Throughout my career, I have generally held public-facing roles: external affairs, communications, marketing, advertising, fundraising, advocacy, and business development. Very few would ever guess that I am actually fairly introverted in nature. As a young child, I had a very small group of friends, would often times self-isolate, and felt more comfortable expressing myself through written communication. I wasn't shy per se, but enjoyed being alone or with a very close friend more than being with other kids simply because it took much less effort to get to know one or two people than to get to know five.
Since I moved around a lot during my upbringing, it was difficult to find a peer group, which also made it difficult to get to know people well enough to really trust them.
Now, this introversion shifted somewhat when I was a teenager. I can't provide a thorough explanation as to why or how, but I am pretty sure my involvement in a local improvisational theatre group, City at Peace, had a lot to do with it. During the few years I participated, we usually had a cast of about 40-60 young people each year. The funny thing was that because of the way this nonprofit theatre group was structured, because we were strongly encouraged to share personal stories and build relationships with one another based on trust, I felt for the first time that meeting new people could be authentic. A decade later, I am now able to make connections without fear. I have taken this lesson of authenticity to heart, especially when it comes to networking.
As someone who makes new connections for a living, I know it can sometimes be daunting and draining. If you are an introvert, you may find it exhausting to attend a large conference. If you're a mom, you may feel that it's nearly impossible to make the schlep across town when you have to pack lunches and help with homework. Or you may be preparing to embark on a new journey in your career where networking is now becoming a necessary part of your transition and you just don't know where to begin, but I'm here to share a few ways to make it easier:
1) Practice 'authentic networking'
Networking means opening yourself up to new opportunities, but it also means adding value to someone else as well. It's a give and take game. If you are introduced to someone, approach the conversation with a genuine interest to get to know their story, their interests and their pain points. Then, if you identify a way to help them reach their goal in some way, big or small, ask if you can be of service. I recommend doing this without an agenda and expecting nothing in return, but if you do plan on making an ask, a willingness to return the favor will probably earn you more than the deed itself; you might end up building a fruitful, lasting relationship.
When it comes to meeting people who share your values and interests, I highly recommend doing a little bit of research. Schedule informal meetings with people in your network who are members of the industry groups and associations you'd like to get involved in. You are likely find at least one or two that you want to explore further. Occasionally, if you make your intentions known, you might even be sought out or recommended for membership by a friend or colleague. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I'd been recommended to Camp Campbell, a group of young female leaders, sponsored by Campbell Soup Company, a which brings together a community of change makers to inspire thought leadership and foster creative collaboration. When I attended the Washington, DC chapter launch event, not only did I find women whose goals and interests aligned with my own, I also made authentic human connections.
2) Keep an open mind and an open heart
Always learn something new. Make a concentrated effort to listen and learn about another person. As someone who periodically gets caught in my own thoughts and often wants to talk as fast as I think, I occasionally forget to practice active listening. Now, when I meet someone, I try to ask more questions than I answer. One of my favorite open-ended questions, especially at a large event is, "What brings you here?" It usually allows me to dive deeper into someone's purpose and personality.
Choose your own open-ended question, and witness how much you start to learn about others, but whatever you say, please please please never start with, "What do you do?" I've certainly been guilty of this and it really can close people off from having a real conversation, narrowing your chances of truly getting to know who someone is. Yes, DC, New York and Boston folks, I'm looking at you!
3) Realize that there is more than one way to network
Diversify. Networking doesn't always mean going to an event. It can mean asking for an introduction on LinkedIn, reaching out to an old colleague, joining a social group or club, and many other things. Networking should be natural and should never feel forced, so do what works for you. Not only will it be less taxing, it will also be easier to maintain and therefore, more effective.
Optimize. If it is your thing to attend large conferences, summits and expos, make it a point to make excellent use of this valuable time. As Denise Morrison, CEO of Campbell Soup Company says, "networking is working." If you find yourself at a large forum-style event or conference breakout session, the best way to expedite introductions is to be the magnet in the room. Show that you are interesting and worth getting to know. Make people want to talk to you. I often times will accomplish this by being approachable and smiling and having an energetic presence overall. If there is an opportunity to engage in the larger discussion or ask a question, I will raise my hand, stand up, introduce myself and state my affiliation to the room, then proceed with a question or response to relevant topic. Most of the time, after the discussion, a few people will remember what I said, find something in common with me and strike up a conversation. I've met several close friends and colleagues this way over the past few years.
Regardless of who you are or what stage of life you are in, networking is worth the extra effort. In a life of purpose, strive to meet others who share your sense of purpose and mission. Authentic networking can help you meet future business partners, colleagues, best friends, and even spouses. With some practice, you may even find that meeting incredible people and stumbling upon life-changing opportunities becomes a part of your daily routine.
This post originally appeared on the Camp Campbell blog.
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