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Insights on How to Build Solid Networking Skills in a Digital Age

Fri, 28 Apr 2017 18:32:33 +0000 / by Darlene McFadden


Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 AHOU Conference in sunny San Diego, California. The central theme of the conference was “Appetite for Disruption”.

The attendees spanned a variety of organizations across North America, including field experts and first time attendees. Regardless of their background, everyone was there to learn, connect with peers, collaborate and share their perspective on a variety of industry topics. 

While many attendees worked for competing companies, there was no fear of letting out corporate competitive secrets, rather, it was more about engaging the insurance underwriting industry as a whole. 

I experienced true collaboration and idea generation inspired by panel discussions, presentations, networking breaks, or snip-its of info over lunch or coffee. The energy was contagious as the environment provided a way to collectively address challenges and opportunities within our industry.

Over the course of 3 or 4 days, I felt very fortunate to be surrounded by people who so easily mingle and feel connected. Colleagues who have made so many contacts over the years. Perhaps they once worked together or were involved in various committees or projects with people who spanned across the country. It was evident that many long lasting friendships, relationships and often mentorships had been made along the way.

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Stepping outside of a session, I was a little overwhelmed by the thunderous buzz of conversations. While individually, you could overhear the “hi, how are you”, the “oh my gosh, so great to see you – how have you been?”, the “where are you working now”, and the “so wonderful to put a face to a name”. 

Collectively, the sound was tremendous and awakening. 

While there were clearly countless numbers of people who made mingling and networking look like a piece of cake, I confess that for me it’s work. 

It’s not intuitive and it doesn’t come easily. 

And don’t get me wrong, I’m a very friendly person and I enjoy the company of others. But fundamentally I am an introvert and a little shy. The very idea of mingling and having to chat with strangers, and those who are highly regarded experts no less, causes me a great deal of angst. 

So the title “Appetite for Disruption” was fitting. 

A few antacids, the customary pep talk I have in the mirror, and that big cleansing breath are prerequisites before such events. In the conference area as I’m continuing to have that internal dialogue to calm my anxious self down, I observed a colleague of mine, so easily work his way around a room, smiling and cajoling, and all the while making it look so easy. He is a social butterfly of sorts. He easily and naturally puts people at ease, is genuine and authentic in his dealings. Clearly he’s grasped the importance of building his network early and got involved.

This is something he consistently encourages our younger staff to do and I now know why. He has a way of gently nudging me out of my comfort zone and encouraging me to make those connections. Without knowing it, he makes me realize that if I broaden my network, the big room of strangers will no longer all be strangers and those familiar faces will decrease that internal angst. 

It’s somewhat empowering to step outside my comfort zone, and as the days went on, I got more comfortable, I felt less out of sorts and actually started to enjoy it.

Three tips to try at your next networking opportunity!

  • Say hello to a conference attendee over breakfast,
  • Introduce yourself during the conference networking reception,
  • Pick five exhibitor booths and challenge yourself to starting a conversation with their reps. 

I offered a cheery “good morning” to strangers on the elevator, initiated conversations and took whatever opportunities I could to sit in on meetings with potential clients.

It’s quite amazing what can happen with a little shift in perspective.

That cherry hello I offered to a gentleman in the elevator, turned out to be the very client we were meeting that morning for breakfast. And he made sure to comment to my boss what a lovely way to be greeted by a stranger.

Throughout the conference there were so many discussions about being thrust into the relevance of this digital world and the probable effects on how we do business (a huge mind shift from the traditional ways we’ve become so accustom to). 

But in watching people over the course of this conference, what struck me so clearly, is we really do need the human connection.

Digital world or not, having that face-to-face connection offers a, well, much more personable experience. One speaker talked about clients not wanting to be known to a company as a just a policy #. 

They want to be known as a person with a relationship to that company. People in their professional lives want that, too. They don’t just want you to know their name or email address.

Putting a face to a name is powerful. After all, we all want to feel important and remembered. 

So take those opportunities to not only attend conferences, but to make connections with people. Join a committee and look for ways to turn those strangers into familiar faces. I’ve got a lot to learn and have promised myself that I will continue to step outside my comfort zone and look for opportunities to quiet that internal, anxious voice. When I grow up, I hope I have learned to network, just like my colleague. 

Get started on building a digital network FIRST. Making that face-to-face connection, even more powerful. 

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Darlene McFadden

Written by Darlene McFadden

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