Life Changing Advice – Part 3 Networking

by Sandy L on October 1, 2012

In my last post about life changing career advice, I decided that networking needed a post of it’s own.  It’s that important. How many times have you heard the phrase “It’s all in who you know.”  From almost the first day I stepped foot onto the Corporate landscape, manager after manager would drill into my head the importance of networking. From the get go, I hated the idea of networking and resisted the concept of it. As a naive 23 year old, I defined networking as strategic butt kissing.  I didn’t want to be perceived as some ass kissing toadie that only got ahead because I was a big brown noser. Come to find out, I was totally wrong about my preconceived notions of networking.

Networking is not about finding opportunities to butt kiss higher ups and ask them about their golf game.  Every interaction you have with a peer or manager or subordinate builds your personal brand and grows your network.   If people have positive experiences with you, they will think of you when they have a job opening.  Your network grows organically through the activities you participate in at work. Maintaining a network and keeping in touch with past colleagues takes a little more effort, but it is also an important part of the formula.

The Broomstick Story

I’ll give you an example of why networking is so important.  In my last post, I talked about how I was able to get a Global Product Manager job in my 20’s. This was years ahead of most people in those positions. Well, I didn’t get the job just because of my can do attitude and confidence that I could do the role. I got the job mainly because of my personal network. About 4 years before that, I was working in a Process Engineering role doing R+D work with a brand new product. For anyone who does R+D, you know that testing theories is crude business. You are never in an ideal situation and you have to make do with falling apart tools that have been sent to the manufacturing graveyard. Anyway, there was this one production run at a customer that I was sent out to support.  It was technically pretty challenging and the tooling was a disaster. At the end of the trial, I cobbed something together and ended up making a good looking part to show a major OEM as a proof of concept. The objective of the trial was to make a pretty part on a scale that had never been done before and I achieved that goal. It was a major accomplishment and I felt a sense of relief.

Later that week, I was talking about the trial to my team and retelling the tale about how I had to hold the tooling in place with a broomstick handle while the part was being manufactured. One of the hinges on a clamp had broken that kept something clamped shut during the manufacturing process, so I improvised and held the clamp in place with the end of a broomstick handle.  Well, the story was so funny and represented our group so well, that  it went kind of viral. My manager told his boss.  His boss told the tale to the marketing manager (his internal customer) and anyone else who would listen.  The broomstick story became kind of like the benchmark for how our group innovated and solved problems.

Fast forward 4 years later. I’m looking for a Product Manager position. I’m asking around and guess who’s forming a new team?  The Marketing Manager.  He had recently been promoted to a Business Unit leader and was smack in the middle of filling his open PM  positions.  I call him and tell him I’m interested and he immediately starts selling me on the role.  He was the hiring manager’s boss.  If it were up to the hiring manager, she wouldn’t have given me a second glance because I didn’t have enough experience and she didn’t know me from a hole in the wall.  However, her boss convinced her I was the right candidate and I got the job anyway.   I got the job because he needed someone creative to transform an asset that was sitting idle.  He knew me pretty well already, he knew my style, my work ethic, and of course, he knew the broomstick story.  The broomstick story is what made up for the experience I lacked.  It was the skill set he was searching for that can’t easily be learned and he had the confidence that I could learn the other stuff as I go.  I got this job largely because of my personal network.  It was then I realized, it’s not at all about asking some VP that doesn’t know you from Adam about his golf swing.  That won’t build your network, but the work related interactions you have with people will.

How to Build Your Network

Here’s another thing I had wrong. In the past, managers have told me about self promotion. Because of my ignorance, I interpreted that as an awkward kind of conversation you have with a higher up telling them how awesome you are.  Blehck.   With the broomstick story, I didn’t have to tell a higher up.  If you do something particularly awesome, other people will spread the word for you.  This doesn’t always happen but I’ve been fortunate to have good managers. When I did something particularly cool, they would use it as an example to show their managers what a good job they were doing.

So, here’s my list of how to network in no particular order:

  1. Have positive interactions with people in all levels of your organization.  Be someone that people want to work with.   Don’t be that annoying person who’s always too busy to return a call or lend a helping hand or gives the “it’s not my job” response.
  2. When someone asks you what you’re working on, make sure you give a specific and positive response.  (I could have put a negative spin on the broomstick story, but I didn’t).  Some people call this the elevator speech.
  3. Similar to the elevator speech, determine  your “hallway reputation.” If someone asks about you to another person, what are they going to say? Are you the person that spends 1/2 your day going desk to desk chit chatting with colleagues? Guess what, most people don’t view that as networking.  On the flip side, if you’re holed up in your office and never have interactions with anyone, that can be just as bad.  Figure out what people might say about you (and if you don’t know, ask someone you trust) and then take small steps to change that reputation to what you want it to be.
  4. If you have a small team with limited interactions outside of your group, volunteer for some extra task like recruiting, volunteerism, or an alumni or trade association.
  5. Remember a subordinate can be your boss someday. Treat everyone with respect and don’t burn bridges.
  6. When you are at a team meeting or staff meeting, especially if there are people from out of town, stay out with them, get to know them. It’s easier to do business with someone if you have a personal relationship with them.
  7. If someone is in from out of town, make sure they are taken care of.  Anyone who’s done a lot of travel knows it’s so much nicer if a colleague joins them for dinner vs eating alone.  People remember these small gestures.
  8. Stay in Touch with former colleagues, suppliers and customers.  This can be pretty hard, but linked in does a great job of keeping track of people.  Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone you haven’t talked to in a while. Most of the time, they’ll be glad to hear from you and flattered you remembered them.
  9. Don’t network if it feels forced. It should come naturally and grow as time goes on.  I lean towards the introverted side, so I can’t just talk for the sake of talking. I need a purpose to talk with people, either through a common hobby or common goal.  If you’re extroverted, perhaps it never feels forced, but for me, it’s harder to just chat to people about the weather and what not. As time goes on, I’ve learned to be more extroverted and it comes more naturally to me, but I it’s only because I am genuinely interested in hearing what other people have to say.  If I’m not interested in the conversation, most of the time I can’t be bothered to try and participate.
  10. Don’t assume people are mind-readers.  If you’re ready for that new job, have a discussion with your manager and go tell people about your interests over lunch. Seek advice. Usually it’ll lead to someone who has a job or will at some point. Most hiring managers prefer  hiring someone that they have some history with and know what to expect.  Use that to your advantage and make sure what they expect are positive things, not negative ones.
  11. Promote others like you’d promote yourself.  If someone on your team does something great, spread the word.  Pump them up. They’ll likely want to return the favor at some point. Don’t see someone else’s great work as a threat to you, but as an asset to your team. (That’s got to be one of my biggest pet peeves, the folks who like to take others down a notch to make themselves look better. I hate them, hate them all.)

