Reframing Networking To Build On Your Strengths

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I think of myself as a positive person, but I must say I hate the word “networking.” I hate networking events even more. These words make me feel yucky, fake and uncomfortable. It’s true: I do not enjoy holding a plastic cup of room-temperature white wine while trying to pick a grape off of a warm cheese platter, hoping everything in my big shoulder bag won’t spill out. I hate talking to someone while simultaneously scanning the room for someone else I should be talking to. And none of my elevator pitches ever roll off my tongue the way I intended when I wrote them up in the memo section of my phone. I just want to go home and put my small kids to bed.

But some people shine at these events. My friend Rich, a wonderful guy and a respected social entrepreneur, once invited me to an event where several nonprofit and education luminaries were gathered in a smallish room. I will never forget the way he grabbed my hand, and gamely said, “Come on CKO, walk the room with me.” He was the polished, poised version of his genuine, kind self, shaking hands with confidence, staying with each person just long enough, and asking just the right questions. There was nothing fake about him. I was honored to walk by his side. Clearly someone like Rich should attend a lot of these events. But every time he introduced me to someone, I sounded weird and uncomfortable. Because, well, I felt weird and uncomfortable.

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Am I Just Bad At Networking?

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For years, I thought the dread I felt when heading to a networking event had to do with my accent. Then I thought maybe it was because I was a small, Asian woman in a room full of tall, blue-blooded professionals or, even more intimidating, a room filled with self-made, minority nonprofit super stars. Or maybe it’s because I’m not always able to come up with a quick, smart answer to a pointed question about my programs or my experience. Whatever the reason, I felt inadequate and unable to prove myself otherwise in 30-second networking encounters.

The funny thing is, I am actually not a bad networker. In fact, all of my important professional opportunities, including my more than 12 year-career at iMentor, stemmed from my “network” of friends, co-workers, mentors and acquaintances. When I started my coaching practice, my very first clients were old college classmates whom I had not seen in 15 years but stayed in touch with on Facebook. And former funders and partners of the organization I ran were next up to sign on to work with me. My first word-of-mouth client was the colleague of a mom I befriended while volunteering at my kids’ school. Who knew that could happen?

Slow Networking

So how could I have grown and activated my network in this way? What I’ve found is that there is no one right way to build and cultivate your network. It turns out that my way of getting to know people, what I will begin calling “slow networking,” is what works for me. It’s me at my networking best. It’s a term inspired by Prime Produce and its “slow co-working” idea, and it’s my networking equivalent of “walking the room.”

Photo credit: Iris Leikanger
Photo credit: Chong Oh

Rather than locating, meeting and impressing the right people in thirty seconds at networking events, I find that I am much better at getting to know people over time. I enjoy “collecting” relationships with people who are doing interesting work both within and outside of my field, keeping in touch with them, helping them whenever I can, informing them of what I am up to and, from time to time, calling on them when I need help. I love the process of uncovering a natural rapport with them as we work together on things we care about. And I like talking to people I encounter in my life about the things that are truly important to them and me.

For instance, my colleagues at iMentor knew all about how much I love my kids, and how difficult it was for me to juggle being an executive director of a fast growing nonprofit organization and the kind of mother I want to be. Likewise, my neighbors and “mommy friends” knew about my nonprofit work and when I decided to launch a solo coaching practice, many of them were invaluable advisors and supporters to me. Having someone to pick up your children when you are running late from a meeting is invaluable.

Another arrow in my slow networking quiver is the way I use Facebook and LinkedIn, which I find to be a great way to stay connected with people over time. I’ve “collected” all kinds of professionals as my LinkedIn contacts, whether they were iMentor volunteers, college and graduate school friends, vendors, fellow nonprofit board members or a dad I met on the soccer field. Facebook has been a great venue for me to keep in touch with old friends and colleagues, and inform them about professional projects I’m working on, in addition to more personal updates. These things have always come naturally to me, and so many people in my network have generously supported me and my causes.

Strengths-Based Networking: What Are Your Bright Spots?

The curious part about trying to force myself to ”get good at” networking events was that, instead of taking a strengths-based approach focusing on bright spots with myself as I do with my coaching clients, I was trying to build a network strategy based on the one aspect of networking I hated. As the executive director of an organization I care about deeply, I kept chugging along and attending the events I felt my job required. In the process, I got marginally “better” at the act of networking, and we even secured several cool opportunities for the organization and the students we served. But I wonder how cost effective my time and negative feelings were, and whether I could have amplified my networking power if I had instead focused more on what I enjoy doing. I certainly would have had more fun.

As I began to feel more confident about my ability to meet and engage people, the pressure I put on specific networking events began to ease. When I dropped my expectations, I began to enjoy those grapes and that cheese, and enjoy meeting and chatting with the people I met at in-person events.

Your unique networking “strength” or “bright spot” might be your 10K followers on Twitter. Or your ability to “work the room” and make people feel great, or the fact that you’re a wonderful and active listener. You might be an inspiring public speaker, compelling all listeners to sign up to support your cause. You may enjoy getting to know people while volunteering or hosting fun events that bring people together.

How do you find your bright spot? When you feel you are excelling at a form of communicating with other people, and it comes naturally to you, that is your bright spot. And when you build your networking strategy around your one or two bright spots, you are leading with your strengths instead of trying to replicate some networking best practices book. If you led with your strengths, how might you be able to leverage them to bring attention and resources to your goals? To disseminate and gather important information?

I challenge you to identify your networking bright spots. When have you felt your most genuine, most excellent self while interacting with people? In what context have your contacts really “delivered” for you and your causes? When have you raised the most money for your program, recruited the most volunteers, or got introduced to the contacts who proved to be most important in your career growth? Spend some time answering these questions, and that may be the basis for your most successful networking strategy. Please share by commenting below or emailing me.