You know relationships are at the heart of success, and you know you can’t build relationships if you never leave your office or home. But if the thought of attending a networking event makes you want to burrow deep under your bed covers and read the day away, you’re in good company.
As someone who is definitely a “burrower” at the mention of a such an event, I’ve found that there are lots of ways to build relationships that don’t involve forced interaction at an event with “networking” in the title.
The key is to actually forget about making professional contacts—and instead, focus on relationship-building. Start with these ideas.
1. Work Out With a Group
A couple of years ago, I was a regular at my campus recreation center. I hopped on the treadmill at lunch and burned through (OK, sometimes trudged through) a few miles before hitting the shower and rushing back to my desk. While I listened my way through a lot of entertaining Lee Child novels as I pounded out the miles, I did’t meet anyone else with any similar interests.
Then, a friend invited me to try a CrossFit workout. I gave it a try and was hooked after the first class.
I didn’t join CrossFit to network or to get anything from the other members in the class. But, by simply becoming a regular in the group, I’ve built friendships with people across the campus that I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. Those connections have come in handy multiple times when I needed a recommendation, an introduction to another person on campus, or just some general support for an initiative or pursuit.
2. Join a Community Organization
If you’ve read some of my previous columns, you know I encourage readers to join professional organizations. But you can also reap a number of benefits from joining a group not directly tied to your specific career.
We can all benefit from people with different expertise than our own. But how will you meet those people if you only hang out with like-minded folks?
When it comes to community organizations, there’s a range of options to choose from with vastly different levels of commitment. For example, you could join a civic group, like the Kiwanis or Lions. You might consider giving your time to a volunteer-driven organization, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Habitat for Humanity, or Court Appointed Special Advocates. If politics interest you, consider getting involved at the local level. Or, many nonprofit organizations need people to serve a term on their board of directors.
There are countless ways to connect with a group that intrigues you, gives you an opportunity to make a positive impact in your community, and will allow you to meet people outside of your regular circles of co-workers, friends, and family.
3. Take a Special Interest Class
About 12 years ago, I signed up for a local photography class because I had just purchased a camera and was eager to learn everything I could. Several weeks after the end of the class, I was helping with a groundbreaking ceremony for work when I looked up and saw one of my classmates from the course.
We greeted each other warmly and chatted for several minutes. It turned out, he was a significant player in the banking industry, and his bank financed our building project. I was a green, fresh-out-of-college employee—basically on the bottom of the totem pole in the office—chatting with a VIP at a company event.
I never would have approached him and tried to strike up a conversation cold. But because we knew one another in another context, it was easy for me to visit with him—and that allowed me to meet some other key players in the community.
Suddenly, I wasn’t just the new person; I was someone with community connections—and it all started with a shared interest.
4. Accept a Party Invite
If you’re a natural extrovert, this might be a no-brainer for you. But if you tend to hold back when you get invited to something social, consider pushing yourself to more often accept invitations to parties or events—especially if they’re outside of your usual group of friends and contacts.
You can’t meet new people if you’re never around new people. But attending a party where you at least know the host is more comfortable than attending a networking event where you don’t know a soul. Plus, at a social event, there’s no pressure to make meaningful contacts and swap business cards. You’re just there to have fun. If you hit it off with someone, great. If not, there’s nothing lost.
That lack of pressure (and the option to leave if you aren’t having a good time) can help you feel more comfortable, open up, and meet new people—who can easily become valuable professional contacts.
Sometimes you need to build strategic relationships with people who have influence. That’s not shallow; that’s realistic. But don’t stop at building the relationships you have to build. Get out in the world and see what kinds of interesting folks you meet along the way. If you don’t do anything but have some fun and make a few new friends, you’ve done well for yourself. But I can almost promise that at least one of those people will eventually help you professionally (and vice versa!).