If you’re not a natural networker, or you’re not comfortable introducing yourself in crowds, you might want to borrow one of my tricks: immersion networking. This isn’t something I’ve invented. It’s just the name I give to a process of meeting people and building relationships without relying on a pack of stick-on nametags.
Actually, the nametags can be pretty useful, at least at first. Here’s the premise: Instead of devoting time each month to briefly meeting people in group settings, look for ways to spend concentrated amounts of time with a limited number of people, preferably in settings where you can engage in conversations of some depth.
The results will be different and possibly more rewarding than meeting more people for shorter conversations. This isn’t a jaw-dropping concept if you think back to times when you’ve been immersed in prolonged situations with small groups of people. Remember summer camp, or the college dorm?
Of course, if those were unhappy situations for you, put those images aside. Instead, recall any time when you were engaged in an activity with others where the principle purpose was not networking. While you were focused on a task or project, what did you learn about each other? Whom did you build relationships with who might not otherwise have crossed your path?
In best-case scenarios, you would have met people outside your normal circle but with whom you found common ground. Perhaps you exchanged stories about your families or friends, or maybe you relied on each other’s skill sets while solving a problem.
I’ve experienced this phenomenon many times in my life, though usually not intentionally. Most recently I participated in an intense five-day trip with approximately 40 others to explore business and trade opportunities in Mexico. (I’ll provide more details about this trip in future columns).
While the intent of the trip wasn’t networking (at least, not so much with each other), and few of us were in the same occupations, the fact is that a lot of good conversations happened over meals and on bus rides to meetings. Over the course of those few days, I was able to learn about professions I hadn’t been exposed to, collect contact information for people I wouldn’t otherwise have met, and initiate friendships and business relationships that I feel relatively certain I’ll be able to rely on in the future – much as I plan on providing assistance to my new contacts if requested.
Anyone who’s tired of more structured networking scenarios or who feels intimidated by these processes can be a good candidate for an immersion experience. That said, if you’re currently seeking work and need to land something relatively soon, you’ll do better to increase your contacts and move quickly rather than diving deep with a small number of people.
Caveat aside, here are some ideas to help you identify an immersion networking opportunity that suits you.
Join a board. Most nonprofits are governed by relatively small boards that provide oversight and support to the paid staff. There’s a lot of variance in how this work is conducted but joining one of the committees will usually land you in a work group whose members soon come to know each other well.
If you want to ensure the contacts you make are closely aligned with your own career path, select a committee or board affiliated with your profession’s trade groups. Since shared experiences are your goal, choose carefully so you don’t end up in a solitary task.
Volunteer for a community project. Whether your group is conducting monthly park cleanups or getting together to influence local politics, bonding with neighbors offers the additional benefit of improving the place where you live.
Take a trip. This could be a major undertaking, such as a weeklong mission trip to another country, or a less complicated weekend spent biking for a charity. Whatever the case, by the end of the trip you’ll have shared laughs, meals and adventure – a great formula for building relationships.
However you choose to immerse yourself, you’ll still need to follow some networking basics if you want things to blossom outside the context of your shared project. For example, it would not be particularly welcome to focus conversations on your own career woes or hoped-for work opportunities. Instead, show genuine interest in each person’s work and family without concern for how they can help you. These are situations where the relationship comes first and the exchange of ideas or contacts will follow naturally.
If you keep track of the people you meet and feed the relationships with occasional emails or invitations to coffee, you’ll soon have a nice core of contacts and probably some budding friendships to boot.
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Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.