Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is known for launching cars and rockets—sometimes, cars in rockets. He has described himself as “an introverted engineer,” adding, “it took a lot of practice and effort to be able to go up on stage and not just stammer basically…. As the CEO, you kind of have to.”
Other wildly successful businessmen, among them Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, are also considered introverts, which might seem antithetical to the public demands placed on them (and on others in similar positions). Their roles require that they put themselves out there, that they build relationships and networks.
That such titans of industry have succeeded indicates that introverts are fully capable of both putting their best foot forward when the situation demands it and building their personal brands. They just do it different from how extroverts tend to.
Introverts are more likely to be methodical, to follow a plan, to build their networks one contact at a time.
Here are four lessons that can be learned from successful introverts about networking.
1. Build on your current network
Micah Baldwin, a self-described introvert and the executive director of Seattle-based entrepreneurial center Create33, told Huffpost that when he surveys a room at a business conference, he divides people into three groups: friends, people he wants to meet, and people he doesn’t. He gravitates to his friends in hopes that they know the people with whom he wants to connect.
The lesson here is simple: Your current network can serve as a foundation to build upon. Start with former colleagues or classmates you haven’t spoken with in a while, whether it’s old bosses, alums, or neighbors. Get in touch. Find out what they’re doing. You don’t have to start afresh just because you’ve decided to be more serious about networking. Use the snowball philosophy: Leverage the small network you already have, nurture it, and gradually grow it into a massive, dense list of quality connections.
Researchers who authored a Thomson Reuters whitepaper found that one of the most important contributors to success is the ability to network strategically. Rather than hosing down everyone they meet with business cards and banalities, the most successful people take the initiative to methodically seek out potentially important contacts.
Baldwin has a tried-and-true approach when he reaches out to a friend familiar with a desired connection. First, he picks the brain of his friend to learn about the contact so he can hold as substantive a conversation as possible. Second, he keeps the conversation with the new connection short, in hopes of continuing it at some point in a smaller venue. And, last, he leaves the conference after making only one or two new acquaintances, since introverts have only so much stomach for such interactions.
There is a considerable difference between swapping business cards and strategy-driven networking such as Baldwin’s. The latter means creating mutually beneficial relationships that you’re willing to work on. You’ll need intent and focus, but eventually the effort will pay off.
Before you start networking, you have to know what you want––that’s how you narrow down your list. Connect yourself with people who can teach you something. Be willing to learn and grow. Spend time with people you enjoy who share common goals.
3. Be proactive
Notice how the word “work” goes into “network”? You need to put in real time if you’re going to build a robust network. A strong relationship needs communication, patience, and trust, with the last piece being a combination of the first two.
You can’t build trust overnight. It takes time and constant communication. But once it’s established, you’ll know you have a strong relationship.
Newsgeist co-founder Karen Wickre, who has also worked at Twitter and Google, recommends keeping in “loose touch” with various contacts over time—sending a text here, an email there—just to keep the lines of communication open. The example she offers is of a PR staffer she met through a former Google colleague. The two of them had only a single face-to-face meeting, but they kept in touch, which in time resulted in a business opportunity for Wickre.
Investors like to work with companies they know, but not necessarily because of nepotism, notes Evan Baehr. “Investors in early-stage companies are not only evaluating your business acumen,” he writes. “They’re assessing your personal characteristics as well.” If it’s the first meeting and you’re already asking for money, it can sour a potentially great relationship. The best time to meet potential future investors is when you’re not raising money.
When you decide to create your network, beware of the temptation to focus on people who are just like you, career-wise. Be willing to explore new territories. Effective networking isn’t just about finding common interests: It means meeting new and different people, which very well may take you out of your comfort zone.
A research report by University of Chicago Booth School of Business states, “Indeed, it might not be who or what you know that creates advantage, but rather more simply, who you become by dint of how you hang out––the disadvantaged hang out with folks just like themselves, while the advantaged engage folks of diverse opinion and practice.”
You’re not looking for your next best friend; you’re looking for people with whom you can grow professionally. That means you need something that you can bring to the table for the other party. Networking is not a one-way relationship; you want it to be mutually beneficial. And as you build up your network, your connectedness in and of itself can be valuable to the relationship: People will admire you not only for what you do but also for whom you know.
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