There are plenty of reasons professionals don’t network enough. We’re all busy. Some have stressful family obligations. Others are introverts who don’t take to the process naturally. Of course, you can find time-efficient ways to connect with others and learn new techniques that will make you more comfortable — if there’s sufficient will to change.
But in my work coaching high-level executives, I’ve come to realize that many of the professionals who have the hardest time building a network are those who view themselves as “lone wolves” who have succeeded on their own merits and don’t rely on others. Intellectually, they recognize the benefits of networking, and know they should do it. But they’ve achieved their current status on the strength of solo (or near solo) efforts, and adjusting their mindset and behaviors can be challenging.
If you’ve avoided networking in the past because of lone-wolf tendencies, here are four strategies you can use to reframe the process and turn it into something you actually enjoy doing.
Understand what networking is — and isn’t.
Many of my “lone wolf” clients are highly intelligent and pride themselves on their ability to observe and stand outside of social conventions. Yet, they’ve let themselves fall into the trap of creating a “straw man” around the concept of networking, disdaining the process because they equate it to a slimy, classless transaction. As Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino has shown, many professionals find that kind of networking dirty — and rightly so. But that’s only one, highly caricatured variety of networking. When we reframe the activity as a way of making interesting friends for the long-term — a goal most intelligent lone wolves would prize — it becomes far more appealing.
Identify people you truly respect.
In addition to qualms about the process of networking, many lone wolves — whether they’d admit this openly or not — have concerns about the people involved. They may have attended “networking events” in the past filled with low-level aspirants eager to swap business cards, and assume that’s the “kind of person” who networks (while failing to recognize that cattle call, cocktail party mixers are only one variety of networking — and an ineffective one, at that). Certainly, there are other professionals that lone wolves respect, but they’re few and far between.
That’s why I have my lone wolf clients create a “wish list” of people they’d like to connect with, even if it’s unclear how to do so. Clarifying who these people are — a respected author, a senior executive colleague, a thought leader in one’s field — help illuminate possibilities (a shared LinkedIn connection, or the fact that you’re both attending an upcoming conference). Most importantly, it helps demonstrate to the lone wolves that there’s reason to be excited about networking, because the payoff is meeting interesting people — not fending off the grasping hordes.
Recognize how a lack of networking may be holding you back.
Lone wolves know that networking is supposed to be useful in general, but are often unclear on how it could help them, since they’ve been successful heretofore without exerting any effort in that area. But at a certain point, this lack of attention begins to hinder their professional progress. I advise my clients to take a short self-assessment to gauge the strength of their network, and see where they may need to focus their efforts.
For instance, one of my clients had built impressive credentials, but wasn’t able to become a member of an elite professional group because she needed peer recommendations to join — and she didn’t know anyone in the group. We developed a thoughtful strategy to build these relationships over time and she eventually gained entry, but it took much longer than it would have if she had been connecting with her professional colleagues in small ways over the years.
Identify your vehicle for networking.
If you live in a large city, the opportunities may be obvious — hosting networking dinners or simply inviting colleagues to coffee when they come through town. But even if you’re based in an out-of-the-way location, there are strategies you can use to meet the interesting people you’ve identified above. One of my executive coaching clients — to his great surprise — landed a video interview with a Nobel Prize winner who agreed to be interviewed for a publication my client wrote for.
But even if you don’t write for a media outlet or industry publication, you can often connect with prominent and fascinating people by interviewing them for your own blog or podcast. Or if you share a commonality like being part of an alumni group or professional association, you can sometimes simply suggest a “getting to know you” call as colleagues. You might also identify one or two key conferences per year and concentrate your networking meetings aggressively during that period.
Many smart, successful lone wolves pride themselves on their self-sufficiency and lack of a network — at the same time as they long for one. By applying these strategies, which remind them why building connections is desirable and shows them how to do so in a way that doesn’t feel phony, even the most committed soloist can start to build a meaningful network.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Recognized Expert self-assessment.