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Networking for Introverts

Posted July 14th, 2014

I first met Cristina Thompson in 2005 when we were both bushy-tailed college graduates trying to lay claim at our first real adult jobs. Back then, we were both sales assistants at Conde Nast (she at Domino Magazine, and me at Teen Vogue). We hit it off right away, even though Cristina was – and still is – a proverbial California surfer girl, and I was a liberal arts homebody. See, Cristina had graduated from USC with an International Relations and Business Communications degree and was intimidatingly self assured and collected (even when tasked with simply making copies or talking to clients). She was never afraid to chat up an executive or take initiative on a larger project, and treated everyone with respect. 
 

To this day, Cristina is the best networker I know and is now one of my best friends. Part of it is in her naturally social disposition (I joke that when we’re at parties I’m simply there to enjoy the show), but her knack for networking has landed her some pretty amazing gigs, too. She’s worked for TED Conferences, Time Inc, and is now back at Conde Nast as the Southwest Director of Bon Appetit. Along the way she’s honed her networking skills to be bar-none, so I tapped her to teach an introvert like me her 8 tried-and-true methods for networking like a champ.
How do you get over your fear of approaching someone?
 
I see the ability to network as a muscle not an inherent trait. While there are people who have a natural proclivity for geniality, I can say with confidence that the more you practice the easier it will become. If you remind yourself that you too have value to add to the relationship, it doesn’t seem so intimidating.  Don’t put the onus of the conversation on the person you are approaching. Meaning, don’t go in with “hello” and simply have nothing to say after that. It’s your responsibility to bring structure to the conversation and a bit of charm. What’s the worst that could happen? They blow you off? If so, they are probably not worth your energy anyway.
 What's the #1 networking tip you swear by?
 
It’s my deep belief that in order to build a network, you have to want to create a true bond with each individual. Networking, at its core, is selfish and thus, the act can come off very disingenuous. Typically, people “network” in preparation to eventually tap this inner circle for further career gain. With that said, if you come to the table in hopes to find commonality with the person you are engaging and seek mutual benefits, you are more likely to forge a genuine connection that will span many years and multiple career stops. To me, one’s network is an aggregate of all the individuals you have come across in your professional and personal life that which you share like-mindedness but offers you a unique perspective and a jolt of enthusiasm. In short, my #1 rule is: Network with the intention to foster sincere and profound relationships, anything else will be futile and result in a weak cohort.
Where should someone who has never networked before start?
 
Please, please, please don’t do the machine gun tactic. You know… the firing off of superficial emails with an overuse of exclamation marks. I can tell immediately if the person reaching out to me has sent a dozen emails before they got to my name. Building a network takes time and patience. It simply is impossible to fast track a well-configured network. Also, it’s important to point out that you can “network” anywhere. I was at a restaurant recently (before I worked for Bon Appetit) and the GM came over to our table to ask how things were going. Instead of the usual “fine, thank you” I told him the food was delightful (which it was) and gushed about my favorite dish (beef tartare) and told him the ambiance of the place really made the meal (which it did). I asked him to share his favorite cocktail from the menu and after a few minutes of small talk he handed me his business card. Instead of tossing it into the oblivion of my purse, I put it in my wallet where I was sure to see it the next time I paid for something. I followed up the next day, kindly reiterating how great the meal was and that I was definitely going to come back on several occasions. I have since been back a dozen times, email him directly for reservations and he always pays my table a visit with complimentary appetizers making me look like a hero to my dinner mates.   What are three quick and easy ways that even an introvert can execute?
 
1. Ask a lot of questions. Instinctively, people love to talk about themselves. So, by deflecting the attention off you and peppering them with curated questions about their lives, body of work etc… it will take the pressure off you to say something of value. Thoughtful questions also prove that you have done your homework, which is imperative if you want to glean a meaningful connection. However, don’t forget to give them a morsel of something personal about you that they can hold on to. Again, it’s a two way street.
 
2. Smile. I know, seems obvious, but trust me people forget! A little crack of the lips and glimpse of teeth can really break down the unfamiliarity quickly. Plus, it will come off as kindness, which is a trait everyone seeks in a relationship.
 
