Networking Tips for Workplace Wallflowers

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I was in Chicago yesterday covering a conference. My job there involved walking up to strangers in an unfamiliar if not totally hostile setting, introducing myself, and engaging them in intimate conversation. This is, in fact, pretty much what a lot of my job entails.

There was a time when the prospect would make me sweat like a sumo wrestler. Even though I’m not shy, I was raised in a culture that places high value on privacy and respect. And here I found myself in a line of work that required treading, deliberately and frequently, on other people’s space and lives.

It took me years of practice to overcome my mortification. I just kept doing it and doing it until one day I realized the prospect didn’t frighten me in the least.

Early on, I developed little tricks. For instance, I’d spend a lot of time settling on my targets. And I’d set goals. When I was reporting in Japan, where man-on-the-street interviewing is akin to flashing in public, I’d stare at a crowd to pinpoint friendly looking strangers least likely to shriek and run away. I’d talk to men first, as for some reason they seemed more approachable. I’d smile–a lot. I’d tell myself at the beginning of a reporting excursion: get three interviews. Then I’d work up to five. Then 10.

Yesterday, I needed no such tricks. I accosted dozens of strangers with ease and got my job done beautifully. If I may say so myself.

Even if your job doesn’t involve prying private information from complete strangers, all of us have to associate with other people in unfamiliar situations–say, at an alumni networking party or a job fair. Fran O’Brien, chief underwriting officer for Chubb Insurance, was once a workplace wallflower of sorts. Not so today. O’brien hosts a monthly business forum for junior employees. She also meets with senior colleagues to advise them on advancement and development. In other words, she’s a poised executive who’s overcome her inner awkwardness.

She sent me a list of tips she uses to help younger colleagues handle networking, career advancement or interviewing situations. Here they are:

If you don’t know what you want, at least know what you like. “Where do you want to be in five years?” is hard to answer. Focus on answering this question: What aspects of the business do I really enjoy, and what do I want to learn more about? Look for jobs that focus on those aspects, then determine if they offer advancement.

Start safe. Find a person who does not intimidate you. Do some research on their background; find out if they have met with any of your peers and if there is any instruction they can share.

Don’t assume you know what’s best for you. Some people need to show their work to shine. You may need to take on a seemingly undesirable assignment that will groom you for future growth and give you the opportunity to work with others you normally would not.

Chatting about the weather isn’t enough. One lunch is not an automatic “pass go” to promotion, but it will give you a head start. Use networking opportunities to ask for advice about a specific business issue. And have your 30-second personal commercial ready: “These are the important business issues I am tackling this year.”

Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to approach senior executives who agreed to mentor you. It is part of their role to give you their time and attention. And understand it is your responsibility to make sure you manage the relationship.

Don’t box yourself in. Don’t label yourself while networking; avoid saying things such as, “I am not good with numbers,” or “my weakness is X.” Don’t limit yourself by saying all you want is to achieve a certain level or title. This is a surefire way to limit developmental opportunities once you’ve reached that short-term goal.

Multiply your knowledge base. To prepare for your networking opportunity, ask others about their efforts. When you go to lunch with a senior manager, share their likes, dislikes and pet projects with your networking colleagues. The more you know, the more you’ll grow.