I've been recruiting for a lonnnng time. And with that comes a whole lot of chatting with folks I don’t know. Or as some like to call it, networking.
Yup, that word – networking – strikes fear into the hearts of many. Including myself in certain situations.
In a Forbes article, they remind us that “Most people don’t like networking because they don’t feel safe in environments where you are forced to meet new people – especially those who may serve in roles of greater influence and power.” True. For me, it brings out the shy, awkward girl who no one wanted to talk to.
So I found a way around that – I don’t go to traditional networking events! You know the ones I’m referring to – those ‘young professionals’ or ‘women in business’ type of functions that are happy hours with no rhyme or reason beyond ‘here, meet some strangers and drink’. Most of those events are filled with sales folks and few actual decision makers. And happy hour events? Well, honestly, they don’t cater to all types or all schedules – while I do love my occasional cocktail, I don’t feel anyone should have to go to a bar to network for professional connections, and honestly, I don’t like to shmooze after a long day of work. I’d much rather go to a breakfast or luncheon, where I’m more confident people will be there for the right reasons and where I'm eating dinner...at home!
If I’m going to an event, it better have a purpose other than just meeting new faces – i.e., a good speaker, an educational opportunity, fundraiser, etc. That way, I am there for another reason as well, any nerves surrounding meeting new people subside, and networking ends up being a nice “bonus”. It also ups the chance that the type of people I want to meet will be in attendance!
But you’re a recruiter, I hear them protest…
Yep, and I’m pretty darn good at what I do (I’ll be bashful about other things, I promise). And that comes from knowing my strengths and how to leverage them. I’m a one-on-one person, I dig building relationships, and I don’t know how to be anything other than genuine. I learned quickly that people respond to you better when you’re yourself, rather than selling what you think they want to see. (Ironically, it’s why I enjoy interviewing client services / sales / marketing folks, because for me it’s all about honing in on who’s real, who’s there for the right reasons, or who’s simply trying to pull one over on me). Lack of authenticity = lack of self-confidence. When you’re meeting new people, you don’t do yourself any favors by being artificial.
Networking isn’t about being fake – it’s about letting others see you.
So when it comes to approaching strangers, I have a secondary reason for being there which gives me the chutzpah I need – my company, my passions, or sometimes both. Whether you are networking to find a job, gain new clients, or just broaden your horizons, you’re going to be ten times more successful if you don’t put the pressure on yourself to “come back with 10 business cards” and instead go in there with the thought, “I’m going to have a great time because this is something that’s important to me, and as a result I know I’ll meet some great people.”
What helped the introverted me? Let’s give a big “Amen” to working in retail. There’s nothing like having to approach strangers and ask them if they need you, and knowing most will say no. I learned early on that rather than the typical “can I help you find something?”, that I was actually much more comfortable just starting a more normal conversation. And guess what? So was the customer. Rather than pushing the commission, I wanted to be the person they trusted to help them find the right outfit, to remember them when something came in that reminded me of them, and would tell them if something looked unflattering. I’m their advocate, their resource, their trusted partner.
Networking is not just about seeing what others can do for you. It is a two way street! In 11 Tips for Successful Business Networking, they not only talk about being genuine, but also being that advocate. “Become known as a powerful resource for others. When you are known as a strong resource, people remember to turn to you for suggestions, ideas, names of other people, etc. This keeps you visible to them.”
As a recruiter, not everyone who comes to the events that I attend, whether it be a career fair, industry tradeshow, or other type of potential networking opportunity, is going to be a good fit for my company. But ya know what? They might know someone who is. Remember how I brought up the idea of empathy? Keep this in the back of your mind: Everyone is a potential customer, partner, ally, coworker, even boss. Take care of people the way you’d want to be taken care of, and the chances skyrocket that they’ll remember you and return the favor. Half the time I’m at job fairs I’m referring folks to other companies’ tables. I’m known as a connector – that’s my sweet spot.
Finally, go with someone if you are nervous around new folks. Bring someone who is naturally more outgoing, or might know people there they can introduce you to. I have done that when I’m really into the topic but where my discomfort surrounding “cocktail receptions” might overwhelm me at first.
But remember – networking is not only about connecting with others you might not have ordinarily met, so you do want to talk about more than just the weather. One great thing to think about when meeting someone is this: “Never answer the question What do you do? with a job title and a company, but rather something interesting that guarantees the answer, How do you do that? ” (Patricia Fripp). Just like in an interview (or a date, for that matter), you want to ask open ended questions to get to know someone.
Yes, I could go on, as some of you know. I can be a Chatty Cathy in my day job but I can also be quiet and introspective (hey, I work from home!). But either way, no matter how you might describe yourself, building relationships takes work, whether it be personal or professional. Sometimes we have to do things that scare us in order to see the reward. And any way we can help each other get there? Awesome.
“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family: Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” ~ Jane Howard