How an introvert learned to love networking

300183314_92203c9e1a_mWhen I read Susan Cain’s Quiet last year, I realized that I’m an introvert. That doesn’t mean I’m shy, or dislike people. It means that I find it restorative to be by myself, and less restorative to be in a crowd. I participated in a speed PR session once where something like 50 people pitched me story ideas for 90 seconds each. At the end, I was in a puddle on the floor. Whereas someone like Bill Clinton would find meeting 50 people for 90 seconds apiece incredibly energizing.

Writing works well for my sort of temperament (as opposed to running for elected office). But, of course, the problem is I can’t only write. I need people to write about. I need people to read what I’m writing. I need editors to hire me, and other writers to cover whatever I’ve cranked out.

So I wind up going to a fair number of events and conferences where I meet such people. And these days, despite my introversion, I genuinely enjoy myself there. Why? Because I’ve learned to give myself specific goals. Some sample ones:

  • Talk to three people I’ve only met virtually, so we can all put faces with names.
  • Find someone who’d make an interesting source for a story and get her information.
  • Learn about a new website or publication I should be reading.
  • Pitch my books, or myself as an expert, to two people.
  • Start conversations with three people I haven’t met before and look them up afterwards.

I always like a project, and having these goals for an event pushes me to start chatting with people, rather than checking my email. It also makes me more relaxed when I realize that a particular panel is useless, or if I have to race out of an event to catch a train (really, Amtrak, does 10:10 have to be the last train out of DC?) My goals are independent of these realities, and so I can feel I handled a conference or event well even if certain aspects are sub-optimal.

What do you do to maximize networking opportunities?

In other news: Modern Mrs. Darcy has a post on how women’s under-representation in leadership roles means we’re leaving half the talent on the table. She likens this problem to that of Canadian hockey teams (using the famous example in Outliers), where most of the players are born in the first half of the year. That’s a fact that stems more from the birthday cut off for competitive leagues than anything inherent in the talents of those born in December. It’s a nice post, but what’s fascinating to me are the comments, some of which seem to buy — hook, line, and sinker — into the idea that you cannot be professionally successful and be a good mother. I don’t want to hijack her comment thread, so I’ll just post the link here.

Photo courtesy flickr user nightthree

27 thoughts on “How an introvert learned to love networking

  1. I’m an extrovert- to a certain extent. At some point, I just need some time alone with a good book or some favorite blogs to recharge! But even as an extrovert, networking effectively doesn’t come naturally. Networking is more than just chatting with people at a mixer. You give some good tips. Another one that I think junior people overlook too much is to reach out to contacts for an informational interview. These give you a chance to ask lots of in depth questions not just have small talk- and it gives the more senior person a chance to get to know you, which will make that person more likely to take a risk and recommend you to someone for a job or whatnot. I never did informational interviews when I was junior- I was too afraid of bothering people. But now that I’m the more senior one, I don’t see it that way. I’m always happy to try to help someone out. It is a small thing I can do to try to repay the universe for the amazing good luck I’ve had!

    1. @Cloud- following up after meeting people is something I need to work on. I guess I’d add another point to the post, that the existence of electronic forms of networking makes life much easier for people like me. I’ll send anyone an email, but I really struggle to cold call someone. I’ve done it, of course, but even with people I’ve known for a long time, I find it easier to write rather than call out of the blue.

  2. “the comments, some of which seem to buy — hook, line, and sinker — into the idea that you cannot be professionally successful and be a good mother”

    I wonder if this idea isn’t from outside, but from within? In other words, do a lot of women think to themselves “There’s no way I could be a good mom AND have a successful full time career. I would be exhausted, I would be serving my kids junk food and plopping them in front of the TV, when I was at work I wouldn’t be able to concentrate for missing the baby…”. etc.

    For me personally, this is it. I look almost in bewilderment at moms I know who can go back to a full time job when their babies are 6 weeks old. It isn’t that I think they are bad mothers. It’s not a value judgment. It’s me knowing that I could not handle that.

