Networking (noun): the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business.
Networking (noun): one of the most unbearable but necessary evils related to the longevity and success of your professional life.
For many introverts, the thought of cold emailing prospective business contacts or attending networking events complete with crappy bottles of Pinot Grigio and grocery store cheese plates hours past their prime is horrendous. But here’s the thing: Networking is, in most fields, very important. When researchers at Harvard Business Review studied 165 lawyers at a large North American law firm, they found that “their success depended on their ability to network effectively both internally (to get themselves assigned to choice clients) and externally (to bring business into the firm). Those who regarded these activities as distasteful and avoided them had fewer billable hours than their peers.”
So, if you’ve gotta do it, you might as well make it as bearable as possible. Here are eight tips for expanding your professional network if you’re an introvert who would rather be doing literally anything else.
1. Make the First Move
Initiating plans might not be your favorite thing to do, but it puts the ball in your court. When you’re the person to reach out to a someone you’d like to connect with, you can set the tone of the type of gathering you’re comfortable with. If you wait for an invitation, there’s no telling whether it’s a one-on-one meeting or a happy hour with a handful of colleagues. You’ll also probably be less likely to bail on coffee if you’re the person who organized it.
2. Front-Load Your Solo Time
Woo-hoo, you have a Zoom meeting with a prospective contact on Thursday! That might mean turning down virtual book club on Wednesday if you need the extra time to recharge (or in this case, pre-charge). The last thing you want is to feel burned out before you even log in.
3. Prepare Some Questions (But Practice Making Them Sound Natural)
Improvised, off-the-cuff conversations aren’t don’t always come naturally to introverts. Rather than going into an interaction blind, think about some talking points in advance. You know, comparing work histories, talking about some of your favorite things you’ve worked on. The only caveat is this: Make sure the other person can’t tell you’re reading off of a mental script, which could make you seem robotic and not present in the conversation.
4. Focus on Quality, Not Quantity
Are there people out there who excel at networking and will always have a larger stable of professional contacts than you? Yes, but that is by no means indicative of how successful either of you can be. As an introvert, networking comes down to quality over quantity. Identify the people who you can truly benefit from being around and focus on connecting with them, instead of casting a wide net that might include folks who exhaust you, or have little to offer in terms of career opportunities.
5. Utilize LinkedIn
For an introvert, a 50-person networking event (pre-Covid, of course) can feel hellish. But luckily, face-to-face meetings aren’t the only way to go about expanding your professional network. Tiffany Dufu, an author and renowned voice in the women’s leadership movement, told us that one of her biggest takeaways of networking over the past year has been using good old LinkedIn, which she describes as a way to remove the friction for connecting. “It used to be that if someone reached out to me and asked to connect to me, most of the time they’d be asking for a meeting, which would require me to commute, find a coffee shop, order a $7 latte that I don’t need and then take the time to get to know them before commuting back. We’re talking about sometimes two hours for one connection.” Now, though, folks can reach out and suggest a 15 or 20 Zoom intro meeting, which is a lot easier to say yes to. Dufu adds, “This is a really great opportunity for people who are trying to expand their network, to know that they might be able to get to someone they wouldn’t have before.”
6. Don’t Discount People You’ve Worked with in the Past
Dufu also stresses mining your list of old coworkers when it comes to networking. “This is the time to go back to people who you’ve worked with in the past and to reinvigorate some of those relationships,” Dufu tells us. “It’s a lot easier when you have history with someone.” Yes, it can feel awkward to reach out to an old colleague you haven’t talked to in five years, but just because you haven’t maintained that relationship doesn’t mean it’s too late to revive it. “You’d be surprised how many people would be delighted to hear from you,” Dufu notes. Plus, for introverts, it’s a whole lot less daunting to email someone who you used to see at the water cooler than someone you’ve never met.
7. Use Your Listening Skills to Your Advantage
Introverts are next-level listeners—often preferring to hear what others have to say over talking themselves. Use this super-important skill to your advantage. In many networking scenarios, participants in a conversation are just ping-ponging back and forth with their achievements, goals and qualifications. If your skill is listening, do that: Everyone just wants to be heard, and it’s one of your greatest strengths to make people feel that way.
8. Set Achievable Goals
As mentioned earlier, many introverts will never have professional networks as vast as those of extroverts (and remember, that’s OK). Be realistic about your networking goals. Don’t force yourself to connect with a new person every week; set out to make one meaningful connection a quarter and foster that relationship in a way that’s hopefully mutually beneficial. And don’t forget to cut yourself some slack. It’s OK if you’re not pounding the pavement and racking up LinkedIn connections like they’re credit card points. Taking baby steps is way more sustainable than throwing yourself into overwhelming networking situations where you’ll be too anxious to make any lasting contacts anyway.