The night before a conference where I was scheduled to speak, I found myself in a crowded bar just south of Greenwich Village. The organizers had arranged a VIP reception, and — having just moved to New York — I figured I should attend. Indeed, I had good conversations with four interesting people whom I’ll probably keep in touch with. But when I walked out the door an hour later, I was thrilled with my revelation: I’m never doing that again.
It wasn’t the fault of the conference or the bar or the attendees. It was my realization that I’ve always hated socializing in noisy environments where you have to scream to be heard. As an introvert, I find it overwhelming — and that means I’m not at my best when connecting. In fact, many people find networking in general to be stressful or distasteful. But I’ve come to realize that networking is downright enjoyable when you match it to your strengths and interests, rather than forcing yourself to attend what the business world presents as archetypal “networking events.” Here’s how I’ve embraced networking in my own way.
Create your own events. If you’re game for any kind of networking, you don’t have to think too hard about which types of events to attend; as long as it’s the right crowd, you can make the connections you need. But if you prefer “minimally stimulating environments,” as many introverts do, others’ choices — from boozy harbor cruises to swanky after parties — may not be right for you. Instead, I’m increasingly trying to control my networking environment by creating my own events. In the next couple of months, I’m planning to bring together “interest groups” of colleagues whom I think would enjoy each other for dinner parties, from female journalists to business authors to fellow attendees of a conference I enjoy.
Understand when you’re at your best. My circadian rhythms are fairly normal, but I’m definitely not a morning person. Early in my career, I dutifully signed up to attend 500-person networking breakfasts, because “that’s what you do” as a businessperson. I eventually realized the shock of waking up at 6 a.m. to get downtown in time was making my entire day less productive, so I swore them off. (I gave up early morning exercise for the same reason.) For introverts, networking requires a little more cognitive effort: it’s fun, but you have to psych yourself up to be “on.” I don’t need to have the additional burden of doing it when I’m tired. I now stack the deck in my favor by refusing any meetings before 8 am or after 9 pm.
Rate the likelihood of connecting. Every networking event should be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis: if you weren’t here, what would you be doing, instead? Running the numbers is particularly important for introverts, because even if the alternative isn’t something overtly productive like writing a new business proposal, the cost side of the equation can be steep: you may be exhausting yourself emotionally for hours or days afterward. Ask yourself who’s likely to attend, and whether they’re your target audience (however you define that — potential clients, interesting colleagues, etc.). Then follow up by asking how likely it is that you’ll actually get to connect with them. Large, loud events hinder your chances. If it’s an intimate dinner, I’ll almost always say yes; if it’s a raucous roofdeck gathering, I’ll probably sneak out the back.
Calibrate your schedule. Athletes understand they need time for muscle recovery, so they follow up intense training days with time off. Introverts should do the same. As I write this, I’m in the midst of a “writing day,” where my plan is to bang out three blog posts; my only “meeting” today is with a repairman. Yesterday, on the other hand, I had three in-person meetings and two conference calls. Batching my activities allows me to focus, and alternating between social and quiet time enables me to be at my best when I do interact with people. Even if a networking opportunity appears interesting, I’m likely to decline if it’s on the heels of several busy days; I’ve come to understand I won’t be able to tap its full potential because I’ll feel emotionally run down. On the other hand, I’m more likely to say yes to an event, even if it’s just outside my wheelhouse, if the timing works and I know I’ll be fresh and open to engaging with new people.
Finding the type of gatherings that work for you will make your networking much more successful — and more enjoyable. There’s a reason so many events take place in noisy bars: some people love that. For those of us without that predilection, we need to start saying no to torturing ourselves in the belief that it’ll ultimately be good for us. Instead, we have to reclaim networking and do it our own way.
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by Dorie Clark Harvard Business Review