I admit, I used to be the worst at this. Networking appeared to be artificial, forced conversations that this introvert had no interest in being a part of. I did not get it. What was the big deal? I have my family, my friends, my colleagues. That's all I need, right?
Wrong. So, so wrong.
Networking can be uncomfortable, it can push your boundaries and it can be the best thing you ever do for yourself and your career.
Before I knew better, networking seemed like scenarios of awkward small talk around those god-awful super small round cocktail tables with no chairs. Uncomfortable, unnatural and yet common. It was a way to meet people on superficial levels, for reasons I did not really understand. Add this to my introvert tendencies and honestly, I would have rather watched Netflix at home by myself then to go "network."
Then I moved to Nebraska. I was starting a new job at a University in a city where I essentially knew no one. There were no connections to rely on, no close knit group of friends to gather with for dinner. No mentors to help advise me. I knew I needed to get uncomfortable and *gulp* network.
I wasn't sure what to do or where to start. So, I committed to networking in 4 ways.
- For people I met who were personable, engaging and with whom I had a way to contact in follow-up, I asked to meet with over coffee or lunch to get to know them more. For those who were seemed aloof or abrasive initially, I decided to defer until either we had met multiple times in professional settings or there was a distinct need for the meet. I had to start somewhere, people that are easy to talk to make networking easy. Go for the low-hanging fruit.
- I signed up for every medical social event I saw listed and could attend. And I showed up.
- I embraced networking via social media. I joined groups on Facebook, starting chatting on LinkedIn and re-established myself on Twitter.
- To meet others outside of my immediate circle and to improve my ability to start a "cold" conversation (talking to someone out of the blue without prior introduction or connection), I started a side hustle completely unrelated to my normal professional realm but still within my own interests.
Truth is, none of these were easy, but social media was the easiest of the uncomfortable, uncertain networking arenas. Despite the discomfort, the uncertainty of whether or not I was doing it right or this was working, I kept on plan for over a year. In fact, I am still doing all of these except the side hustle which served it's purpose for me and now exists sheerly for fun.
Honestly, I could write a book on the impacts, both personally & professionally.
I made new friends. I became increasingly comfortable chatting with strangers; moving past the awkward small talk to really getting to know someone by asking great questions and then answering them myself. This left me more vulnerable, as I had to learn to share more about myself, but at the same time I learned that vulnerability is often and under-appreciated asset. I became more engaged in the community. I developed professional connections that have led to friendships, collaborations and opportunities faster than I could have imagined. I visited coffee shops, restaurants and traveled into different areas of the city I may not have otherwise seen. I learned that once you have a network you can leverage that by reaching out and asking for help, mentorship, sponsorship or opportunities - as long as you are willing to also give back when called upon.
I now have a network that extends far beyond my institution, city and state. The greatest difference though is personal. I went from dreading networking to loving it. I am better because of the concerted effort. I am more confident in myself and in my ability to help others as a mentor. I built a skillset strong enough that at a conference this last year, an acquaintance caught me of guard with a comment on how lucky I am to be naturally good at networking. Insert sarcastic laugh - Oh you have no idea how much work "naturally good" has entailed.
So, to answer the question - needless or necessity, absolutely necessity. Networking will push you personally and professionally. At times, it will be uncomfortable; some people will not want to talk with you. That is normal. Press on. I promise, the effort you put in will pay dividends you cannot imagine.