Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count
The former Google executive, editorial director of Twitter, and self-described introvert offers networking advice for anyone who has ever cancelled a coffee date due to social anxiety — about how to nurture a vibrant circle of reliable contacts without leaving your comfort zone.
Networking has garnered a reputation as a sort of necessary evil in the modern business world. Some do relish the opportunity to boldly work the room, introduce themselves to strangers, and find common career ground — but for many others, the experience is often awkward, or even terrifying.
The common networking advice for introverts are variations on the theme of overcoming or “fixing” their quiet tendencies. But Karen Wickre is a self-described introvert who has worked in Silicon Valley for 30 years. She tells you to embrace your true nature to create sustainable connections that can be called upon for you to get — and give — career assistance, advice, introductions, and lasting connections.
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- The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine
Karen’s “embrace your quiet side” approach is for anyone who finds themselves shying away from traditional networking activities, or for those who would rather be curled up with a good book on a Friday night than out at a party. For example, if you’re anxious about that big professional mixer full of people you don’t know, she advises you to consider skipping it (many of these are not productive), and instead set up an intimate, one-on-one coffee date. She tells how to truly make the most out of social media to sustain what she calls “the loose touch habit” to build your own brain trust to last a lifetime.
With compelling arguments and creative strategies, this new way to network is perfect not only for introverts, but for anyone who wants for a less conventional approach to get ahead in today’s job market.
Taking the Work Out of Networking — 1 — Unleashing the Introvert’s Secret Power
The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some, it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk.
The notion of networking as needing to be “on”—to shake every hand and capture every soul (for a minute, anyway)—is something we tend to think extroverts do well, and introverts—not so much. But when it comes to making connections, introverts may have the upper hand. You don’t have to change who you are or concoct a phony-feeling persona to meet people easily.
Let’s take a moment to review what “introvert” really means. In the 1920s, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung developed his theory of psychological types, noting that “Each person seems to be energized more by either the external world (extraversion) or the internal world (introversion).” Much more recently, the Urban Dictionary built on that idea: “Contrary to popular belief, not all introverts are shy. Some may have great social lives and love talking to their friends but just need some time to be alone to ‘recharge’ afterwards.”
That part about recharging is key. As Jung observed, extroverts typically gain energy from being in a crowd—a party, a game, concert, hopping from one gathering to another. Those of us at the other end of the spectrum need quiet time to regroup, think, plan, and dream. I’m not alone, I’m sure, in mentally calculating how long it will be till I can get away from the crowd. No matter how lovely a time I’m having at a group event, I always look forward to being back home.
Another mark of the introvert is the ability to be comfortable being quiet, which is often misunderstood. As a thoughtful and introspective teenager, my goal was to observe and eavesdrop on adult conversations. When my parents had guests over, I was intrigued by the sotto voce remarks they would make later, speculating about the (unspoken) troubles they knew their friends were having. Nothing had been uttered at the table, of course, which led me to understand that human experiences run much deeper than polite company revealed. I began to feel like an anthropologist—the outsider studying the group with a cool eye, never fully joining in.
I’m convinced that all of these qualities, which introverts seem to share—feeling like an outsider, being an observer, curiosity about the stories and situations of others—inform how I’ve made my way through life. (As one scholarly study put it, “An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged—taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak.”) I think this ability to observe and assess are some of my best assets, and maybe they’re yours, too. Whether you’re shy, humble, self-effacing, insecure, or simply hate the stereotype of networking, I want to encourage you to make the most of your own personal style in order to build your own brain trust—to start from where you are.
My long-held theory is that introverts (and other unassuming people) are well suited to building a strong web of connections because of some distinctive characteristics we share, such as these:
• We’re good at listening. When I meet someone for the first time, I make a game out of getting them to talk first—to give up more personal information than I give. That may sound cold, but it gives me time to size them up, to assess my ability to trust them. If I get a good feeling, then I’ll open up (a little). This is a key tactic: ask questions first. You learn to sort out how much you want to invest in another person when they’re talking to (or at) you. It’s much more important to use your listening skills than to jump in to talk. And once you’ve listened, you will have options about where or how far to go in what you say.
• We’re keen observers. Even though feeling like an outsider might seem isolating, the fact that you don’t take up all the social space (as some of our extrovert friends can do) lets others reveal who they are as you take it all in. I have a lifelong habit of observing people—what can I deduce about them from a personal meeting or from sitting across from them on the subway? Who seems excitable, self-assured, angry, depressed—and why? When I meet someone, I tend to remember a few distinctive things about them—their interests, hometown, personal style, alma mater—that help me approach people right where they are. And this skill is so beneficial to connecting with someone else. You put yourself into the mind-set of another, which puts them at ease and helps you forge a meaningful encounter.