    What the reasons are for that, I don’t know. I don’t think I love my kids more than another mom. I’m not sure the reason.

    1. At a Society of Women Engineers meeting, where almost everyone had a graduate degree in engineering and about half had young children, we tried to quantify the effect of young children on career.

      We decided that you have to be one standard deviation “better” to pull it off with young children. If your employer normally hires people who are +1 sigma, a mom of young children has to be +2 sigma. For the professors, who have to be at least +3 sigma, you have to be +4 sigma.

      Of course, we are all in careers with high attrition (tenure at Tier 1 school is competitive; local high tech employer has laid off 80% of its workforce in the past 10 years) so we have seen the effects of not being really good at what you do. In other places, the effect may not be so strong.

      1. It helps to have an awesome partner.
        ***
        I dunno, maybe I’d have moved to a better school if I hadn’t had kids, but more likely I’d just have more hobbies. There’s only so much work a person can do. I think part of my work success surrounding my first child was the desire to show people that it could be done. I might not have had that push if I felt like I had all the time in the world and nothing to prove.

        1. Of course it can be done! There are lots of women that prove that. Even I, who don’t agree with Laura on the feasibility of full-time, high-level professional careers with young children, agree it can be done.

          The point of discussion is what fraction of the population can succeed with children vs. without children. This depends on a variety of other factors including spouse, health of children, spacing of children, income and extended family support.

          1. I was responding to the needing to be one more standard deviation above the norm for where you landed for it to work out. I don’t think I would be at a better school had I not had children. In fact, I would agree with folks who say that having children makes them more efficient at work.
            ***
            Even more-so I would agree that successful people are allowed a hobby outside of work, and for many of us this hobby is our children.
            **
            Now, just being female in a male-dominated field often means you need to be above the norm, but that’s not generally because of any choices on the part of the woman in question.
            **
            But delightful baby #2 has stopped nursing so I will have to leave this repeated and pointless argument for another day.

          2. @Nicole and Maggie – the hobby comparison is an interesting one to ponder. Golf, for instance, takes a ton of time!

      2. There is research showing that mothers are actively discriminated against. So even if you really do have to be that much better than average to have a “big” career and kids, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be that way, or that it is something inherent in the career + the kids. Maybe if you removed the discrimination, average- and below average!- mothers could succeed just as well as average and below average non-mothers. It is a hard thing to tease apart.
        And of course none of that matters when it is you in the vice, feeling the squeeze.

        1. I will restrain myself from detailed, somewhat bitter comments about all the managers at a given high level driving the same kit sportscar, or the group in which all the people who sailed were ranked above the people who did not sail.

          But yes, discrimination and favoritism are alive and well.

    2. @Carrie – I’ve thought about this too, and for me, it’s a couple of things:

      1. I have a lower level of tolerance for stress/crazy busy. Even just 2-3 days a week of doing the daycare-work commute and the dinner-bed scramble was driving me nuts. I couldn’t fathom doing that 5 days a week. Other people thrive on a busy routine or are at least fine with it.

      2. While I liked my job, I didn’t *love* it. I think that’s one of the things Sheryl Sandberg talks about in her book that’s essential. I liked getting paid, and being challenged, but I didn’t have a passion for the exact work I was doing. So I sat there doing work I didn’t LOVE, while my baby was at daycare all day, and that was pretty rough.

      3. Hubby and I have a strong desire to do most kid-related things ourselves, rather than asking family for help. This obviously makes it harder to put in the hours at work required in the tech industry. Also, neither of us is a fan of working at night or weekends after putting in a full day in the office.

      4. We’re super picky about childcare. Maybe that makes us “helicopter parents”, but none of our options were *awesome*, despite paying $$$$ for them. Again, if we both were super excited about our jobs, we could make it work, but we weren’t.

