When we were little, our parents warned us against talking to strangers. We warn our own children about the dangers of talking to strangers. And this is what parents are supposed to do to protect our children. But we’re all grown up now. While the world is still a scary place at times, we need to extend ourselves every day to meet new people who could help us in our careers.

I’ve been to countless networking events where groups of 3 or 4 familiar people stay at their own table and talk only to one another. The purpose of networking is to introduce yourself and build a relationship with the people you meet. Guess what, they are strangers. But by taking that step to introduce yourself, you are one step closer to not being strangers any more.

As you think of ways to advance your career, consider getting to know strangers. Try to attend one event per week and make it a point to get introduced to at least 5 people. It doesn’t stop there. Don’t just collect a business card and promise to keep in touch. Ask them for some calendar time. Schedule a time to chat via phone or over coffee (or tea if that’s your thing) and get to know the person. Don’t bring a friend with you to a networking event. That defeats the purpose. Naturally, you’ll be tempted to remain by that one person’s side throughout the event. Doing that, and you will miss out on many prime opportunities to network. Open your sphere of influence. Be that person who collects relationships, not business cards. Be that person who joins conversations, not the one who sits at the table alone or with one friend all night.

I realize it can be unnerving to insert yourself into conversations and break the ice. But you know what? If you don’t try, people won’t know your name (I just had a Norm from Cheers flashback). This practice should not be limited to networking events. I have made connections at bookstores, my son’s games, PTA meetings, trips to the doctor, on the plane, waiting at airports, and so on and so on. I wasn’t born a networker. It takes time to cultivate that skill. You need to practice and just go for it. Don’t think about it because you’ll overthink and talk yourself out of it.  It took a few years for me to build the courage to confidently work a room.

I usually go to events with my sister or a good friend of mines who is growing her new business (I can do that, I’m not new to networking and I’ve earned my battle scars). I tell them both not to look for me during the event. We came together, we’ll leave together, but we have totally different agendas. And they respect that. My sister came with me for the first time to a conference last month. She was amazed at how I worked the room. I was a little disappointed because she wasn’t as free flowing as I was. Later she explained that I had a few years head start on her and she wasn’t at the same level I was. She needs time to get used to a) striking up conversations, and b) setting her networking agenda. I told her I’ll take her under my wing. And I have. I’m happy to report that she is getting better. She’s still a little on the quiet side, but she is no longer fearful of networking…. just a little anxious.

I’ll share a secret with you. She said it really wasn’t my tutelage that made her decide to take the plunge. It was a 14 year old teenage boy! At the conference I mentioned above, a young man and his parents sat at our table for lunch. The boy and I struck up a conversation and he proceeded to tell me about his business and gave me a card. He then chatted with some of the others at my table. My sister said that inspired her most. She said “if a teenager can have the courage to do that, then I need to be ashamed of myself”. I agreed! LOL

So take the plunge. Talk to strangers. The best way to advance your career is to get to know people. And no, not online either! Get out and mingle.

Til next time.

Adrienne Graham