Networking: Showing Up and Being Present
I still think we need to be there sometimes. Out there. With other people. In the same room. I am as big a fan of working from home as anyone. And of going home and staying home. However, I am a bigger fan of effectiveness, growth, learning, balance, connection and having enough presence to be influential when I need to be. Showing up (in person if I can) to optional meetings and nonessential social events affords me those positive outcomes. Research also supports positive work and personal outcomes from attending networking events (and working at the office some of the time), including improved team cohesion and communication (Gajendran & Harrison, 2007), opportunities for career enhancement & promotion (Laumer & Maier, 2021;Volmer & Wolff, 2018;) and better well-being (Beckel & Fisher, 2022). In terms of balance, I typically want to stay home and in my comfort zone. But comfort is not balance. Balance is adding challenge and adventure and hard conversations to one side of the scale so that we can truly savor the stretchy pants, working autonomously, and breaks for self-care on the other side of the scale.
Photo Credit: Indeed
Being fully present at events is something I struggle with still. Showing up is one thing, but talking to strangers is a whole other thing. Studies about talking to strangers have (surprisingly) shown that our fears are overblown, that these interactions often go quite well, and socializing can boost health and happiness, even for introverts (Epley & Schroeder, 2014; Sandstrom et al., 2022). Like any skill, one needs to practice in order to get better at showing up and being present. As with physical training, the practice can be a bit painful, but there are important gains even if you never fully become a networker extraordinaire. There are plenty of guides out there to help build this muscle. In Networking for People Who Hate Networking, author Devora Zack recommends experimenting with strategies that fit one’s personality. Extroverts, too, can improve their networking through tips and practice. Though they may be comfortable kicking off conversations and talking about themselves, they can practice listening and supporting others. Introverts like me can really struggle. Introverts may want to come prepared with questions to get others talking and do mostly listening, but eventually we can become better with promoting our ideas and taking up some space in the room. The important thing is being there and being engaged in active socializing. Like other skills, you can use goal-setting to help build this skill. For example, set a goal to talk to one or two new people at each event. Again, like physical training, maybe start small and work your way up. For example, bring a friend or stick with conversations with people you already know at first, but gradually break out of that mold as you get more comfortable. With time and practice, you will find your groove. You may even learn to like networking (according to Devora Zack).
HRD student, Maddie McClay networking at Level Up 2023!
We can also lean on research about habits for advice (check out Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood). Like a good habit, take choice out of the equation when it comes to attending events. I cannot willpower myself to go somewhere I do not want to go or engage in an activity I do not want to do, even if I know it will be good for me in the long run. Studies about forming healthy habits have shown that those who succeed in doing the hard things, repeatedly, take willpower out of the equation. They set up the right context for following through and take choice off the table (Wood, 2019). For attending events, that means deciding to go (or not go), then stop thinking about it. If you decide to go, RSVP, plan as if you will be attending and attend. Block your calendar, get a babysitter or a dog walker, map the trip in advance so you know how and when you plan to arrive and where you will park, invite someone to carpool or plan to meet up with others you know will be in attendance, have a some appropriate networking outfits on hand (how many opportunities do you have to get dressed up anymore?). In other words, take all the last-minute thinking out of the equation, because if you are anything like me, all these choices will swim around in your head until you have talked yourself out of leaving the house.
Photo Credit: TopResume
A note for meeting and event planners – please give us introverts something to talk about. A task. A problem to solve. Even conversation starters. A designated station or table for people “like me”. This could be accomplished through table tents with roles or areas of interests that help me place myself with like-minded people as well as narrow the conversational focus. I can’t speak for all introverts, but I am not inclined to attend a happy hour event where there is simply unstructured, “open networking”. I’m more likely to attend a lunch and learn or a taskforce or a group volunteering outing. It just makes me more comfortable to have something proscribed to do with my mind or my hands or both. Under those circumstances, I naturally connect with the others in attendance. If the event is planned as “open networking”, then at least let me know in advance who else is going to be there.
I once read that leadership is “showing up and being present.” We can argue all day about what defines leadership, however, the more I think about it, the more I have convinced myself that showing up and being present are key ingredients to having influence, making an impact, growing and learning, and leading my best life. I believe one can get better at these skills with practice and good habits. Next time you see me out at an event, let me know how I’m doing as a networking-extraordinaire-in-training and maybe share some of the experiments that you have tried that have made networking more fun and effective for you.