Robert, an IT manager in his 40s, e-mailed hundreds of job applications before he finally sought the help of a career coach in desperation to find another job. Jennifer, a graduate looking to leave the family business to advance her career, would rather respond to advertised vacancies than call her friend who works in recruitment. These are shy people, who prefer to take the traditional approach to job search, contacting potential employers via e-mail. It gives them a sense of security - they can take time to craft their message and they’ll never be caught out without the answer to a tough question.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are prone to shyness too. Many of us are introverted types; we prefer the company of our own ideas and thoughts and recharge by spending time alone or with family and close friends. Many highly successful senior executives are introverts, and avoid networking, or hide behind their company name or job title at formal functions rather than present who they really are. It feels safer that way. But can we really avoid networking when we are looking for a new job, or a promotion, or wanting to identify new career opportunities?
Simon, general manager in Asia Pacific for a UK-based manufacturing company for ten years, admitted he’d not taken the time to develop a professional network in Singapore. When he was retrenched, he turned first to headhunters, but after a frustrating six months, he realised that building relationships with his peers in other industries was a far more effective strategy. Attending corporate functions was never his style, but meeting one-on-one with the right people was instrumental in him landing a new job in Jakarta.
Sending out applications for advertised vacancies makes logical sense, especially when you’re a fresh graduate, but frequently your resume lands in the company’s human resources office, where it’s as likely to gather dust as reach the person with the power to hire you. Talking to recruiters may give you valuable information about the latest hot jobs, but what if your experience doesn’t match what they’re looking for? They may promise to ‘keep your details on file’ but what are really your chances of being picked from a database of hundreds if not thousands of potentials? Such methods result in only an estimated one-quarter of all new positions.
Surveys and anecdotal evidence prove that the majority of successful job hunters get there because of who they know, not what they know. Or, put another way, they make use of ‘word-of-mouth endorsements’. Put simply, people at the top look for personal recommendations, whether they’re buying a car, life insurance or recruiting new people. Connecting with likely ‘hiring managers’ through people you already know then, is the primary desired outcome of networking.
So is shyness really a handicap when it comes to getting results from networking? The somewhat surprising answer is that in fact, shy networkers are often the most effective. Why? Because networking is not a frenzied quest to collect as many name cards as possible in a given time frame. Nor is it about calling everyone you know and asking them if they have a job for you. In fact it’s about being selective and getting to know people over time. Would you feel comfortable giving a personal recommendation for someone you had just met? No, of course not. You’d want to get to know them first, probably in both professional and personal settings. So ideally networking begins long before you need a job. It starts when you use shared interests to develop and maintain mutually beneficial relationships.
What does mutually beneficial mean? It means it’s not about asking your seniors for favours. You can only ask for so many favours before you become an annoyance. Take the time to consider what you can offer your contacts. No matter that they are more senior than you; there are lots of ways you can contribute to them. Avoid buying gifts, even if it’s for their kids - that looks like bribery. Instead, explore professional interests and hobbies. Would they enjoy receiving a copy of an article on a current business issue? Hearing about an event where they might meet potential clients? What about tickets to a cultural or sporting event or perhaps a friendly invitation to play tennis or golf?
Have your networking strategies reflect who you really are and what you enjoy. So don’t take up a sport simply because you’ve heard that it’s a good way to network. Manjinder loved attending talks and seminars on the niche technology area in which he specialized, but at big cocktail events with hundreds of people he felt nervous and lost. He could push himself to go along anyway, but what would be the point? He might collect a few name cards, but they would probably not be people who share his interest and he’d be unlikely to maintain a relationship with them. Time spent at a seminar with only 20 like-minded ‘computer geeks’ would be a far better choice of networking strategy for him, even if he only gets to talk to say, five of them.
Meeting a hundred people in one night might sound like a very efficient way to network, but for most people it isn’t. Calling a few people every week and having breakfast or coffee with them might sound like a laborious method, but it’s one used by a friend of mine who happens to be a highly successful insurance agent. He also sends birthday cards to all his clients. Maybe his success in business has got something to do with the fact that he takes the time to see people individually and even remember their birthdays. Frankly, he makes his clients feel special. How could you use that approach to build contacts that won’t just get you a great job, but will support you in developing a successful career?
Five Top Tips for Shy Networkers
1. Volunteer behind the scenes with a professional association or other organisation. That way you get to meet and talk to new people through your volunteer role, and you also get to demonstrate what you can do without having to talk about it.
2. Remember that listening is more important than talking. Your ability to value what other people say is critical to building meaningful long-term relationships. Maintain the strong bonds you have and keep in regular contact with people.
3. Hook into your passions, the topics, people, industries and fields which you find fascinating. Talk about the things you care about, and you’ll forget your initial networking jitters.
4. Plan what you want to say before you call anyone. You won’t read from your script exactly, but it will help you practice talking about yourself in a positive way and you can experiment with different approaches until you find one that feels natural. If you are more comfortable meeting face-to-face, focus on getting to do just that.
5. Take time to research the events that are most likely to attract the kinds of people you want to meet. Then maximize the value of attending by being knowledgeable about the topic area and following up with the people you met a few days later.