      So maybe all of that boils down to the fact that neither of us loved our jobs enough to make the other details work. So hubby was off for about a year, and now it’s my turn.

      I won’t lie, 8 weeks in, there are some things I miss dearly about working. Like the money 🙂 and the alone time to just get stuff done. But for the most part, I feel like we’ve made the right decision for us right now.

      It helps that our fields are fairly flexible about leaving/re-entering, unlike others.

      1. @ARC – thanks for your comment and for spelling out your reasons for your decisions. I think #2 may be the driving factor for many people, as Sandberg notes. If you love your job, you’ll deal with a lot, and it also makes work a more compelling alternative to being home with your kids. As for #1, there are ways to lessen this. I work from a home office much of the time (have been on the road a lot, but let’s say 3x/week I’m in my home office). So there’s no scramble. When we lived in NYC, our daycare was a quarter mile away, so we walked. I am not sure if it was the absolute best in the city, but a quarter-mile commute is a major plus. I know a few families who have hired a sitter to come from 7-9 in the morning, to help with the morning scramble. That way, the parents can actually spend some interactive time with each kid.

        1. @Laura – commute is definitely a factor. If both hubby and I worked 5 min from home (as we did pre-kids), and could have found a daycare within 1-2 miles, it would have been a lot easier. But there was only one daycare we liked and it was 15 min in good traffic, and 45 min @ rush hour from my work, but only about 5 min from hubby’s work. The other problem is that both of my kids go to bed ridiculously early (and need a TON of sleep). Right now at 6:30 they’re both in bed. They fall off a cliff pretty quickly behavior-wise when they’re tired, so in addition to the scramble at pick up time, it was just unpleasant because the toddler was just so worn out after a full day at “school”.

          But the main point is that work definitely NEEDS to be compelling to want to put up with this. On site daycare, truly flex schedules, work day aligning with school day, etc would make this a lot easier for some people I suspect.

          1. @ARC – ah yes, the sleep thing. None of mine have ever, ever gone to bed at 6:30. With the older two, it was rarely before 9, no matter how much we tried. Eventually we stopped trying. But if your kids go to bed at 9, getting off work at 5 still makes for a *lot* of time together.

  3. I’m definitely an introvert in that I recharge by being alone (and like you, writing is a great medium of communication for me!), but for some reason, I am also really good at small talk and meeting new people….the stuff of networking. and I don’t really find it to be exhausting.

    And interestingly, my husband recharges by being around people, but is horrible at the sort of things networking requires.

    It’s so weird.

    1. Kristen, I’m not sure if this is the same thing at all, but that reminds me of how I love singing or reading aloud in front of people, but hate giving speeches or anything involving improvising. My knees might be literally shaking while I sing, but I still enjoy it! And when I play Mafia (don’t know if you know it, it’s a game that involves lots of lying if you’re mafia, but if you’re just a “townsperson” you need to figure out who’s lying) I’m far more nervous as a townsperson than as mafia.

      Basically, I like having a role to play. I’m an introvert, but a role is what makes these things comfortable to me.

      So… I wonder if there’s something about small talk and networking that makes it feel like a nice familiar role, to you? Maybe I’m off and it’s something completely different. 🙂 But maybe, much as your husband likes being around people, he feels like small talk is too “fake” or something, so he’s not good at that part? Now I’m reaching. 🙂

      1. Marcy, this actually makes sense—and thinking about it that way may actually help me with networking—I am extremely shy meeting people, small talk etc… but like you can get up on stage & sing, dance, act—I love it! Maybe if I imagine that I’m playing “a role” when trying to network I won’t be so terrified? (probably not, but worth a shot!)

      2. Those are interesting theories…and you know, my husband DOES feel that way about small talk (that it’s kind of fake).

        I’m not sure why I’m so comfortable with small talk, though. It feels genuine when I’m doing it (often I’m doing something like trying to help a new person at church feel comfortable), but I suppose trying to help someone feel welcomed or comfortable is something of a role.

