The Art of Quiet Networking

The month’s Field Notes contributor, Maya Townsend, is the founder and lead consultant of Partnering Resources, an organization that helps individuals, teams, and organizations thrive in a networked world. She is co-editor of Handbook for Strategic HR: Best Practices in Organization Development from the OD Network.

Twenty years ago, I came to Washington, DC, with a vague sense that networking was important. If I wanted to pursue my dream of running my own organizational change consulting business, I’d better get good at it. I dutifully enrolled in an Adult and Continuing Education workshop on networking etiquette. I was the youngest in the room, but all of us shared a discomfort with the artificial acts required of us as networkers: meet someone brand new, connect quickly, find the synergy, collect the card, and then move on to the next conversation. I suspect about half of us would have described ourselves as introverts if we had known the word. By the end of the class, I was exhausted.

A few years later, I started my consulting practice and began attending networking events. My skills weren’t completely worthless, thanks to that etiquette class. I placed my name tag on my right lapel so that, when people shook my hand, their eyes would naturally travel up my arm to my name. I designated the right pocket for my cards, which I’d give away, and the left pocket for collected cards. Still, it was excruciating. Eventually, I started making deals with myself: meet three new people, and then it’s okay to go home. After a number of these events, which left me feeling inadequate and embarrassed, I decided that I’d have to find another way. And if my business suffered, so be it.

Amazingly, it was just the opposite. My business didn’t suffer—it thrived. I began to investigate what caused this success. Here’s what I learned.

Work often comes from people who know you

People didn’t hire me because I gave them a business card. They hired me because a former colleague or friend said I was competent, trustworthy, and reliable. After tracing a number of new jobs back to these former colleagues and friends, I realized they were invaluable allies.

I began scheduling one-on-one coffee dates with people who tended to provide referrals. These meetings were never about asking for business. Instead, they were chances to reconnect with people I genuinely liked and respected. I’d ask questions about their work and listen to their challenges.

As an introvert, I found these conversations to be a welcome substitution for large-scale networking events. I could connect with one person much more easily than with a hoard. Plus, we’d meet in a place that I’d choose so it could be quiet with little activity in the background to fray the nerves.

New ideas often come from people you don’t know

The people in my circle usually shared something in common with me. We were alumni of the same graduate program, work colleagues, or former residents of the same area. When we got together, it often felt as if “like” was talking to “like.” We reinforced each other and shared few new ideas. But my biggest learnings came from other sources.

When I wanted to gain knowledge about something outside my realm, I learned best from people very different from me. They studied different fields, worked in industries unknown to me, or had passions I didn’t know existed. Their differences provided a richness to discussion and opened my mind to new and exciting ideas.

Networking events aren’t all bad, after all

Strangely, as a result of these conversations, I found myself returning to the events I once hated: those large-scale networking events. This time, however, it was a completely new experience. I no longer expected to meet hordes of new people, get rid of my business cards by the end of the night, or win new business. Instead, I went to learn.

I carefully chose sessions that featured a thought leader speaking on a topic that interested me. An unexpected benefit was that these events often expanded my network. I’d be naturally drawn in by the topic, which made it easier to start and sustain conversations. The events that were once a trial became sometimes even fun once the pressure to “network” was lifted.

It’s a strange and wonderful situation when once-feared events lose their power to intimidate. That occurred when I stopped expecting myself to act like an extrovert and, instead, gave myself permission to be me. If more of us did that, I suspect we’d be a lot happier—and might even become more successful.

Field Notes brings you first-hand workplace experiences written by contributors who share their own stories, the lessons they’ve learned, and the unique benefits of a quiet approach to life in the office. Whether you’re an introvert looking to make the most of your strengths or an extrovert/ambivert who wants to learn how your quiet colleagues tick, Field Notes offers real-world insights about taking a walk on the quiet side. Submit your own story and watch this space for more perspectives from your colleagues.