But it doesn’t have to be that way! The other day, I learned some simple and powerful networking techniques from 9-year old Austin on the playground in my suburban community.
I was standing in the sand with my new baby in a snuggle pack, watching my 2-year old Josh play on the slide. He looked over to the basketball courts and noticed there was a new kid on a scooter.
Never one to be shy, Josh shouted "Hi Kid! Want to come and play?"
9-year old Austin made his way over, and started talking to Josh. He was gentle and kind, and really paid attention to what Josh was saying. This is markedly different from most kids his age, who blatantly ignore him as he stands by their side, begging to play.
Since I had never seen Austin before, I asked him if he was new in the neighborhood. He said he was, and lived with his Mom, dog and 2 cats just down the road.
As he was talking to me, he noticed Angela in the snuggle pack and said "Can I see your baby?" I said sure and he came close to look at her. "She is so cute!" he said, again defying the typical 9-year old boy who can hardly distinguish a new baby from a watermelon.
He told me about his cats, and suggested I get one for Josh, since "he gets really excited when I talk about cats."
After some more small talk, Austin said "I am kind of lonely around here since I don’t know any kids in the neighborhood. I heard that a boy my age lives in that house on the corner." "Yes, Zach lives there," I said. "Would you mind introducing me?" said Austin.
Impressed by his polite demeanor, I agreed and we all walked over to Zach’s house.
Zach’s parents answered the door, and I explained why I was there. Zach came running to the door to join them. Smiling and extending his hand, Austin said "Hi, my name is Austin. Do you like Pokeman?" Zach’s face lit up and he said an enthusiastic "Yes!"
Within 10 seconds, Zach grabbed his book of Pokeman cards and the two were off to the playground, looking like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (link provided for those of you too young to know what I am talking about)
I was floored at the grace and ease with which Austin broke the ice and made a new friend. Here is what I learned from his natural networking ability:
- Be interested. Whomever Austin talked to, he looked them in the eye and immediately listened for what they were interested in. He answered questions about himself when asked, but kept the focus on his new friend. Ninety percent of new networkers focus on their own elevator pitch and sounding important. Instead, follow the sage advice I heard from Jim Collins a number of years ago: Be an interested person, not an interesting person.
- Be real. Most people, well past 9-years old, would be totally embarrassed to admit that they were lonely and in need of companionship. But this authenticity is exactly what endears you to people. Instead of puffing out your chest and trying to sound important as you connect with new people, be down-to-earth and let them know what you are feeling. Don’t be afraid to say things like "I am really terrified of starting a new business. Did you feel that way when you started yours?" or "These networking events always make me feel slightly queasy. Do you want to go grab a drink?"
- Notice what is important to the person you are networking with. What new Mom is not thrilled with a compliment to her baby? Zach was immediately excited when Austin mentioned Pokemon. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that Austin opened with this example, as I have a feeling that he had observed Zach playing with his cards before. So if you are communicating with someone in person or online, pay attention to what is important to them. Read their blog, their books, and note their interests. We are all creatures of ego, and it is hard to resist someone who really notices what we like. (Note to the single among you … this is good dating advice too!)
- Ask for an introduction. Austin could have spent a miserable couple of weeks cooped up at home, waiting to make some friends. Or he could ask for an introduction, reducing anxiety and speeding up his integration into the neighborhood. Don’t be so polite that you miss the opportunity to shortcut a connection to an interesting person. The worst that can happen is that someone refuses to make the introduction, and you can gracefully move on to another way of connecting.
- Be nice to everyone. I am sure that Austin would rather play with someone his own age than talk to a two-year old or a 41-year old Mom. But because he was so nice to us, he opened the door to meet his target: a Pokeman-addicted 9-year old boy who loves to ride bikes, spray water guns and play video games. Too often, I see people brush anyone off who doesn’t fit their "target profile." What they don’t realize is that the receptionist, waiter, college student or elderly woman at the grocery store that they treat rudely could hold a golden key of introduction to someone they desire. Not to mention that it is just bad karma. In my corporate days, I would always get nauseated when watching a job candidate or salesperson act condescending to a receptionist, then lay on the honey when they met a senior executive. What they didn’t realize is that receptionists and administrative assistants rule the world, and their rudeness forever doomed their efforts to get in with the "big people."
I look forward to seeing Austin again, and don’t doubt that with his natural networking abilities he will have a full and exciting life.