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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Remember a subordinate can be your boss someday. Treat everyone with respect and don’t burn bridges.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.