That’s it in a nutshell.  Did I miss any big points?   Networking isn’t as scary or contrived as most people think it is.  However, it is as important as everyone says.   Do share your own experiences in the comments below.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

cantaloupe October 1, 2012 at 8:12 AM

I used to have an aversion to networking until I figured it out too. Then I realized that really it’s just about being nice and professional at work and being socially awesome outside of work. Basically, you just have to be a good, positive person and a network will just form. It’s not at all about butt kissing, really. But it totally took me awhile to figure that one out.

Also, your friends are a great natural base to start from for your network. I’ve gotten all of my jobs through friends and I’ve hooked my friends up with jobs and those are some of my best friends in that network of job-getting.

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eemusings October 19, 2012 at 1:31 AM

I think many of the key elements you cite come naturally to me. I’m good at connecting people and I like to help whenever I can. I’m happy to give advice to others – though I’m not all that good at connecting upwards, seeking out mentors, etc. And I’m more likely to stretch myself thin helping out than I am to pull the ‘it’s not my job’ routine. But the meeting and striking up conversations with new people … generally elicits an ugh. I find it so draining, though just this week I actually struck up a great conversation with a girl at an event. That NEVER happens, so it was awesome! And I went on to add her on LinkedIn.

I definitely am not good at talking myself up. I was in a group once where I explained to two of them (foreigners with not great English) what I do, in a sentence. The other guy, who works at a different publication, chimed in after a moment’s silence, “It’s like Fast Company”, in further explanation of what I’d just said. And it should probably have been ME saying that.

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Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin October 21, 2012 at 12:07 PM

I literally took me years to discover and unlock the power of networking. Unfortunately like most things I didn’t change my perspective until I missed out on a huge opportunity because I failed to network properly. The points and examples you make hear are great. I look forward to following you.

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Savvy Scot October 22, 2012 at 5:36 AM

Some great advice! I am running a similar themed series of posts called ‘Change Your Life’ and am also on Part 3 :)

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TAOST October 23, 2012 at 8:15 PM

Great post with specific suggestions… I would add only to genuinely try to drive new business (sales) to your company whether to your group or some other group. Added to the steps above, if you are known as a rain maker, your reputation will spread throughout your company as if carried on a flying, good-natured broomstick.

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Thomas S. Moore October 26, 2012 at 10:45 AM

Love the broomstick story. You never know who will be around in different positions a few years down the rode. As my grandmother use to say “don’t go burning bridges”. Networking does make a big difference not only for jobs but for other things as well. Takes startups, some of the best ideas never get funded or found. Its a who you know verses what you know sometimes.

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101 Centavos October 26, 2012 at 4:43 PM

Great article, Sandy. I don’t think you’ve left anything out. I’m with you on the finger-pointers, hate them with a passion. I unfortunately have to work with a couple who have those tendencies. I’ve made it clear that if they ever get a notion to throw me or mine under the bus, they’re coming along. I keep good records.

I might add that a little butt-kissing never hurts, if only in the form of valued information. Some years back I produced a brief newsletter on market conditions from the procurement side. It was only meant for my immediate management, but it got flipped around to the top execs. I never figured it got much attention, until I discontinued it to time and schedule pressures. After that, I got and still get calls lamenting its passing.

The broomstick story is the stuff of legend, as it should be. What were you making?

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Joshua P October 30, 2012 at 12:01 PM

This is excellent advice. I personally know someone who just got guaranteed entrance into a medical school because someone he knew set up a meeting with the dean. It’s really incredible how small the world is and that’s important to remember when networking. I am somewhat introverted as well, but I make an effort to make small jokes throughout the day, or comments about the weather or temperature in the room. It may seem small, but it gets people to talk back to me and allows me to put in a little effort around the office. Occasionally the coworkers I met through a small comment come to me for help and give me another opportunity to shine. I absolutely agree with you on the idea of looking at someone who does good work as an asset, not a competition. In the work force we need to learn to work as a group and even if you were a group leader (manager) you need to see who is great at what and work with it.

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