For some hard-core introverts, the word “networking” conjures up uncomfortable memories of awkward conversations by the office watercooler, at a boring business conference, or perhaps during an intimidating but soul-less career fair where you feel like just a number. It’s hard to be personable and forge meaningful professional connections when your interpersonal skills are rusty or when the gift of gab isn’t in your wheelhouse.
But the fact is, networking is a critical component of one’s career development, and highly effective at that, with studies suggesting that a majority of all jobs are filled via networking — up to 85% of jobs, according to one source. And, for the networking-makes-me-cringe types out there, it really doesn’t have to be so agonizing.
As a resume writer and career coach, I’ve helped countless folks, including many introverts right here in Westchester, overcome their fears and improve their networking skills. And not just to help with landing job interviews, but also to strengthen their professional brand image, enhance their status as industry through leaders, and beyond.
So, if the mere thought of networking gives you goosebumps, below are some tips to start building some momentum.
One of the most effective forms of networking is a face-to-face meeting, or at least a live phone conversation where you can make the strongest impression as opposed to, say, an impersonal email. But if you’re feeling a bit shy, you’ve got to start somewhere.
There are numerous platforms online where introverts can feel comfortable initiating a conversation. One great example is LinkedIn, a popular professional social network that has 600+ million users globally. Whether you’re looking for a new job or trying to expand your professional horizons, you can build a strong network on LinkedIn. But don’t just stop at merely adding people to your list of connections and bragging that you have 500+ “friends” – actually engage them.
One great way to connect on LinkedIn is to ask for an informational interview. An informational interview is a casual meeting to learn about the experience of someone who works in a company or field that interests you. You can browse LinkedIn and find professionals, whether long-forgotten acquaintances or complete strangers, and ask to connect with them. A bit of tactful flattery can help, and you can point out something about their career or LinkedIn profile that you admire.
Many people are entirely willing to talk about themselves if only you’re willing to listen. And when requesting that informational interview, if you offer to treat them to coffee or lunch at a good local café, they might just say yes. Keep in mind, however, that not everyone will offer to help. Some people might ignore your LinkedIn request, whereas others might reply that they don’t have the time. Don’t let the rejection stop you in your tracks. Politely thank them and move on to others. It’s a bit of a numbers game. Persistence will pay off.
Of course, make sure your own LinkedIn profile is up to snuff, updated and compelling. Profiles with photos tend to get the most traction, so if your profile has a blank image in place of a photo, that could be why people ignore your request to connect. And, above all, keep all your LinkedIn messages as professional, kind, and grammatically correct as possible. Always put your best foot forward.
If you’re new to a certain industry, or looking to pivot into an entirely new career, finding a mentor can help immensely in the transition. It’s generally a bit more involved than a one-off informational interview (see above), but sometimes those casual conversations can evolve into a full-blown mentorship.
A mentor can open your eyes to the opportunities, challenges and risks of your target field. A good mentor can serve not just as a sounding board for your laments, but as a source of motivation and inspiration. Ask your current network of family and friends if they know anyone who works or has worked in your target industry who might be willing to share their experience with you.
You can also browse LinkedIn using the tips mentioned above to locate prospective mentors. Remember, it can be a numbers game. Not everyone will be available, ready or willing to assist, but if you’re persistent, eventually someone will come through.
If your own networking skills are lacking, chances are you may not think you’re “worthy” of becoming a mentor for someone else, but the reality is, you’re probably an expert in something, and there is someone out there who could benefit from your skills and knowledge.
There are numerous charitable and professional organizations out there (see resource list below) you can contact. Ask if they offer a mentorship program and if they can pair you up with a mentee.
The very experience of sharing your skills with a novice can be both humbling and can help build your own confidence, which can help you when you’re networking and interacting with professionals who are more experienced than you.
Studies have demonstrated that volunteering reinforces communities, supports good physical and mental health, increases your social circle (i.e. network), and can even help you land a job interview. Consider lending a hand to a local charity organization.
