Thursday, February 2, 2012

Networking allergies

My undergraduate degree comes from a school that placed a large emphasis on networking. I spent those four years mingling, small talking, and smiling.  My face still hurts. And while I love my college, it was there that I developed an allergy to networking, or more accurately, to the way some of the students practiced it. My group of close friends gathered around our mutual disdain of shmoozing.

So imagine my shock when a writer from my alumni magazine recently contacted me about an article on networking. She contacted graduates from the political realm, consulting, and uh, me. Primarily she wanted out to find out how in the world I got this gig as a guest chaplain in the House of Representatives, but we ended up having a good discussion about introverts and networking. The question underneath the discussion was "Can only gregarious, aggressive people who excel in small talk network effectively?"

As you may have seen already, introversion has become a big topic in our society recently, and it's possible that we're even approaching a tipping point in the discussion. Articles, posts, and books about introverts in an extrovert society are showing up everywhere. David Murray recently turned me on to a recent article by Lisa Petrelli on the Harvard Business Review blog, "An Introvert's Guide to Networking."

Petrelli boils down the lessons she has learned as an introverted networker in three main points:

1. I learned to appreciate my introversion rather than repudiate it.
2. I stopped being afraid to be the one to reach out.
3. I learned to prioritize time to re-charge.

I commend the article to you, because I think she does an excellent job of balancing how to use our strengths as an introverts and also how to stretch out extroverted muscles a bit. If you want to know more specific techniques I have employed in networking check out my post The Necessary Evil of Book Promotion.

What I want to say today is less about specific techniques and more about perspective. When I dig to the root of why I have a emotional resistance to networking (even the word makes me cringe), it is not because of my introversion. It is because shmoozing often has a whiff of inauthenticity to it. So often it seems like people approach it with the intention of trying to get something out it, to manipulate a situation or conversation to go how they want it to. And so it becomes a game, and other people become players on your chess board who must be moved into the best position so you can win.

If you approach networking in that light, you will likely find it unsatisfying, even detestable. I want to propose different questions for networking. I think the questions that ought to drive us are not "What can I get out of the situation?" or "How can I work people to my advantage?" but "Who am I meeting?" and "What can I learn?" The people that you talk to have dreams, hopes, and passion - that's how they got to the position they are in the first place. They have succeeded, and they have failed. They have families and marriages and children, that provide them all kinds of delight and all kinds of pain. And people that are worth meeting can teach you things about work, relationships, and life. They can usually spot a game-player from a mile away - they may even have played those games - but they will also be receptive to someone who has a genuine curiosity to learn from them. If you focus on being interested rather than interesting, people will remember you.

One authentic, meaningful conversation in a social event is far more satisfying, human, and less exhausting than 10 conversations that you try to play to your advantage.