Any professional athlete or trained soldier knows that the purpose of rigorous training is to make sure that at that critical moment, you act without thinking.
Could the same be true for professional networking?
If you have ever felt you aren’t a great networker, or if you want to improve your networking skills, this blog post is for you.
My 15 minutes of fame
Today, I was sitting in a conference room with 500 women when my name flashed on the screen. My name, with my quote above it. The speaker, whom I’d never met, was quoting ME. I was so stunned I didn’t even whip out my camera. I did the fist pump in the air thing, but I was so far back nobody could see me
As soon as she left the stage, I got up and caught up with her. “I didn’t know you’d be here,” she said. I said something; I don’t remember what because I was so shocked that I was being quoted on stage at a huge Microsoft event.
I was overwhelmed emotionally, but it didn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter to a professional athlete. In the moment, you do what you are trained to do, which, in this case, is to get out of your seat and grab the person you want to meet before they get whisked off to the next meeting.
I did not have to think of what to do.
I did not have to make a decision to meet Sue and shake her hand.
I did not have to consider how to give the polite brush-off to a colleague who wanted to congratulate me as I made a beeline for my target.
I did not need to think about the best or most professional way to introduce myself.
Everything happened automatically.
What do you mean “automatically”?
I’ve been training myself to network for many, many years. I’ve practiced going to networking events, walking up to total strangers, asking them for their pitch, giving my pitch, taking real interest in them, seeing how I can help them, and telling them what help I need. I’ve practiced elbowing my way to the main speaker, and I’ve practiced waiting politely for other people to talk to the main speaker first. I’ve practiced talking to people who intimidate me.
In fact, I intentionally seek out people who intimidate me so I can practice not being intimidated. I don’t seek out people who threaten me physically, of course, but we all have those people who we see as having “status”. At first, it was any male who was over a certain height and weight. Then it was people who had better titles on their business cards. Etc, etc. Sometimes I get lucky, for example, I studied my MBA with someone who was the Jordanian Consul. For 2 years, I had to talk to him as if he were just a normal, regular human being. In fact, we stayed friends, so I had to keep acting like he was just normal, regular human being even after I finished my degree. As I got used to interacting with people of “status”, it became easier.
How do I get status and authority?
Have you noticed yet that “status” can be instant and fleeting? The speaker who quoted me, Sue Bevington, is the Corporate Vice President of HR at Microsoft. At the moment she was on stage, she had a certain status, but when you look at it, neither of us is objectively more accomplished than the other. We are on totally different paths, and we are both successful professionals.
Just 2 weeks before, I gave a workshop to a group of 160 entrepreneurs over 45—people I consider to be precisely my peers. During the Q&A they asked me all kinds of questions. It took me several minutes to recognize that they were asking me these questions by virtue of my “authority” as the speaker. I was not objectively more authoritative than anyone in the room. All I had on them was that I was the one holding the clicker and speaking into the mic.
I’m telling you all this so you can become a better networker. If you missed it, 4 paragraphs above, I gave you the list of every skill you need to expand your network and meet the people you need for success in any area of your life.
Practice these skills
Here’s that list again. Practice these things:
- Putting yourself in situations where you can meet people (including by e-mail or phone).
- Walking up to total strangers.
- Asking people who they are/what they do.
- Giving your pitch.
- Taking genuine interest in others.
- Finding out how you can help others (and doing it).
- Stating clearly and specifically what would be of help to you.
- Talking to people who intimidate you as if they are your peers and/or friends.
Anyone can learn this.
In the beginning, there was suckiness
Remember, at the beginning you suck.
Every time you mess up or don’t do it right, just think of it as practice
What if I get nervous?
If you get nervous, say you are excited!
As noted above, I have no special immunity to emotional states, but I know how to name them. Nervous or scared? Nope! I just call it “excited”. Adrenalin by any other name would smell as sweet.
Monday I presented to a room full of poker-faced (male) investors. After the presentation, my gracious co-founder, Ofer, asked “Weren’t you nervous?” Apparently I look a lot better than I feel.
You are good enough, right now
I never beat myself up if I screw up an interaction or miss an opportunity.
Every experience is training. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed the opportunity to meet someone because I thought I could wait until a more appropriate time. I got burned over and over, until I trained myself never to say “later” when it comes to speaking to anyone who is in front of me right now. “Now” goes by very quickly. Whoops, there it goes.
When you miss an opportunity, look at what you want to improve and get feedback. Ask someone you respect what they would have done. Get the training, get the feedback, and get better.
Never beat yourself up about it. Never say you are “bad” at something. You are learning and you are improving.
There are some things you can outsource to others. Networking isn’t one of them. So get out there and practice today.
Any other networking tips? Add your comments and questions below!
Great post, Rebecca! Clear, practical and helpful. Thanks!