For example, if you’re an unemployed marketing manager, and you notice that your local under-staffed, under-funded animal shelter has a bland Facebook page or boring e-newsletters (or, worse yet, isn’t sending out any newsletters to its community), you can step in and offer your marketing expertise, pro bono.
If this engagement doesn’t lead directly to a paid gig with the organization, you can still add that gig as relevant marketing experience to your resume and LinkedIn. It’s way better than sitting at home all day, unemployed, firing out tons of applications and not hearing back from employers, making you feel even more deflated. When volunteering, at the very least, you’ll feel good about your contribution to the community.
Additionally you get to meet new people, both the staff and other volunteers or constituents served by the organization, and in so doing you grow your network. More often than not, one of those folks has a friend or relative who works in an industry that piques your interest. Remember, though, that no one is a mind reader, so you need to be clear and vocal that you’re looking for work in a given industry.
Whether you’re a novice looking to get your foot in the door of a new industry, or an expert looking to elevate your professional brand and expand your thought leadership reach, it’s a solid idea to continuously in your industry by attending conferences, trade shows, expos, training workshops and the like. These are all great ways to both expand your skill set and meet folks in your current or target field. However, sometimes those events may feel a bit intimidating, given how many “experts” there attend such events.
If that type of networking scares you, you can start by what excites you. There are countless hobby-based groups and events right under your nose. These may not have anything to do with your current or target job field, on the surface anyway. Online platforms like meetup.com offer a list of real-life, in-person local events for people who are passionate about any number of areas, be it photography, kite flying, ceramics, karate, anime, culinary arts, dance, stamp collecting, and a million others. Truly, there is something out there for everyone.
And since Westchester is right at the doorstep of NYC, if a group doesn’t meet right in our beautiful county, chances are it’s downtown, just a short train ride away.
When you attend these hobby-based meetups, you’ll inevitably meet other like-minded folks. And you’ll probably have fun doing it, which means you won’t be so nervous. And the best way to network is when you are self-assured, happy, even glowing you. Because people are naturally attracted to confidence.
Attending hobby-based events is one of the easiest, most low-stress ways to network organically, especially for introverts who don’t otherwise go out of their way to meet new people. And while you’re out there, flying the kite, dancing the mambo, or tap dancing, you’ll meet a ton of folks, many of whom have jobs and their own networks that you can tap into, pun very much intended.
Caveat: Of course, I should note that in some cases, there are near-debilitating forms of social anxiety that prevents some people folks from getting out there and talking to people. In those cases, it’s typically a good idea to reach out to a certified mental health professional who can help overcome some of these deep-seated interpersonal phobias. You’ll do yourself, your career and all your relationships a favor.
If your job search is hitting a wall, or your career development is stagnant, you can continue to tread water and waste countless hours on applying blindly to jobs online, only to hear crickets from prospective employers. Or you can take a fraction of that time and effort and focus on something that actually works: networking.
David Wiacek is an accomplished career coach, resume writer and professional brand strategist. He crushes his clients’ fears and brings joy back into their professional lives by helping them network effectively, interview powerfully and negotiate higher salaries. In short, he helps people across Westchester County (and beyond) find more fulfilling, better-paying careers. For more information, visit: http://www.davidthefixer.com
Westchester Elite Networking (monthly networking event held in White Plains):
SCORE: national non-profit association that provides advisory and small business mentoring services
Meetup.com Westchester: extensive list of in-person events for people with similar interests
Westchester Toastmasters: public speaking workshops, which are critical when networking
Professional Woman of Westchester: networking group for enterprising women of Westchester County
The Business Council of Westchester: the county’s largest and most prestigious business membership organization representing more than 1,000 members:
914INC.: interviews, advice, and features about the County’s movers, shakers, and entrepreneurs.
Coworking spaces: Coworking spaces are a great way to meet other freelancers, entrepreneurs, and consultants in the area. Check out the growing list of coworking spaces popping up all over Westchester County, including White Plain’s own Koi Creative Space.