3. Flattery will get you everywhere. This sounds contrived but it works. You are likely approaching the person because you respect/admire them or they have accomplished similar goals in their career that you want to emulate, either way, you can find a few flattering words to share with them. Even CEO’s of companies have insecurities and a little earnest flattery will remind them that their hard work is recognized and appreciated.  
What (if any) is the decorum you need to maintain for networking?
 
I have plenty of networking pet-peeves. Particularly, I hate when I have been approached by someone and the entire time we are in conversation they are looking over my shoulder seeing if anyone more important is nearby. Focus on the subject in front of you. I can assure you that your undivided attention will go further than chasing the next big thing across the room. Another thing that irks me is when people are stingy with their network and don’t help others. The point is to be a connector, constantly making introductions and suggesting meet ups among your peers. The person in my network who has been most integral in my career always reminds me to “pay it forward.” And her words are with me always when I am giving career advice to young professionals.  
What kind of networking events do you think are most beneficial? 
 
The notion of milling about a “mixer” trying to surreptitiously look at name tags – for those titles/companies of importance– collecting business cards as if you were trick-or-treating on Halloween is exhausting and unsuccessful. I definitely believe a one-on-one interaction is better. However, asking somebody with little time on their hands to take an hour out of their day to have lunch with you is bold and should be saved for when your connection is deeper. My suggestion is to first correspond with them via email, explicitly stating what you want to accomplish by meeting with them (“picking your brain” is a bad hackneyed reason). You obviously have an agenda, so out with it! Offer to bring coffee to their office for 15 mins versus suggesting you meet somewhere that requires driving. The dinner party setting is also a wonderful way to network. You never know who you will be seated next to. Plus, it’s no lie that a glass of wine (or two) helps everyone get a little more personal more quickly.  
How do you maintain follow-up? 
 
Whether it be holidays, birthdays, beginning of seasons, births of babies, promotions etc… I find timing my correspondence around occasions as the best method. For example, I still send a holiday gift to most every boss I have ever had. Every year, without fail, I come up with a thoughtful (doesn’t need to be expensive) gift and card to mail to each of them. The gifts are usually all distinct, like the personalities of my former bosses, and try to give them something that is representative of me knowing them well. Also, a hand written card out of nowhere goes a long way. I will head to a stationery store and stock up on stylish paper goods that I can send throughout the year when something reminds me of them. A good rule of thumb is don’t let 4-5 months pass without reaching out to them in some capacity. A quarterly check-in will ensure that whenever you do need to tap them for help, you likely haven’t let but a few short months pass by. This goes back to my Golden Rule. If the connection is real, it won’t require a calendar reminder.
Is it ever too late to reach out? What if it's been years?
 
It’s never too late, but with a long time lapse, a slightly awkward first intro should be expected. To my chagrin, the “hey-it’s-been-forever-but-I-was-curious-if-you-can-help-me-get-a-job-k-thanks!” emails flood my inbox. I always feel that I am doing more leg work than the person reaching out. If you do see that a girl you went to high school with 15 years ago works at a company that interests you and you want to hear if there are any opportunities, I think the correspondence should sound more like this:
 
Dear _____,
 
As we all have, I’ve relied on social media to keep up with you and it seems like everything is going great. I noticed that you just landed a new job at _______________. That is very impressive, huge congrats. In fact, that company has interested me for a very long time. I think what they are doing with ________ is fascinating and I am eager to see where the company’s future is headed. I know you are new in the gig but once you settle in, I would be extremely grateful if we could hop on the phone for a few minutes and I could ask a few questions about your experience there. Considering it’s at the top of my list to work at, your perspective could really help me focus on what I need to do to be considered for employment. I recognize it’s been many years since we have be in touch but I have always admired you from afar. If it is OK with you, I will reach out in a few weeks to see if we can come up with a time to speak. If not, I completely understand and good luck in this new endeavor.
 
Note: Never go radio silent. If the person can’t help you right off the bat, by touching base every few months you will stay top of mind if a lead comes up. Tenacity is always greatly admired in my book.
 
 
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