• We’re curious. When you feel like an outsider, you assume others have mastered life—connecting with people, navigating choices, pursuing a path—in ways you have not. Keen observers tend to put those observations to work. As a quiet kid, I was always curious about how other people navigated the world, and especially how they seemed to fit in, where I didn’t feel like I did. (A blessing, of sorts, about adulthood: you learn that very few people actually feel like they fit right.)
These abilities—listening, observing, being curious—are wonderful tools for connecting with people. And here’s the thing: none of them requires you to be in the limelight. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a successful career, of course.
For more than twenty years, Judy Wert has led her own executive recruiting firm in New York for companies in search of creative leadership. If you think a search consultant must be super-outgoing to succeed, meet Judy, who considers herself an introvert. She thinks of herself as a kind of “gentle provocateur” who plays a long game, professionally, out of necessity. Headhunters and recruiters must always meet new people to keep in mind for future client needs. She’s intentionally kept her firm small to employ a high-touch approach driven by her relationships across her global network.
A visual designer, Judy morphed her design tools into a new “medium of people,” which has made Wert&Co. “the story of people and conversations.” She has tracked these ongoing conversations through her proprietary custom-designed database—built long before LinkedIn or Salesforce—which is a repository for the thousands of people she’s met. It’s not unusual for her to follow up years later about an opportunity with an individual she met only once.
When I think of Judy, I think of someone whose work revolves around the qualities I’ve mentioned here: curiosity, observation, listening. She describes her process of matching people to positions as one of “strategic intuition”—a sensibility that captures the kind of calibration, internal and external, that introverts know very well. I admit to some bias here: I think introverts are more attuned to the steady thrum of needs, desires, secrets, and worries most people experience. That awareness informs our understanding of others, for the better.
It’s this notion that helps us think more roundly (and smartly) about who would be the right one for an open position, and more broadly, the right person to critique your resume; to be the executor of your will; the right friend with whom to enjoy the latest action movie or dive bar; the best brainstormer to develop your food truck idea—and a thousand other things. You already have a sense of who’d you want for some of these things, through the recommendations of friends or previous experiences. The same skill works when you apply it to a wider array of contacts that can help you with many of the choices there are to make throughout your career, and indeed throughout life.
The combination of introversion and observation provides a great gift: the art of sizing people up. We can sense the makeup of someone pretty quickly: are they needy, clueless, boastful, nervous? Do they evoke equilibrium, curiosity, good humor? Sensing such qualities means that you have a good grip on what to ask or expect of anyone you meet—and that’s a handy skill as you continue to build your network.
TRY IT OUT: Exercise Your Introvert Powers
Here are three exercises to warm you up to the idea of using your abilities to help grow your web of connections. Give them a try! I think you’ll find that people will feel good as a result of your effort, and you’ll learn things you can draw on later with them or others.
Ask questions first.
Next time you’re having coffee with someone you don’t know well (or at all—a coworker, friend of friend, fellow conference-goer), prompt them to tell you their story first. This works well by phone, too.
Your opening line can be as simple as:
“We’ll get to me, but first I would love to hear how you [like working at company X] or [have made your mark in X field or specialty or accomplishment]. ”
“I’m still thinking about that conference/speaker. What has stayed with you from that talk?”
Especially if you are trying to find work in their company or industry, follow that with an invitation that’s a question:
“How did you get into company X?”
“How long have you held job Y?”
“Do you enjoy profession Z?”
Put your curiosity to work.
Curiosity is a mental skill, something you activate whether or not you’re meeting in person. When you are having an informational meeting (including by phone or video chat) with someone from the company or field you’re interested in, do your homework to make the best use of their time and yours by jumping right to the heart of what you’re there to do. After initial pleasantries, for example, tailor your opening gambit to the kind of topic you’re pursuing:
“What I want to know is, how did you get the cat out of the chimney?!” (Referencing what you saw on their Instagram feed; an icebreaker that shows you’re paying attention to what they’re about.)
“What was it like to be at Google in the early years?” (You learned this from LinkedIn.)
“Do you enjoy writing regularly?” (You read their site, newsletter, or blog.)
Be a keen observer.
Where curiosity is largely mental, observation is more physical. It works best in person and has great value when you’re meeting someone new. Part of being a keen observer is how well you can put your new contact at ease (more often than guaranteeing a solid connection), and part of it is gathering your own sense of him or her.
Some ways to work observation into the conversation:
“Your glasses are so great—do you collect them?” (Clothing can be too personal to call out at a first meeting, but glasses or shoes are fairer to compliment.)
“How do you like your phone cover/battery/notepad/pen?” (Which accessories they keep nearby tells you a bit about them.)
