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.