Thursday, March 6, 2008

March Discussion Group Topic - Networking

Morning Discussion Group:
Tuesday March 18th, 6:45 – 7:30 am
B Java Coffee and Tea
5510 Lafayette Road (corner of Lafayette and 56th) on the Northwest side

Evening Discussion Group:
Tuesday March 25th, 7:00 – 8:30 pm
D’Vine A Wine Bar
5252 East 82nd (corner of 82nd and Allisonville Rd) on the Northeast side

This month our discussion groups will focus on the topic of Networking. The article I chose to get the discussion started is How to Network for Introverts. I chose both the topic and the article because of an experience I had this past summer. My daughter moved to Chicago this past summer to launch a job search. I jumped in immediately to help by offering networking contacts and advice. However, it took her awhile to embrace this advice and assistance. After some probing, I identified two root causes: 1) she had some misconceptions about networking and 2) she’s an introvert.

For those of you who know me, the admission that on the Myers Briggs personality scale I’m not only an E (extrovert) but I pretty much peg the meter when it comes to extrovertedness will come as no surprise. I talk to everybody, cashiers, waitresses, the person standing next to me in line, people on the street – you get the point. I find walking into a room of strangers to be an exciting challenge and leave energized. However, sometimes I forget that not everyone is like me. This is especially true in my chosen field where I’m mostly surrounded by introspective analytical types. As the article states, those who are introverted would rather have their “head stapled to the carpet”.

Take heart, my more reticent sisters and brothers. You can be just as effective at networking, provide you understand what networking is and is not. The perception many people have about networking is that it’s all about schmoozing and collecting business cards. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Networking is about building relationships. When you need assistance, it’s much easier to ask someone you know for help. And the corollary is that people are much more likely to assist someone they know than a stranger. You can collect thousands of business cards but if the person you call doesn’t remember you, it’s no different than a cold call.

Networking is as much about listening as it is about talking. This is where introverts have a distinct edge over us more outgoing types. You learn more if you really listen to what people have to say (rather than focusing on what you’re going to say next). Yes, you do need to be able to talk about yourself as well, but if you listen to them you can identify common interests or ask questions to keep the conversation going. However to network effectively, you do have to be willing to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know.

You can greatly lower barriers to talking to a complete stranger if your choose your networking events wisely. I’ve heard people describe networking events where the sole purpose seems to be collecting business cards. If you attend an event where the sole purpose is “networking” it may not be a very satisfying experience. You would be best to focus on events where you’re more likely to have a common interest with the other attendees. Professional association meetings, technology seminars, and educational events all provide opportunities to meet people who share similar interests. You don’t have to limit yourself to professional meetings though. Any recreational activity or club can provide a great opportunity to network. Once you know you share a hobby with someone, a logical next step is to ask them about their career. You never know what you might learn.

It helps to set goals for yourself when attending networking events. Will you introduce yourself to 2 new people at the first event and maybe increase that to three at the next? If you end up spending the entire evening with one person, it kind of defeats the purpose of networking. It sometimes helps to attend with someone you know. You may even want to team up with someone a bit more extroverted than you or who may know people attending the event. They can take the first step, make introductions and help you feel more comfortable. Just be sure you don’t use this person as an excuse not to go out and meet people on your own. The hardest part is getting started, it does get easier with practice.

Remember, it’s not about quantity or the number of people in your network, it’s about the quality of your relationships. It also helps to know a few people who have great networks you can tap into. I have people in my network who I call not because they are the expert in a particular field but because they’re bound to know someone who is. This was especially useful to me this past summer. I can’t say I have lots of contact in my daughter’s chosen field in Chicago but when I asked the people in my network for help, we came up with a fairly impressive list of contacts.

Finally, the most important factor in networking is often the most neglected. You must follow up afterwards. At the risk of sounding redundant, networks are built on relationships and you don’t build an effective relationship after one meeting. The rule of thumb is you should follow up within 48 hours after meeting a new person. Otherwise, you put it off until it feels awkward to do so. The simplest form of follow up is to send an e-mail. Let them know that you enjoyed meeting them. I often take notes on people’s business cards. I jot down what we talked about, common interests, and where we met. This helps me not only for the initial follow up but also when contacting them again down the road or when you see them again at the next event. When I attend a regular event, such as a monthly meeting, I like to review the cards I collected at previous events. That way I can refresh my memory about who I met and what we talked about.

Follow up is more than just a one time activity. It takes time and attention to build an effective network. Share interesting articles. Let people know about upcoming events that match their interests. And you may even want to invite someone to meet you for coffee, lunch, or a drink after work. People seem to think that networking is about what other people can do for you. Yes, we all need to tap into our networks from time to time for advice, a referral, or other assistance. By the same token, the people in our network need to know that the relationship is reciprocal and that they can call on us as well.

I’d be remiss if I ignored that fact that today networking is not only a face to face activity but also a virtual activity as well. I’ll save the topic of using the internet for networking for another day though. What are your thoughts? Should we combine in person and virtual networking in our discussions this month or save the topic of virtual networking for another month?

More to come

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