Is a shocking statistic a good way to grab attention at the beginning of an article? Here goes: According to a story published by NPR, nearly 80 percent of all jobs are never advertised and go to someone with a connection to the company.
I’ve been hearing for my whole adult life how important networking is, and when I started doing writing projects on recruiting and hiring a few months ago, I found out that it wasn’t a joke. Statistics like the one above are everywhere. Here’s another: Did you know that 40 percent of advertised jobs go to people who were referred by current employees of a company?
Most of us were brought up to believe that if we work really hard and do really good work, we’ll be rewarded and promoted for it. But so many of us with impressive resumes and huge successes under our belts still don’t have the jobs or salaries we want. And the reason for that, in many cases, is our network—or more specifically, our lack of network.
Which is why my New Year’s resolution for 2013 was to start networking. Pretty simple and straightforward, right? There’s just one problem: I’m an anxious introvert whose worst nightmare is walking into a room full of people I don’t know and worse, being expected to talk to them.
What am I going to do?
Well, what I’ve done so far has been to force myself to go to as many events as possible, and make attempts to improve my networking skills at each event. My first attempt was a Creative Mornings meetup, a monthly breakfast lecture series for creative types where a 30-minute networking session is followed by an hour-long lecture and discussion. I showed up late so as to miss the meet-and-greet, and ducked out as soon as the lecture was over. Not great, but the only way to go was up!
On my next attempt, I went to a meeting for volunteers at a nonprofit in my area. I talked to one person. We talked about our volunteer experience and how funny the presenter was. It was awkward, but I did it.
Every time I find myself panicked in a new room full of strangers, I try to remind myself why I made this New Year’s resolution. I want to meet more people and I want to cultivate more work opportunities. Facing my fears makes me more confident, and knowing more people makes me more powerful. There are a million reasons why this is good for me, and letting fear outweigh them would be doing myself a disservice.
Even though it’s only been a month, I’ve already learned a lot about how to make networking work for me and how to do it better. Here’s some of my best advice:
Talking to new people is hard, but not impossible. Just getting in the door of one of these events is a success for me, but I’ll feel like a total failure if I don’t talk to anyone (which, you might be surprised to learn, is completely possible). Having one awkward conversation is always better than no conversation at all, so don’t bow out before you’ve tried at least once. It’s usually easier after you get one out of the way anyways.
Starting conversations with strangers is difficult (especially for introverts), but not impossible. I always try to ask someone around me a question that will get them started talking. For example, if we’re at a monthly meetup I’ll say, “This is my first time at one of these. Have you been before?” Don’t wait until you’ve crafted the perfect, knock-their-socks-off-with-your-wit question; you’ll risk missing them altogether, and you can always be funny once you’ve got them talking.
And if I get stuck and can’t think of a good introductory question? I just walk up to anyone and say, “Hi I’m Kate.” Short, sweet, and good enough.
Networking isn’t about pitching yourself. In my imagination, a networking event is just a bunch of people all trying to impress and one-up each other. But that’s not what successful networking really looks like, and the people who are doing it that way are doing it wrong.
Networking isn’t about selling yourself or giving an elevator pitch. It’s about meeting cool people and forming a connection with them. They can find out about your work life on your website, Linkedin, Twitter, and a million other online places. Face-to-face networking should be you talking about things you’re really passionate and excited about, and making new friends. You’ll be a lot more interesting and memorable (and less repellant—no one likes being pitched) that way.
Taking breaks is allowed. Introverts’ energy is depleted by interacting with other people. Rather than getting overwhelmed or completely exhausting yourself, remember that you’re allowed to go stand alone in the bathroom for a minute or take a quick to walk to your car and back. Excusing yourself to clear your head is always better than burning out.
Being available for follow up matters. Meeting someone at a happy hour is great, but won’t be meaningful for you long-term unless they can find you and connect with you later. I used to be pretty Internet-phobic, but have realized how much it matters that people be able to find me when they want to get in touch. Now I have a blog, a website, a Twitter account—all so that when someone wants to look me up, there’s something for them to find.
Be proactive about following up with people yourself too. A friendly “nice to meet you” email is always appreciated (and remembered fondly).
The next rung on my networking ladder has been to join a co-working space in downtown Seattle. There I’m forced to leave my home office and come into contact with a whole group of people once a week, plus regularly at events thrown by the space too. I’m diving in head first.
Based on the facts, it’s obvious that we all need to be networking and maintaining our network if we want to get all the opportunities that are out there to be gotten. Don’t throw all of your expertise and awesome experience out the window; they’re what will ultimately land you the job you deserve. But remember to cultivate your network and connections. They’re what will get you in the door.