Good networking isn't about shoving your business card in people's faces.
Look, maybe it’s because I’m an introvert, but I would rather eat chalk than attend any kind of networking event. There are many other people too, I’m sure, who are equally tired of the nauseating ‘what do you do’ question, the obligatory business-card swapping, and the awkwardness of trying to infiltrate a clique whose body language clearly shouts “not welcome”.
Yes, we’re aware of the benefits. The connections that result in a job interview. The referrals that generate more business revenue. The opportunity to promote our expertise to a wider audience.
I’m alive! I’m well! And I feel great!
The advantages are obviously apparent. It’s just that, for some of us, there has to be a better way. A way that doesn’t involve the toleration of tacky ‘elevator pitches’, the frenzied urgency to recruit more members, and the persistent request to place your card in a goldfish bowl for the ultimate purpose of spam.
Maybe I’m just scarred. Back in the day, I attended several meetings of a group called SWAP – salespeople with a purpose – now defunct (for good reason, too). Their weekly meetings, often full of hungry folk desperate to incestuously sell, would end with an affirmative chant: “I’m alive! I’m well! And I feel great!” This was shouted in unison three times, accompanied by fists pumping in the air in ecstatic jubilation. Cringeworthy stuff.
Just as unsettling to me is BNI – Business Networking International – to which I have been invited several times. BNI is a favoured haunt for many small business owners. Every chapter is allowed just one member from each profession. There can only be, for example, one florist, one accountant, one plumber, and so on. The idea is that you meet weekly and exchange referrals, thereby helping to build each other’s businesses.
It must work for many people since BNI chapters are a ubiquitous presence in much of the developed world. Their website claims members in Australia have shared referrals over the past year amounting to $280 million. The issue – and the reason I didn’t join – is that it’s networking at maximum velocity, structured to the extreme in a seemingly crude and never-ending plug for business. There is something quite off-putting about such peacocky gatherings.
Or, like I said, maybe it’s just an introversion thing. In her bestselling book, Networking for People who Hate Networking, Devora Zack provides the following advice for introverts:
- Rather than attend too many events, choose instead just a few but do them well.
- Volunteer to join a committee or a board so that you can build connections in a more meaningful manner.
- On arrival, join a queue – such as the one for food – because that makes it easier to start a conversation with the person in front or behind you.
- Take the pressure off by talking less about yourself and more about the person with whom you’re conversing.
A study referenced in The Journal of Leadership and Organisational Studies has hypothesised that introverts shy away from networking because they’re less comfortable meeting and socialising with other people. But the researchers were surprised to discover that, in reality, introverts actually networked as much as extroverts. They may not necessarily find it easy or enjoyable, but they nonetheless go ahead with it even though it’s somewhat painful.
That study, though, was published a decade ago. Since then, networking has expanded to the digital world and this, for introverts, has been their saviour.
One review of more recent studies, conducted by the Queensland University of Technology, found unsurprisingly that introverts (unlike extroverts) prefer to do their networking online. That’s because it provides them with protection and solitude and, initially at least, some anonymity.
As a paper published in the Cyber Psychology & Behaviour journal attests: “On the internet, no one knows I’m an introvert.”
How do you feel about networking? What makes it successful?
Follow James Adonis on Twitter: @jamesadonis