Last week’s article ended with a commitment to discuss techniques designed to help you with networking.
Let’s face it; networking is awkward. Small talk is challenging for even the most seasoned professional. Even as an extrovert, I have to work at adjusting my attitude. I remind myself of its importance and the crucial role it plays in building professional friends and connections. The connections we build play an equally important role in building our career.
Positive networking benefits from a positive attitude. Instead of focusing on our fears of facing strangers, flip your focus to look forward to the opportunity to meet new friends. To meet new friends, we have to get out of our workplace and homes and attend industry conferences, conventions, and networking events. In most cities, you can fill each day and night with opportunities to network. In small towns, you may need to travel to meet new people. In either case, be thoughtful in scheduling. It is easiest to go to the events of our peers, but those we know well, won’t stretch our comfort zone. However, will it get you to where you want to be?
There is nothing wrong with this approach per se – as long as you are honest with your intent and realistic with the potential outcome. I encourage you to stretch beyond yourself and look to your future self by seeking out those events frequented by those where you want to be. For example, if your current role is a systems developer and you aspire to be an enterprise architect – find the conferences, organization meetings, local meet-ups, vendor briefings targeting enterprise architects. If you are an IT manager and aspire to be a CIO – join SIM Society for Information Management. Trust that I joined ICF long before I was a certified ICF coach. “Learn from those already there” is a good mantra to adopt.
Before you head out to your next networking event, here are some tips that I learned to make conversations start and flow with less effort.
- Take a few minutes to prepare: Many networking experts recommend taking a glance at the day’s news stories before you head out to an event so you can ask others about current events. To keep things light, you can also scan popular culture news — list one goal with one or two professional questions that are at the top of mind. Preparation gives you a place to start and allows the discussion to flow. Whatever you do, remember to avoid the conversation pitfalls – avoid politics and religion.
- Don’t stress the elevator pitch. Many will tell you that you need to have an elevator pitch ready and memorized so that you can succinctly state what you do at a networking event. As a business owner, I even attend classes to help me to build the just right compelling phrasing that I don’t use as they feel what they are – contrived and rehearsed. When asked, I say something like “I work with amazing clients who are…..” I find it much more rewarding to talk about the results of my work instead of me. Focusing on my clients expands the conversation beyond me. I trust that people remember me as the person who helps people. So let’s apply that logic to the corporate IT leader. As an IT leader, you might reply something like “I am helping my business adopt a new digital platform targeting…. “ Or “Wow, we are doing amazing work at Employer Inc deploying, integrating, etc.” it is a much more interesting and compelling discussion starter than saying “I am IT executive coach” or “I manage Infrastructure.”
- Ask and listen. Sometimes the best small talk is not talking at all. Learn to ask great questions that get others to talk. Remember that people love to talk about themselves, especially when they have an attentive listener. Be curious about your questions. People’s responses will make you ask more questions, and you’ll soon find you’ve had an entire conversation, just by encouraging the others to talk person to talk. More than once I’ve been told I am a great conversationalist – when in reality I only asked a few questions.
- Ask questions that matter. Open–ended ones are best (start with How or What) rather than closed–ended ones (start with Why or Do). An example is: “What’s keeping you busy these days?” rather than the more conventional and expected “What do you do?” The open–ended question allows someone to talk about their professional and personal lives, while the latter will immediately box them into just their job.
- Ask for advice. Asking for advice can be both a conversation starter and a useful way to get helpful information. If the person you’re talking to has attended the event before, ask what they thought was helpful about it, or what other events they attend. Or you can ask them for unrelated advice on common interests like a restaurant or movie suggestion. These kinds of questions can get the conversation flowing naturally and illuminate common interests. As an additional plus, it feels good to have your opinion requested.
- Be courageous in sharing yourself. Most networking talk is forgettable because it’s so generic. No one shares much, and they stay clear of controversial topics. While it’s not good form to provoke an argument, it is fine to share your opinion. Be brave enough to be real with others, and to allow yourself to be a well-rounded and interesting person is far better than the alternative. That does not mean you should feel the need to tell your life story; just keep it interesting.
I encourage you to stretch beyond your self and look to your future self by seeking out those events frequented by those where you want to be. For example, if your current role is a systems developer and you aspire to be an enterprise architect – find the conferences, organization meetings, local meet-ups, vendor briefings targeting enterprise architects. If you are an IT manager and aspire to be a CIO – join SIM Society for Information Management. Trust that I joined and attended International Coaching Federation meetings long before I was a certified ICF coach. “Learn from those already there” is a good mantra to adopt.
Remember networking is about making connections. You have as much to offer as those you seek to make a connection. That realization will make it much easier to start a conversation and keep it going into the future.
Have a great week!
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