Stretching your network can be instrumental in achieving professional goals. One client confessed that he thought networking was supposed to be terrible. He's not alone! Read his story to find out how he stopped overthinking it.
I thought networking was supposed to be terrible. That was my experience with it: you go into a room full of strangers and try to make a “connection”. What that meant to me was to impress my contacts and convince them, in a short conversation, of my brilliance. As I never succeeded at this, I wasn’t really sure what would come next, or what I hoped would come of it (perhaps an immediate job offer?).
The first thing my coach, Nancy, taught me was the opposite strategy to network. We worked on language to engage the other person and not ask what job they do, but rather what role they play, a code for asking about the story beyond their job title. And, if there was some inkling of chemistry and mutual benefit, invite them to coffee. She also encouraged me to practice asking for a business card every time, regardless of how the conversation went.
Nancy also helped me develop stories to illustrate who I was and what I was looking to do. After all, if I couldn’t convincingly describe my own past and future clearly, how could other people relate to me? The process of telling this story to myself and to others helped clarify what help I needed to get to my destination.
To say it worked well immediately is an understatement.
The first networking event I did right was pretty JV. It was a free industry networking mixer located at a bar next to Fenway Park on a Tuesday night. The group met in the back room of the bar and, since it was karaoke night, the organizers watched the singers and dared attendees to go to the microphone. Half the attendees were unemployed, and the others were trying to build small businesses and were there shopping their services. In the past, this environment would have been alternately depressing and intimidating. This time, I projected positive energy, worked the entire room of twenty in about an hour, and accomplished my objectives - practicing my story and asking everyone for business cards - swimmingly, despite the modest opportunities. I didn’t even need to run out the clock! A whole new world had opened up for me.
I refined my new habits and evolved my technique with multiple events per week. A month later, I attended an event with a series of panel discussion with networking before and after. Through experimentation, I honed my event profile and cut out the free industry mixers that weren’t effective for me. I practiced my story and different ways to approach people I was interested in meeting. I read the program beforehand and didn’t see anyone in particular that I wanted to meet. When the second panel went on, I was blown away and it ruined all moderated panels for me forever. The speakers knew each other and built the discussion around their experiences. The moderator freely alternated between panelists and topics in what felt like a window into the rarefied VC and startup world.
Old me would have never said anything - or been there in the first place. New me watched where the panelists sat and, at the end of the program, I made a beeline to the moderator and complimented him on his work. He was one of two founders at a local startup. I was direct and sincere. The conversation was easy and led to another much more insightful meeting at his offices. When I went to talk to one of the panelists who is a founding partner in venture capital, it was easy for me to say, “that was a great panel,” and make another solid connection.
By flipping my perspective and focusing more on the people I was meeting than selling myself, networking became easy. While my long-term goals remained unchanged, the new people I met led me to evaluate my short-term steps. Their input, my direct requests for help, and a realistic definition of success were what made the difference.
Check out tips on how to move beyond the elevator pitch and initiate powerful conversations.