A few months ago, I read a Facebook post about networking from a woman who was briefly my boss 25 years ago. Karen Wickre was the executive director of a media non-profit whose newspaper I edited. She went on to work in senior positions at Google and Twitter. I went on to turn up my nose at working in tech—and, I’m realizing too late, making money. We’ve barely seen each other in the intervening years.
I couldn’t help replying to her post. “I loathe networking,” I wrote. “It strikes me as completely phony.” Indeed, I’ve spent my career avoiding any event where I’d have to put on a name tag and schmooze with people wearing pasted-on smiles and spiffy outfits who are looking over my shoulder to spot someone more important. Networking makes me feel like a loser, a fraud, and, mostly, bored. Say the word “network” and I head for the nearest exit.
Karen messaged me: “Maybe we should have coffee and talk about it.”
That stumped me. Why would this long-ago acquaintance with a glorious career in tech want to have coffee with me? What’s in it for her? Frankly, there wasn’t much in it for me, either, except that I’ve always admired her—she’s authentic and smart—and I love to chat with people who tickle my brain.
What Counts as Networking?
We met for coffee, caught up, and had a brief but deep discussion about the state of the media and what it means to be a “modern elder” these days. She sparked ideas for me, I fired a few back, and we both recommended books and people to each other. Then we turned to the topic at hand: my hatred of networking.
“But this is it,” she said. “We’re networking.”
“No,” I replied. “This is just coffee with someone I like. Completely different.”
Turns out, it’s not. Networking doesn’t have to be like speed dating at a conference, coming home to throw a pile of business cards into the recycling before gratefully diving into a good book.
Networking doesn’t have to be like speed dating at a conference.
“Networking is not a faceless mass of people you have to penetrate,” Karen said. “It’s a one-on-one strategy repeated many times. If you’re open to meeting new people and keep in loose touch with the ones you know, a lot of things turn up.”
I went home and read her new book, Taking the Work out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count (Touchstone). Usually, I hate how-to business books even more than I hate networking—they’re stiff and full of inane bullet points. But Karen had me hooked—not only because she’s a lively writer, but because despite knowing almost everyone in Silicon Valley, she, like me, is a species of introvert with a distaste for working a crowded room. We both appear to be outgoing, but, as Carl Jung observed about introverts, we’re more likely to get our energy from being alone than from being among other people.
Why We Have to Do It
Still, we live in a world where people change jobs frequently, and you can’t stay home and indulge in the “magical thinking,” as Karen puts it, that someone will call you up and offer you a new gig. That’s particularly true the older we get, when we may have been in one job for a long time, sneer at social media, and have rusty connections. Like it or not, if we want to work, we have to network.
Her guiding principle for no-pressure networking is ‘Nurture it before you need it.’
It turns out that being an introvert can actually be an advantage, Karen says. We’re not obsessed with talking about ourselves, so we tend to be good observers of people and curious about them (though I have little patience for people, especially men, who never ask me anything about myself). Introverts are also more comfortable reaching out to people in emails and online than in person, which is good in an age when so much networking is via social media. And the fact that we’re not trying to meet everyone but are seeking authentic, meaningful connections—quality over quantity—may be our best advantage of all.
In her book, Karen advocates keeping in loose contact with people, spending a little time every day checking in with a few via email or social media—or sometimes over coffee. This is a regular practice that never stops, “like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” she says. It doesn’t mean hours of screen time but rather a daily awareness of the people in your world.
How to Do It Better
A key to Karen’s loose-touch networking style is that it isn’t transactional. She didn’t need something from me to have coffee. As it turned out, I wanted to write an article about her book, but that was from genuine interest, not returning a favor. Her guiding principle for no-pressure networking is “Nurture it before you need it.” If you check in with friends every once in a while, they’ll also keep you in mind—perhaps when they hear about a gig or opportunity that would interest you.
When acquaintances ask for advice or to meet, ‘default to yes.’
The same goes with people who are “weak ties” like us—not really friends, but former colleagues. Other contacts on your periphery may be fellow dog-walkers, people from Pilates class, or friends of friends. These people can be helpful precisely because they’re not close and, as a result, have more varied and far-flung resources. You can bolster these connections by replying to their posts, complimenting their work, and making them feel they’re a part of your sphere. When weak ties ask for advice or to meet, “default to yes,” Karen says. And be willing to introduce people—but always make the context clear and intelligent, and always ask both parties before writing the email introduction.
Keeping connections—and tech skills—fresh is particularly important for people over 50, Karen says. Ageism is real, partly because it’s often more expensive to hire senior people and partly because, particularly in the tech world, companies are often focused on whatever is shiny and new. But age and experience are valuable, especially if you call out your skills, rather than years on the job.
Listening to the Master
Karen, who says she’s often been praised for her calm perspective and ability to “get shit done”—both qualities that come with age—landed some plumb jobs after 50. She started at Google at 51 and at Twitter at 60. At 67, she has her own consulting firm and no plans to slow down. An advantage of being older, she says, is that the longer you live, the more contacts you have.
An advantage of being older is that the longer you live, the more contacts you have.
Not surprisingly, as the former editorial director at Twitter, Karen’s book is full of excellent social media tips to help turn up your visibility without spending all day online. After reading it, I refreshed my LinkedIn page to be more specific in both my skills and what I’m looking for. I also decided to pay more attention to Twitter and less to Facebook, leaning more toward professional connections since I could use a few more clients.
Karen’s book made me realize I’m actually not terrible at networking. I’m someone who gets a charge from connecting people to each other. I’m good at thank-you notes and following up. I keep up with acquaintances from college (I’m the class secretary) and a wide circle of friends. I could be better about being in touch with some people—former students, editors, sources, and other “weak ties”—but only with the ones I like. To my great relief, it seems I can be a good networker without ever having to put on a name tag and force an awkward introduction with a stranger.
Coffee, I can handle.