When was the last time you attended a personal or professional networking meeting (personal networking meeting = party)? Did you go with someone or did you go alone? For many people, the thought of showing up alone to a room full of strangers is a very frightening thing. It definitely was for me just a couple years ago and I avoided it at all costs. I definitely fit the description of an introvert. I love my quiet time alone and recharge my batteries that way.

But then I needed to find a job in one of the worst job markets (this was the end of 2008). In the past I just got on the internet and in a relatively short period of time, I could find a great job. No networking required. I could happily stay in my comfort zone to get what I wanted. But not any more. Open positions for senior financial executives were drying up right and left as companies downsized and cut upper level positions. I was being told time and time again that the only way for someone looking for such a position to find one was to get out and start networking. At this point I decided to do whatever it took to get my next job so I started looking for places to network.

I showed up at my first meeting: a group of about 50 other finance executives, most of them also looking for jobs. I was scared. The thoughts racing through my head: What do I do? How do I talk to someone here? What do I say? Fortunately, everyone else in the room was either in my same shoes or knew exactly how I felt and were very welcoming. I introduced myself, made some conversation and traded business cards with a few people there. I still had sweaty palms when I left a couple hours later but I had made a start.

I repeated the same thing at another meeting a few days later. This time the group was much larger (about 200 people) and most of the people had jobs or their own businesses. They all seemed to have formed their own cliques which made it harder to introduce myself. Where to start? At the bar, of course. Almost everyone has to come there at some point and they come alone. This gave me the chance to at least stick out my hand and introduce myself without interrupting a conversation. I talked to a few people this way and then created a game. I told myself, “I’m going to walk up to the most interesting person in the room – someone who looks like the opposite of the kind of person I think I’m supposed to meet.” Within seconds, a man turned around to put his plate on a tray and we almost bumped into each other. He looked like the furthest thing from the type of person who could help me professionally. We introduced each other and he ended up being one of the most connected and helpful people in my professional network. Lesson: Don’t judge people by their looks.

I also took some advice and called some of the more interesting or connected people I had met at these meetings and asked them to meet for coffee. The more I did this, the more I realized that very few other people did this. Over the course of the next year I realized that many people think it’s hard to grow a network but it’s because they’re waiting for a network to come to them. And that just doesn’t happen unless you’ve already made a name for yourself. I had no name but had about a 90% success rate setting meetings with the people I called.

While it took much longer than I expected to find my next job, I began to enjoy the networking process. I had many days where I would sit in a Panera Bread from 9am to 5pm having coffee or lunch meetings, one after the other. The reason I enjoyed it and ended up creating a reputation as a great networker was that I loved hearing people’s stories.
I couldn’t stand the thought of the textbook networking meeting: Meet with someone who might know someone who can help you. Tell them a little about yourself. Politely listen while they tell you about them. Then ask them for three names of people who they know who might be able to help you. Not only is that boring, it doesn’t work. Why would a complete stranger open up their valuable contacts to you? What have you done for them to elicit any kind of trust? What have you done to grow your “know, like & trust” factor?

My one-on-one meetings usually went like this: Spend the first 10-15 minutes telling each other what we do, have done or are looking for professionally. This is usually the dry stuff. Then I would ask them: “If money weren’t an object and you could anything you wanted, what would you do?” That’s when it got fun. I had corporate directors of change management telling me how they would love to be organic farmers and buffalo ranchers, technical folks who wanted to camp full time with their families and others who wanted to start all kinds of wild and wonderful businesses. And then I would challenge them to consider how they could start living those dreams today. I had so much fun seeing people light up. After being so beaten down by the job market, you could see the life coming back to their eyes. At the end of the meeting, I would always wrap up by asking what I could do to support them. I never asked for their contacts. If someone had some contacts, they would openly give them to me without my asking and I was extremely grateful when they did.

When I did find my next job, I experienced an unexpected let down that I had to greatly curtail my networking meetings. For a while I kept at least 3 lunch meetings a week and one or two evening or breakfast meetings a month. But, over time, that got to be too much and took me away from my family much more than I wanted.

I look back at my networking evolution. From sweaty, shaking and nervous to calm and really looking forward to meeting new people. I still consider myself an introvert but I love helping people. I love seeing them light up when they talk about their passions. And I love showing them that it is possible to live a little or a lot of their passion now.

Author's Bio: 

Paige Burkes has spent over 20 years as a financial corporate executive working with small to mid-sized companies. During these years, she has used her intuitive knowledge of people along with her strategic business skills to empower and motivate teams to achieve their goals and move past perceived limitations. She has also worked with many individuals to take the baby steps necessary on a consistent basis to move toward their personal goals. She now uses these skills to coach others to achieve their goals and live the life of their dreams. You can receive inspiration for taking baby steps toward your own breakthrough at her blog at www.PaigeBurkes.com.