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Boldly Go Where No IT Pro Has Gone Before

She made it part of her regular work schedule while an IT executive, and it's now part of her current job in academia.

But Farnsley, a visiting professor at Purdue University's College of Technology in West Lafayette, Ind., says her networking skills didn't come easily. An introvert by nature, she says she was sick with nerves the first time she had to speak to the board of directors at one of her former employers.

Nearly everyone has been unnerved at some time or another when meeting new people. But those who are introverted, shy or both usually have a more difficult time than others when faced with networking, says Naomi Karten, principal of Karten Associates in Randolph, Mass., and author of the e-book How to Survive, Excel and Advance as an Introvert .

"In general, introverts are less likely to initiate a conversation," she says. That can be a significant disadvantage in the business world, where career success and advancement come from building solid relationships, she says. With the recession in full swing, those key connections are even more crucial.

Not to worry. Networking can be learned. Here are some steps for those who aren't naturally gregarious.

1. Develop the Right Mind-Set

Keith Chuvala, a manager of space operations computing at Houston-based United Space Alliance LLC, a NASA contractor, doesn't like the term "networking."

"It has that connotation that if you're good at networking, you must be good at schmoozing. It always seemed the domain of the sales folks and the people who are naturally outgoing," notes Chuvala, who says he's no longer shy but still tends to be introspective and prefers to work on his own.

How to work a room

Matthew Kesner, CTO at the law firm Fenwick & West LLP, says working a room is one of the scariest things he can think of. But because he sometimes has to do it, he has learned techniques that help him minimize the anxiety.

Here are some ways Kesner and others have learned to schmooze:

Ask for help. Kesner has enlisted colleagues who either are more outgoing or already know people in the room to introduce him around. (Just don't stay in your colleagues' shadow for too long.)

Have a list of prepared questions. Admitted introvert Elisabeth Hendrickson, founder of Quality Tree Software Inc. in Pleasanton, Calif., uses variations of these three questions to break the ice: How did you come to be here? How do you feel about being here? What do you hope will happen here? "It's astounding how much I learn about someone using these," she says.

Prepare your elevator speech. Practice reciting a few lines about yourself and your work so you're ready when someone asks you what you do, says former CIO Gail Farnsley, now a visiting professor at Purdue University.

Scan the room for opportunities. Seasoned executives say they'll seek out others who aren't already engaged in conversations and introduce themselves. They also head toward the line for the bar, buffet or registration, where it's easy to strike up small talk with the others who are waiting too.

Give people an excuse to talk to you. Consultant Fiona Charles often wears a silver pin that features charms shaped like gardening tools. She wears it because she likes it, but it also draws compliments and conversation -- from others.

Do your homework. If there's a speaker or a theme, read up on them in advance so you're ready to share and discuss some background, says Mike Vanneman, a partner at The Pachera Group, a recruiting firm.

Relax. You don't want to look tense and angry. So smile and try to enjoy yourself, Karten says. "Remember," she adds, "most people in most situations are approachable and friendly."

He has come to think of networking as creating and building relationships -- for him, a much more natural-sounding goal that can feel less offputting.

2. Set Objectives

Career coaches usually list networking as a key way to find a new job, but that's just one of many reasons to do it. You might want to gain allies within your company to advance ideas or build support for a project, Karten says. You might need connections to find a mentor or for critical expertise when you're looking for a second opinion.

So consider what you want to get out of the activity and make a list of what you hope to achieve -- and use it to not only give your networking direction, but to give you motivation.

"For many introverts, having a purpose helps rationalize what they might not choose to do otherwise," Karten says.

3. Work Your Comfort Zone

Matthew Kesner, CTO at Fenwick & West LLP, a law firm based in Mountain View, Calif., is fine addressing several hundred people. He's also comfortable socializing in really small groups. But he finds the in-between space, like cocktail parties, scary.

So, Kesner has learned to make the most of the times when he's comfortable to build relationships. Talking to a big crowd doesn't build personal connections, he acknowledges, but he seeks those opportunities in part because he meets people one-on-one afterward. "It has helped me introduce myself to a broad range of people," he explains.

So, work within your comfort zone, he says, adding that age, experience and introspection can help you pinpoint what works best for you vs. what makes you most nervous.

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