If you aren't a natural connector, you're probably dreading the coming deluge of holiday events and parties. Sure, you know you should take advantage of the opportunity to network at these gatherings (especially if they're work-related), but small talk and introductions just aren't your forte. You're much more comfortable nursing a glass of punch in the corner and limiting your conversations to people you already know. If this sounds familiar, Alaina G. Levine challenges you to make this the year you step out of your comfort zone—literally—by filling all of those holiday events with more than just stale cookies and conversation.
Don't worry—she understands that networking is a part of professional life at which many engineers, scientists, and introverts from all industries tend to stall, and she's here with a plan to help you navigate those uncharted social waters. "In today's connected world, you need to be able to collaborate and innovate with others in order to leverage your technical expertise," says Levine, author of Networking for Nerds: Find, Access and Land Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere (Wiley, Spring 2015). "Holiday events give you the perfect opportunity to make new connections, rekindle established relationships, and share what you've been working on.
"And here's the best news for reluctant networkers," she adds. "This is the best time of year to network, because thanks to the festivities, most people are in a good mood. They're also thinking about what they've accomplished in the past year and are making plans for the next." If you're proactive and play your cards right, you might discover an opportunity to assist your contact in the new year and beyond, or perhaps your contact can apprise you of information that can help you in other ways.
In Networking for Nerds, Levine offers concrete insight on crafting professional networks that are mutually beneficial and that support the advancement of your career goals. Here, she shares 11 networking principles to remember at holiday parties:
'Tis the season for giving. Don't think of networking as schmoozing or something slightly sleazy (like selling a used car). Networking is about crafting win-win partnerships that bring value toboth parties—it is never about being a Grinch and trying to extract something from someone. "So approach networking with the fundamental idea that you are seeking to find out what people need or what problems they have that you can help them with," Levine suggests.
'Tis the season to be joyful. Networking should be an enjoyable experience, not a treacherous chore that you'd rather delegate to a bunch of elves. "Think of it this way: It is always a privilege and an honor to have the opportunity to discuss topics that you and the other party are passionate about," says Levine. "So take pleasure in the gift of meeting new people and seeing what can come from the new exchange."
'Tis the season to be jolly. When you are networking and you meet someone for the first time, discuss only positive topics and steer clear of potentially controversial topics like politics and religion. Levine says, "You want to make a good impression and ensure that your new contact equates you with happy thoughts."
'Tis the season to reach out. Levine always sends holiday cards to clients, colleagues, partners, and people with whom she has networked in the past year. The cards are a way to keep the connectionsgoing, share updates about her career, and most importantly, demonstrate that she is genuinely interested in the recipients' well being.
"Here's a tip: Don't send religion-specific cards, like those that say ‘Merry Christmas,'" she recommends. "I keep it simple with cards that say ‘Happy Holidays' or ‘I hope you have a great holiday season' and don't reference any particular religion. For new clients or colleagues, I will include my business card. And even if you can't send a card to everyone in your virtual Rolodex, send an email greeting."
'Tis the season to be sociable. Don't hesitate to attend optional holiday parties in your region—you never know whom you'll meet. And remember to bring business cards with you to every affair. Levine notes, "In particular, be on the lookout for holiday get-togethers hosted by your alumni association or regional chapter, your organization/company, and the charities or other organizations for which you volunteer."
'Tis the season to be entrepreneurial. If you're really feeling festive, offer to throw a holiday "meetup" for people in your industry. Use Meetup.com and LinkedIn to promote the gathering. "You'll get a chance to make new contacts and hone your skills in event planning and marketing," says Levine. "In addition, people will truly appreciate your initiative to bring everyone together and will take note of your expertise."
'Tis the season to be wise and strategic. If the very thought of all this networking makes you want to spend the holidays with the Grinch in his cave, make it your goal to reach out to just 10 to 15 people with whom you would like to build a partnership in some way. "Introduce yourself, wish them a happy holiday season, and ask for an ‘informal discussion' to be arranged after the new year," Levine instructs. "Let them know why you want to meet with them—namely, that you are interested in exploring the opportunity to collaborate and contribute to their team. That's all you have to do—then you're off the networking hook!"
'Tis the season to partake of eggnog—to a point. Yes, there's a reason why alcohol has a reputation as a "social lubricant." It can help take the edge off your nerves. "Just watch your intake—limit yourself to one small drink, or only a few sips," Levine warns. "Remember your ultimate purpose. You are there to network, not to get drunk."
'Tis the season to get to the point. At a party, especially if it's a professional event, you don't need an opening line. Just walk up to someone and introduce yourself. Levine says, "The more you do this, the easier it gets—I promise."
'Tis the season to be open. Be open to networking with people who are not in your industry or who seemingly don't have anything in common with you. Remember, the six degrees of separation theorysays that we are connected to every other person on the planet by no more than six degrees—and it's surprising how often it's proved to be true! "For instance, there's a very large chance I know someone who knows someone who knows Bill Gates," Levine comments. "Additionally, you never know what information you are going to learn until you engage someone in conversation. By networking, chances are you will leave with ideas and inspiration to solve your problems or navigate your career in novel ways. This has happened to me many times."
'Tis the season to be bold and courageous. Hidden, game-changing career opportunities are everywhere, but they won't magically reveal themselves—the only way to access these clandestine gems is via networking. Most people don't have the guts to pursue opportunities, which gives you a distinct advantage if you do. "Take advantage of as many chances to network and opportunities to collaborate as possible, and if you need an opportunity, ask for it," Levine urges. "If it doesn't exist, create it yourself. You may just start a revolution. And that's something to jingle all the way home about."
"The bottom line is, networking during the holidays gives you the perfect opportunity to craft new mutually beneficial partnerships and add more fuel to those you have already established," Levine concludes. "So even if it's not your cup of eggnog, leave your comfortable corner behind and circulate through the decked halls. You'll be glad you did come 2015!"