        1. I’m still thinking about this (I’ve got a meeting coming up and I’m trying to psyche myself into actually going to a networking function)…I think if I can actually help someone else (i.e. make someone feel comfortable, like you mentioned Kristen, or even offer some work-related assistance), it would be a lot easier. Instead, I feel like I am “asking for help”—by imposing myself on more senior/accomplished people’s time.

          1. @Ana- I was at a conference recently where the head of it suggested that people introduce themselves by saying something along the lines of “what do you need help with?” or “what are you working on?” or other such questions that allow the other person to talk about themselves and give you the chance to help if you can. It feels better for many of us…and it’s nicer!

          2. Kristen, I don’t mind small talk most of the time either, at least not in certain contexts. And it does feel genuine. “Networking,” though, the ways that I’ve seen it, terrifies me! It’s like it’s a role I completely don’t get or understand how to play… or…

            Ana, your comment about “imposing [your]self” really resonates for me. I think that’s why I can enjoy small talk but hate “mingling”… I feel like I either have to stand awkwardly by myself or walk up to people who are probably enjoying the conversations they were having with other people, imposing on their time and making them act polite even though they’d like to go back to talking to their friends. >_> Something along those lines, anyway. Generally I avoid those situations, so it’s been a little while.

            Whereas I didn’t mind meeting new people when I worked at a used bookstore — there were always books to talk about! ^_^ Or I could ring people up without really talking much at all, just the courtesies. No pressure. Yeah, I wasn’t playing a role then, but without the pressure, I didn’t need the role. I guess.

        2. @Kristen – I sometimes feel, with small talk, like I’m groping toward common ground. Surely we know someone from the same town! Someone who went to the same school! Maybe we’ve recently been to the same place! I sometimes wish there were a better system of speed dating, as it were, in social settings, so you’d know right away who had experience with something you were interested in. I was at one conference for executives who were moms once, and they had people put the ages of their children on their name tags alongside their employers. It was so helpful for starting up a conversation — two moms of 2-year-olds always have something to talk about!

  4. I’m a sociable introvert, and I love your tips for conferences. Something that’s helped me a lot is to realize that once I get home from the conference, I’ll be kicking myself if I don’t make new connections, meet online acquaintances in person, or track down the people I’d love to meet in person.

    It’s also helped me to realize I will feel like I’m melting into a puddle after a day spent in (perfectly delightful) conversation, and to plan accordingly.

    (Quiet was one of my favorite books of 2012. Such a great book!)

  5. Great post!

    I’m actually an introvert (and a writer) just like you. When I was a kid, I loved nothing more than to be left alone in a quiet corner with a good book. Now that I’m an adult, I still find that to be the best way to spend a good chunk of the day.

    I’m also a business owner in a highly competitive industry, though (digital/social media marketing), so I have to get out there and meet people, network, and market my business if I have any hope of continuing to grow my company. Whereas when I was a kid, I would actually get physically sick if I had to so much as give a two-minute speech in front of a group of five, I now regularly give presentations and workshops to large groups in our region. And of course, as an active member of the local chamber, I’m also constantly attending networking events, making new connections and chatting with potential clients.

    Like you, what I’ve found to be most useful before I enter an event is to lower the bar on my expectations of myself. I have friends who thrive in crowds and soak up energy from a room, while I typically am spent after even just a short networking event. So when I walk into a room, my goal is simple: meet two new people. That’s it. And since I generally don’t like talking about myself anyway, I usually have no problem meeting and chatting up my quota very quickly since just about everyone else DOES like talking about themselves. Sure, I melt into my car at the end of it, but I usually walk away with at least two — and often more — good leads.

    After that, I retire to a coffee shop or frozen yogurt place and sink into a new book for an hour or so to refresh myself.

    So far, this has worked for me!

    Cheers,
    Marjorie R. Asturias

    1. @Marjorie – thanks for your comment. I like the idea of meeting two people. That is *always* doable!

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