At a recent forum, I made a confession at the start of my speech that I actually didn’t want to be there. It was nothing personal. It’s just that as an introvert, public speaking is my least favourite thing to do. It doesn’t matter that I have to do it for work at least a couple of times a month.
Being faced with a large group of strangers and being expected to inform them, or worse, inspire them, brings out all my inner voices and insecurities. Besides public speaking, the other thing which makes me feel sick to my stomach is the word ‘networking’ — which, in fact, was the topic of my speech.
A hero of mine, Susan Cain, gave one of the best ever TED Talks entitled ‘The Power of Introverts’. She is the author of the book ‘QUIET: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’. In QUIET, Susan wrote: “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a Broadway spotlight, for others, a lamp-lit desk.” I prefer the latter, which has been one of the challenges I have had to overcome in my leadership journey.
Can you be an introverted CEO or is being an extrovert part of the job description? Can an introverted CEO deliver on those big connection moments, while still being authentic and true to their own style and delivery? All questions I ponder. Of course being an introvert doesn’t preclude you from networking effectively. It just can make the exercise more challenging from the perspective of maintaining your resilience and energy levels.
The reality however is that while the term ‘networking’ has become a 1980s management buzzword with often negative connotations, at its core, it’s actually about connecting with people, and that has never gone out of fashion.
Let me share seven tips based on my experiences of trying to find my place, my voice, and my coping mechanisms to function and flourish as an #IntrovertedCEO in today’s increasingly connected and extroverted world.
First, act like an extrovert when needed. Yes, that’s possible. In QUIET, Susan also says: “Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.” You can do the same, and you can still be authentically you while you are doing it. Acting like an extrovert to get over the initial hurdle needed to enter a networking space doesn’t make you fake – it makes you brave. You can act like an extrovert for the sake of work, for the sake of those you love, or for anything that is important to you. Just remember to reserve the quiet time you need for balance later on.
Second, signal to others it’s OK for them to approach you. At the end of most of my presentations, I invite others to approach me first. I find that once I overtly do this, it creates a safe space and permission for even the introverts to sneak up and say, “Hi, I’m an introvert, too”. It turns out that others have a little voice in their head, too, saying, “She’s too busy or too senior to want to speak to me.” By signalling “It’s OK” for them to approach you, that little voice is silenced. You don’t have to be doing public presentations to use this trick – just remember others may be feeling the same way and would appreciate you making the first step.
Third, arrive at the function early. I find that arriving at a networking function that is already underway a really difficult challenge. I am much better arriving early to get a feel for the room and have people ‘coming in to meet me’, rather than me ‘going in to meet them’. Try arriving early. This helps as it allows me to face smaller interactions to begin with rather than being faced with a big group all at once.
Fourth, be yourself. Being a teetotaller doesn’t help my networking skills, as so many networking activities rely on the social lubrication that alcohol provides. I once had someone suggest I just carry a glass of wine to look the part and to fit-in. I categorically reject that approach. In fact, if I can sum up my tips into three words, it would be: Just be yourself. Authenticity is an attribute we all look for in people.
Fifth, take notes. One other thing I am really bad at is remembering names, even immediately after being introduced. I suspect it’s because while people are introducing themselves, the little voice in my head is speaking really loudly and saying, “Don’t forget their name, don’t forget their name” and consequently the little voice drowns out the very thing I was listening for.
One trick which helps me avoid this is writing on people’s business cards. What do I write? An action for follow up to remind me, a context point, where we met, or something they were interested in so I can send a note. Writing on cards doesn’t work in every cultural context so keep that in mind, but the key point is to be genuinely listening in the conversation.
Sixth, follow up. Using my notes, I endeavour to connect with people I properly met and engaged with at functions either by follow up email or via LinkedIn within a week or so. I try to make sure I follow through on our conversations so people know our discussion was real and valued.
Seventh and finally, use social media which for me is an introvert’s networking super power! Have a personal social media plan to guide your approach. For me, Facebook is personal and only for friends and family. I have a mix of professional and personal connections on Twitter. I consciously follow a range of views on Twitter, including those I don’t agree with, to make sure I am not living in a self-perpetuating echo chamber.
LinkedIn is my professional platform. Before 2015, I was only accepting LinkedIn invitations from people I would recognise and stop to speak to on the street. I have changed that approach and opened my network up. Now I accept connections in markets I operate in or am interested in — connections from my industry or from people working in areas I am passionate about. I flipped the switch from it being about me seeking people out to network with, to being open to people networking with me.
I also try to respond personally to every new LinkedIn connection with a note – that can start some great conversations and improves the quality of my engagement with some great people doing amazing things.
I’m a bit of a Jane Austen fan and one of my favourite quotes is from Mr Knightley in Emma: “How pleasant to be absent, but in the thoughts of everyone.”
Mr Knightley of course meant how nice it is that people think of you when you are not there. But the quote works equally for introverts and for social media networking ie. how nice it is to network without you having to actually be present in real life.