Networking for introverts


Why networking is one of the most important skills leaders should develop and how to get started when you're an introvert

The lockdown should have been an introvert’s paradise. Those who cherished their time alone at home were already experts at voluntary self-isolation and now, it had become a civic duty. But for some reason, after the initial adjustment days, our calendars have become full again. Well, that’s actually completely normal. As human beings, we are naturally drawn to each other, and this attraction is even stronger when facing a stressful situation. But when you’re an introvert, you don’t necessarily feel that much attracted to other human beings. And if you’re a computer programmer, not too surprisingly, you are probably an introvert. Being an introvert myself, I’ve always been careful to always have enough alone time during the day and, as a consequence, my social network was quite small. But that was until I realised that my network, my social capital, would actually be the foundation for all opportunities in my career.

Why is networking important?

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “networking”? That’s exactly the question Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter, two business school professors, asked a cohort of 30 managers they followed for 2 years. And, like you, these managers felt that networking was “insincere”, “manipulative” or that it was an “unpleasant task of trading favours with strangers”. Networking—creating a fabric of personal contacts who will provide support, feedback, insight, resources, and information—is simultaneously one of the most self-evident and one of the most dreaded developmental challenges that aspiring leaders must address. But at the same time, when leaders put the “work” in networking, they realise that it can have a positive impact on their careers.

In a field experiment, Ronald S. Burt and Don Ronchi tried to verify the famous saying "It's Not What You Know. It's Who You Know". They took a control group and an intervention group of managers and trained the intervention group on the idea of social capital. Burt and Ronchi found that participants from the intervention group were 36-42% more likely to receive top performance evaluations and 43-72% more likely to be promoted!

On a personal level, who you surround yourself with has an even bigger impact. If you thought that you’re “the average of your 5 closest friends”, it actually goes far beyond 5 people, and research suggests it might even include people you haven’t even met yet. In a study on the effect of family members and friends on obesity, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discovered that if a friend of yours becomes obese, you yourself are 45 percent more likely to gain weight over the next two to four years. More surprisingly, however, the data showed that if a friend of your friend becomes obese, your likelihood of gaining weight increases by about 20 percent — even if you don’t know that friend of a friend.

Friend of a friend of a friend

So let’s say I just sold you on the idea of networking. This doesn’t remove the fact that networking is a discomforting activity, especially when you’re an introvert like me. I mean, who loves distributing business cards in a conference to perfect strangers? But it doesn’t have to be like this. According to David Burkus, the author of Friend of a Friend…, the best way to approach networking is to pay attention to the network that is already around you and act accordingly. Said differently, it’s about knowing who’s a friend, and who’s a friend of a friend. And you have many more friends than you realise. I’m talking about what sociologists call weak ties. They’re the friends you used to be closed with but haven’t talked to for a long time.  And you don’t have to wait for the next high school reunion to reconnect with them. Make a list of 5 people you haven’t talked to in a while and reach out. Since we’re all in lockdown right now, it’s the perfect time to check on them.

These kinds of loose-touch moments actually serve as connective tissue and a marker of your ongoing relationship. By just spending 10 minutes a day on loose touch can keep you connected with a lot of people. And if you’re an introvert, you’re actually wired for these kinds of interactions: we have the ability to listen, we’re great visual observers and we tend to be curious about other people. The key to forging great relationships is to be there for others, not keep asking favours or get in touch when we need something. Of course, spending too much time on loose touch can result in a proliferation of invitations, questions and coffee dates you don’t want. At some point, I was saying yes to every meeting opportunity and ended up having 5 to 6 “coffees” per day 😅On top of having too much caffeine at the end of the day, I ended up having little to no time for real work. Make sure relationship building doesn’t become a burden so you can still schedule deep work sessions during your week.

In summary

  • Networking is one of the most important skills leaders should develop
  • Research shows that your social capital has an enormous impact on your career and you personally
  • While introverts might feel that networking is not for them, they’re actually even better wired for relationship building being great listeners, visual observers and curious about others
  • The key to overcoming your fears about networking is to practice a little bit every day, reaching out especially to current and old friends

Additional resources

If you’re interested to get more content about networking, I recommend the following resources:

📖Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert's Guide to Making Connections That Count- by Karen Wickre, the former Editorial Director at Twitter

📄How Leaders Create and Use Networks- a Harvard Business Review article by Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter

💻How To Hack Networking- a TEDx Talk by David Burkus, the author of Friend of a Friend…Understand the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career