Gail Farnsley seems like a natural at networking.
She made it part of her regular work schedule while an IT executive, and it's now part of her current job in academia.
But Farnsley, a visiting professor at Purdue University's College of Technology in West Lafayette, Ind., says her networking skills didn't come easily. An introvert by nature, she says she was sick with nerves the first time she had to speak to the board of directors at one of her former employers.
Nearly everyone has been unnerved at some time or another when meeting new people. But those who are introverted, shy or both usually have a more difficult time than others when faced with networking, says Naomi Karten, principal of Karten Associates in Randolph, Mass., and author of the e-book How to Survive, Excel and Advance as an Introvert.
"In general, introverts are less likely to initiate a conversation," she says. That can be a significant disadvantage in the business world, where career success and advancement come from building solid relationships, she says. With the recession in full swing, those key connections are even more crucial.
Not to worry. Networking can be learned. Here are some steps for those who aren't naturally gregarious.
1. Develop the right mind-set
Keith Chuvala, a manager of space operations computing at Houston-based United Space Alliance LLC, a NASA contractor, doesn't like the term "networking."
"It has that connotation that if you're good at networking, you must be good at schmoozing. It always seemed the domain of the sales folks and the people who are naturally outgoing," notes Chuvala, who says he's no longer shy but still tends to be introspective and prefers to work on his own.
He has come to think of networking as creating and building relationships -- for him, a much more natural-sounding goal that can feel less offputting.
2. Set objectives
Career coaches usually list networking as a key way to find a new job, but that's just one of many reasons to do it. You might want to gain allies within your company to advance ideas or build support for a project, Karten says. You might need connections to find a mentor or for critical expertise when you're looking for a second opinion.
So consider what you want to get out of the activity and make a list of what you hope to achieve -- and use it to not only give your networking direction, but to give you motivation.
"For many introverts, having a purpose helps rationalize what they might not choose to do otherwise," Karten says.
3. Work your comfort zone
Matthew Kesner, CTO at Fenwick & West LLP, a law firm based in Mountain View, Calif., is fine addressing several hundred people. He's also comfortable socializing in really small groups. But he finds the in-between space, like cocktail parties, scary.
So, Kesner has learned to make the most of the times when he's comfortable to build relationships. Talking to a big crowd doesn't build personal connections, he acknowledges, but he seeks those opportunities in part because he meets people one-on-one afterward. "It has helped me introduce myself to a broad range of people," he explains.
So, work within your comfort zone, he says, adding that age, experience and introspection can help you pinpoint what works best for you vs. what makes you most nervous.
4. Seek out opportunities
Fiona Charles, owner and principal consultant of Toronto-based Quality Intelligence Inc., which consults on software testing and test management, says so-called networking events can sometimes turn out to be little more than people passing around r?sum?s.
Charles has found that groups or events focused on shared interests are much better for meeting people and developing ongoing bonds. These are what helped her get over her shyness, she says. "It gave me a context," she explains, "and it helps me set aside any social issues. I thought, 'I'm here and I'm representing a competency.' "
Karten suggests attending professional association meetings, where agendas and common work can lead to easier introductions and ongoing conversations.
But don't limit yourself to formal events, says Mike Vanneman, a partner at The Pachera Group, an executive search firm in Los Gatos, Calif.
"Go where you're going to be seen and recognized," he says. "So if you know there's a coffee shop frequented by people you want to meet and know, then go there. You have to take a bit of a social or personal risk to put yourself out there so you have a higher probability of meeting someone who can assist you."
5. Maximize social networking tools
A lot of barriers to striking up conversations disappear with online social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Plaxo, Vanneman says.
"Those are great vehicles for those who may be hesitant to make the initial phone call. They can send out a trial balloon or an e-mail to start the process," he says.
But you can't just set up a profile and expect results, Vanneman says. You must maximize the connections that these sites offer by actively updating your entries, joining groups that relate to your interests and work, and responding to updates posted by your connections.
Kesner says former colleagues have found him through Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Moreover, he says he's more likely to connect offline with the people in his network because of these sites. "I don't feel comfortable holding conversations using those tools, but they've prompted me to pick up the phone and set up a meeting over coffee or lunch or a drink," he says.
6. Offer something
Andre Gous, CEO and founder of Precision Quality Software Inc. in Fallon, Nev., speaks highly of one contact who sends him e-mails that include an online newspaper she reads, with the information she thinks he'll find interesting highlighted.
"It makes a tremendous impression on me," Gous says.
He also sees it as an important lesson in successful networking: Add value every time you touch someone, whether it's an article, a business lead or some information about a conference you think someone might like to attend.
"One of the things that I think about when I network is, What can I offer? I was never comfortable going into it saying, 'What do I want?' " Farnsley explains. "I think about, What can I contribute? What information can I e-mail them after a meeting? What information can I share?"
7. Commit the time
"For many introverts, it takes a commitment because we have a longtime habit of backing off and letting someone else take the lead," Karten says.
Farnsley counteracts that tendency by scheduling her networking time. When she was a CIO at Cummins Inc. in Columbus, Ind., she scheduled get-togethers over breakfast or lunch -- and she made sure she and her colleagues scheduled their next get-together before leaving. Because it was already on the calendar, Farnsley was committed to it. Otherwise, she says, she'd be more likely to postpone scheduling it.
Farnsley says that for those farther away, she schedules visits whenever she's in their region -- whether it's nearby Indianapolis and Chicago or farther-away places like California and China.
Although not everyone has such opportunities to travel, Vanneman says everyone should carve some time out regularly for networking. Use that time to send e-mails, make phone calls or look at your contacts' online profiles and their lists of contacts.
Says Vanneman, "You have to make it part of your daily business hygiene."
Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at email@example.com.
This story, "Schmoozing 101: Tips for Shy Techies" was originally published by Computerworld.