By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University
If you’re like me, you hate anything that looks like, sounds like, smells like, or feels like networking. You make up excuses not to attend events where you’ll have to make small-talk. You find large-scale events where you can easily disappear. You always have a reason to be on your phone to avoid making eye contact. You may even avoid social events with people you don’t know, because of the energy that you know you will have to expend.
Life as an introvert can be challenging. On the one hand, today’s world isn’t necessarily built to support or elevate the way that we engage with the world, preferring instead to reward the team-builders and the connectors of the world. And on the other hand, today’s world has a lot of built in resources and tools that actually reinforce our introverted tendencies, such as our over-reliance on technology, resulting in increased introversion.
And yet, you know as well as I do that a strong network has important impacts both professionally and personally. You simply cannot be successful in a vacuum, no matter how great of a data plan you have. We all need mentors, wise counselors, and sponsors who will help us to advance in our careers. And, we all need friends, cheerleaders, and strong support systems to live full and meaningful lives. We all need people.
So how, then, do you build your network when you hate to network? Here are three tips that I’ve been working to incorporate, recently, which you also may find useful strategies.
- Build it into your routine. Networking for the sake of networking feels, let’s be honest, kind of gross. It’s transactional. It feels like you’re working an angle, trying to get something out of the other person. Instead of that approach, start looking at your regular, day-to-day interactions as opportunities to build your network. Go into meetings with the attitude that you’re going to learn something new about someone else in the room. Or, when you attend a professional development training, commit to meeting one new person in the room before you leave. Networking doesn’t have to be “working the room.” It can be about making the room work for you.
- Start with someone you know. Recently I have been committing to having coffee on a semi-regular basis with the people I work with. Now, I know what you’re thinking: but you already know these people! Well, first of all, not necessarily. Or, not on the level I wanted to. It’s easy to take the people who sit right across from you for granted while focusing on broadening your network with new people. But here’s the thing: the people you work with can and should be your strongest allies and advocates. And just because they share your space doesn’t mean they don’t count! Start with someone you already know. It’s an easier ask, and you might be surprised by the benefits you gain from getting to know them on a more personal level.
- Don’t be seduced by title or position. As someone who spends a lot of time with young professionals, and as someone who is most definitely NOT a young professional anymore, I have come to appreciate that you can learn from anyone you meet, as long as you have the right attitude about it. On the face of it, these early professionals have nothing to offer me, in terms of wisdom and opportunity. But in reality, they have taught me more than any senior VP ever has. And you know what? Someday, these people will BE the senior VPs, and you better believe I want them to remember me when they get there.
Network-building is not, and should never be, a one-way, transactional interaction. It’s about building relationships, and helping others as much as they may help you.