Some things to consider during your conversation:
Are they ill at ease and fidgety, or do they seem relaxed and comfortable?
Are they strictly business, or do they reveal a bit about themselves, their preferences, or quirks?
Your observational powers are also very helpful in group meetings:
Ever notice the one person who is always the naysayer, or the interrupter?
The “meeting after the meeting” person who can only debrief later?
Who always has time for a friendly personal word, and who doesn’t?
What you observe gives you an extra sense of understanding of others, and that can make your connections work more smoothly—simply based on who they show you they are.
“Karen Wickre may be the best-connected Silicon Valley figure you’ve never heard of, widely regarded in tech as a champion networker. Now she reveals in highly readable, practical terms how anyone can create and sustain a network painlessly, and why it matters. This book can change your career, and your life.” — Walt Mossberg, former columnist and conference producer for the Wall Street Journal, AllThingsDigital, and Recode
“Karen Wickre has taken a lifetime of learning and put it into a practical, easy-to-use book that people of all stripes and backgrounds will find useful. (And by the way: it’s not only for introverts!)”—Sree Sreenivasan, former Chief Digital Officer of New York City, Columbia University, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Listen to Karen Wickre. Taking the Work Out of Networking will make you a better questioner, observer, relationship-nurturer, and, yes—a networker for all the right reasons.” —Blair Shane, Chief Marketing Officer, Sequoia Capital
“If you believe relationships are the bedrock of both adventure and achievement, then you must read this book. Step by step, concept by concept, Karen shares her wisdom on how to build a community of relationships that help you change the world.” —Keith Yamashita, founder and chairman, SYPartners
“Most of us dread the awkward phone calls to strangers and the transactional nature of what we think of as ‘networking.’ Karen Wickre recasts the notion completely—and extremely usefully—in terms of connections, friendships and reciprocity. A very user-friendly tool for those of us introverts masquerading as extroverts.” —Amanda Bennett, journalist and author
“So many of us dislike or even fear the transactional nature of traditional networking. Karen Wickre has done a great service by showing how it’s possible to make genuine connections that last, that we can nurture across the world for all kinds of purposes.”—Chris Anderson, Head of TED and author of TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking
“In a world of social media, a meaningful conversation is a memorable thing. Karen Wickre reminds us that the ability to put your phone in your pocket, look a person in the eye, and really connect is not only one of life’s great pleasures—it is the key to succeeding in your career.”—Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor
“Pragmatic and thoughtful, Karen Wickre shows how networking can move from being transactional to being transformational in your life. Taking the Work Out of Networking gives you the know-how to connect with the know-who. This is one of the best ‘read it in the morning, use it in the afternoon’ career guides I’ve ever read, especially in our social media era.”—Chip Conley, author of Wisdom @ Work: The Making of a Modern Elder
“Karen Wickre has long been an powerful but unsung resource for tech industry insiders seeking career advice. In this charming book, she shares the powerful secrets that will allow introverts–and everyone else–to organically network in the workplace, for better jobs and a more satisfying work life.” —Steven Levy, author of In the Plex
“Taking the Work Out of Networking is a networking game-changer. Karen Wickre reveals how anyone—even the introverts dreading their social obligations—can make strides in their career by building meaningful connections in a thoughtful, diligent way.”—Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth
“People will always be moving and changing jobs, but the value of human connection doesn’t change. Karen Wickre shows how ‘loose touch’ interactions can make your life better. If you’re an introvert, you will find help making connections in ways that don’t feel forced or artificial. If you know an introvert, this book makes a good gift.” —Matt Cutts, former Googler
“For introverts who panic at the idea of networking, Wickre’s book is a deep, calming breath. You can do it.”—Sophia Dembling, author of The Introvert’s Way and Introverts in Love
“Networking is essential for business success, yet many still dread it. Prepare to change your mind. Karen Wickre’s inspired new book shows readers how to embrace their true selves while building an authentic, sustainable network.”—Dorie Clark, adjunct professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of Stand Out Networking and Reinventing You
“Practical, delightful read… Full of insights and helpful tips, especially regarding social media, this is the perfect book for anyone in the midst of a career transition or considering one.”
—Ted.com, “TED’s winter reading list”
Silicon Valley veteran Karen Wickre is the former Editorial Director at Twitter, where she landed after a decade-long career at Google. An advisor to startups and a lifelong information seeker, she is a member of the Board of Visitors for the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University, and serves on the boards of the International Center for Journalists, the News Literacy Project, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She has been a featured columnist for Wired.com and is a cofounder of Newsgeist, an annual conference fostering new approaches to news and information. She is the author of Taking the Work Out of Networking and lives in San Francisco.