A few years ago someone provided a very apt description of what it really means to be an introvert. It has nothing to do with being shy, feeling discomfort in social situations, or being incapable of exerting conversational suavity and charisma. It is about what activities you gain your energy from. Think of it like having your own personal bucket of energy credits – that bucket fluctuates up and down as you do things that either credit or debit it. Unlike extroverts who are energised by social engagement, introverts gain their credits from having quiet time to themselves in their own space. They may well enjoy social interactions, but these interactions are not what get an introvert rejuvenated, motivated or ready to tackle a challenge. And that explains why I am a self-proclaimed introvert who detests networking. Things that credit my energy bucket? Armchair, coffee, Beaglier children by my feet, and writing articles like this one.
When I attribute the word “detest” to networking I am referring to those contrived and controlled environments that are given names like “Networking Drinks” or “Post-Conference Cocktails”. There are many variants of these types of events that arise in our professional lives that we have to engage with for it could be career limiting not to. Or perhaps not? Firstly let’s think broadly about why we should widen and maintain a network of relationships.
In my mind, “networking” is an ugly word that has dumbed down its true underlying principle – that is, to cultivate and nurture positive relationships. Our everyday lives are all based on some form of community and connection with other people around us whether we like it or not. We form longer-term relationships beyond those at work: our local mothers’ groups, other dog-owners, fellow parents, and of course our friends and family. The value of those relationships is that we become active participants in our communities which allow us to contribute as well as to benefit from knowledge and experience sharing – this is the why we should focus on when trying to grow our professional relationships.
Some of us take a short-term and outcomes focused approach to networking, treating it as a means to gather work/industry intel and potentially open up job or professional opportunities in the future. And this outcome is often the main driver for us attending events to uncomfortably hold a glass of wine in one hand, skewer in another and smile at strangers politely. This superficial form of networking at events with strangers that you have no real connection with apart from bumping into them at the same conferences a few times a year, is understandably not appealing to most. There’s a net. And there’s work. How could that be appealing? But take away that dirty word and the awkward drinks. Instead, think about taking the time to nurture our people interactions; that’s where we can form really valuable and meaningful relationships.
A simple and personal example I can give is in a certain group of friends I regularly catch up with. We met many years ago during a summer internship we all did together. And we’re a misfits sort of a group; all very different in personalities and unrelated in our careers. However we’re very good friends who discuss all topics from our personal lives to our professional experiences. We give each other advice in the way women do when collectively supporting one another. This isn’t the ugly networking. This is what genuine networking is supposed to be about – getting to know and understand people so you might identify common values, interests or traits that can serve as the foundation to a longer term relationship. And that’s exactly what I (and those friends of mine) did over the years – made time to get to know a few random people we had met. This cultivated something from the early relationships we had as acquaintances and, with some nurturing, turned us into good colleagues and then to genuine friends.
And here’s a final tip for how you can attend those obligatory conference drinks but hopefully find a meaningful relationship out of it. Try not to engage in mindless chatter about nothing you’ll remember, with whoever you happen to bump into when picking up a glass of wine. Instead, look at the speakers or panellists at the conference (or the organisations they’re from) and make a mental note of those who have said things that have caught your attention. That already provides you with a genuine conversation starting point so try and catch those individuals for a chat, or if not them then potentially another person from their organisation. I did this once a few years ago at an industry lunchtime seminar – it was the chairperson for the panel discussion. I was struck by how well-spoken he was and some insightful comments he made. During the break, I approached him, introduced myself and engaged him in what turned out to be a great discussion about similar experiences we’d both had. We exchanged contact details and have kept in regular contact since. I literally spoke to that one person at that event. And keeping in mind my introverted-ness, that conversation did not drain my energy credits as quickly as conversations with multiple random people about how busy we all are would have.
Always quality over quantity. This applies to most things in life and does to professional relationships too. It doesn’t matter if you know or have a lot of industry contacts if you don’t actually have any genuine connection with those people. And when you think about it like that you can more efficiently allocate your time, to the right kind of people that you share something with, to building the right kind of networks and relationships.