will deeply appreciate – and remember – that you offered to make a connection and give them the lay of the land. You’ll reap many benefits from this outreach, including hearing fresh perspectives from newcomers when they first join, and helpful input in the future.

7) Deep breath, introverts. Learn how to work the room. This is easily one of the biggest pain points for anybody who’s shy or introverted – there’s big crowd at, say, a reception at an industry conference, and you feel like you need to start meeting people. But how do you start up conversations, and then leave them to move on to others, so that it’s not painfully awkward? Rather than giving you empty-calorie advice of “fake it ‘til you make it,” here are some specific tactics for mingling.

Start with a group of three or more people. If you try to join a conversation between just two people, you may be interrupting a discussion they’re having around a very specific topic. But if it’s a bigger group, the flow will be looser, making it easier for you to join in. Rather than just walking up to them, ease toward the group and stand close enough to pick up a sense of what they’re talking about, so that when you introduce yourself, you can easily jump into the flow. Again, smile and show some energy, and people will respond.

Another approach is to seek out somebody – and there’s always a bunch of them in any crowd – who are standing by themselves. They may be bad at mingling themselves, and will be grateful that you’re making the effort.

The skill for working a crowd is not just about starting a conversation; it’s also about your exit strategy. How do you gracefully move on so that you leave on a positive note? One tactic is to bring someone else into the group – someone you know, or perhaps another person who’s standing by themselves nearby – and then you can bow out after they start talking. Or you can say, “Excuse me, I’m going to get another drink,” or simply, “It was great meeting you. Enjoy the rest of the night.”

Your career success, and the surprising turns and new paths that inevitably will unfold, will be based almost entirely on who you know. So focus on building that network at all levels inside and outside your company. This is particularly important for executives in senior leadership positions. One of the biggest dangers for leaders is that they get trapped in a bubble, with nobody telling them what’s really going on. A wide circle of relationships at all levels will ensure you have a fingertip feel for what’s happening.

That takes time and constant investment of energy, but if you make it part of the fabric of your workday, and follow some of the tips we’ve shared above, the payoff will be enormous, particularly if you show authentic interest in people.

One of the best stories I’ve heard to bring this point to life was from Gary McCullough, who was the CEO of Career Education Corp. when I interviewed him a decade ago for the Corner Office series I created at The New York Times. He recalled a moment with a colleague from earlier in his career, when he worked at Procter & Gamble. I’ll share his words here as the final thoughts of our article:

“There was a woman named Rosemary who long ago retired from Procter & Gamble. Rosemary was a cafeteria worker, and at the time at P&G, we actually had a cart that would come around at 7, 7:30 in the morning. They would ring a bell and you’d go get a cup of coffee and a doughnut or a bagel or something to start off your day.”

“And Rosemary had an uncanny ability to discern who was going to make it and who wasn’t going to make it. And I remember, when I was probably almost a year into the organization, she told me I was going to be O.K. But she also told me some of my classmates who were with the company weren’t going to make it. And she was more accurate than the H.R. organization was.”

“When I talked to her, I said, ‘How’d you know?’ She could tell just by the way they treated people. In her mind, everybody was going to drop the ball at some point, and then she said: ‘You know you’re going to drop the ball at some point, and I see that you’re good with people and people like you and you treat them right. They’re going to pick up the ball for you, and they’re going to run and they’re going to score a touchdown for you. But if they don’t like you, they’re going to let that ball lie there and you’re going to get in trouble.’”

“Again, I think it’s those intangible things. I had taken the time to get to know Rosemary and know that her husband’s name was Floyd and know the thing that they did in their off-time was bowling. So, it is all those little intangible things that you see, not when you’re sitting around a table in a conference room, but what you see in other ways.”

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