Networking Principles

October 11, 2009

Many people ask me about “networking”. One of the basic observations I make is that “networking” isn’t useful unless you are doing it WITH CONTENT. (A friend of mine heard this concept from a mentor many years ago and I have adopted it.) Without content, you are simply annoying people. There’s nothing to talk about other than what you want from them. That’s not networking, it’s begging. I’ll give a specific example that frustrated me this week and then give a few words of advice.

I just received an email from a friend describing a recent experience they had with students at a career conference. The students were networking for potential job opportunities and potential employers were there scouting talent. I had such a visceral sense of frustration from the feedback that it’s making me post immediately on this topic (over the “figuring out what you want” post promised last week).

So what happened and why was I aggravated? (head shaking…)

Here’s the paraphrased and summarized feedback: I really wanted to help these students, but they did a few things that made it impossible to support them. First, they hadn’t prepared. They simply didn’t know anything about my company. Second, they wanted an informational interview but expected to set it up and conduct it while I was working an event. Third, several students represented to my colleagues that they knew me well when in fact we are not close.  

I have a few snarky rhetorical questions based on the feedback:

1 – How can you possibly think that not researching your target company will work?

Networking with content means actually having something to say. You don’t need to be teaching targets something. Simply understanding their company and asking smart questions about how you might fit or what their major issues are can be enough.

That assumes you’ve done some basic homework.

By the way –I bet there were candidates at the conference who did do research. They made better impressions. In many of these situations, recruiters are going to see hundreds of resumes to make 5-15 offers. In normal hiring situations it’s for 1 position. You don’t even get a second look if you mess up basics.

2 – What do you hope to gain from asking a target to go out of their way to help you?

Develop a sense of what to ask for and when to ask. I always coach people to ask for help. Most people will want to help reasonable requests when they can. Make them reasonable. In the case I cited, people who were planful could have reached out in advance, had a phone conversation etc. Rather, they were last minute and trying to bend their target’s schedule to their needs. That is NOT how to win friends and influence people.  It smacks of lack of preparation and opportunism. It’s shallow.

Genuine interest is shown through proper due diligence, professionalism in communication and cementing that impression in excellent live conversations.

By the way 2 – shallowness in networking is patently obvious to the targets. Authenticity is as well. Be authentic.

3 – Do you think that overstating a connection to get play will work out well in the end?

The prior two are attributable to laziness or lack of common sense. This one leans towards ethical issues. NEVER misrepresent your relationships to gain an advantage. It will kill you eventually.

Do you think people at companies don’t talk? If you drop a name, you better be sure that person will back you up.

Enough said.

Conclusion

In closing, my advice is networking 101 but apparently needs to be regularly re-enforced. 

First – Network with content. Be prepared and have some good (open ended, conversation starting) questions prepared. Make sure they reflect a basic understanding of the company. DON’T try to be “too cool for school” and act like you really understand the company. You don’t work there yet, so you don’t. But do show that you’ve thought about the target in some detail and are genuinely interested. Lacking this, you will appear shallow and merely in search of whatever you can find.

Second – Be planful and respectful. Your targets are doing you a favor. They may be very generous and open, but they are still giving up their time to help you for no immediate return to them. So MAKE IT EASY! Meet them where they are on their schedule. If they have 5 minutes on the phone while at the airport, then you make that work. If you don’t understand why this is important, talk to someone who can explain it to you. (Sticking tongue out…)

Third – Don’t be a tool. Nobody likes them and being one will destroy far more value for you than it creates.

 I want to reinforce how valuable and fun networking can and should be. Just remember to use common sense and good judgment when doing it.

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Figuring Out What You Want – Part 1

October 4, 2009

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately that end up being about helping people think through what they actually want. I thought I’d hit on a few themes that I think are important and seem to be consistent across these conversations. I’ve written about this in past posts, but my thinking has evolved over time. I want to dig a little deeper.

This will be a multi-part column with the first post focusing on the traps I see people fall into. Part 2 will discuss how to think through your actual goals.

The Trap(s)

There are a number of common traps that I see people fall into.  Almost all of them come down to some form of getting caught up in externally driven expectations.  It’s important to name some of the common traps to help identify WHY you are perhaps off track.

1 – Others’ expectations – Anything that is driven by your perception that other’s goals for you matter more (or even as much) as your own.

Examples: My parents (or family) have certain expectations of me.  I can’t major in (fill in the blank) because it isn’t what I’m supposed to do. They won’t pay for that. What will other people say?

2 – Competitiveness (ie: I have to “win”) – Any motive that is driven by your need to be “the best” if it is in an area you don’t have personal passion around. Competitiveness is perfectly fine if it’s directed purposefully into things of your own choosing.

Examples: I’m going to get that position because it’s the hardest one to get.

3 – Cultural Influences (ie: Keeping up with the Jones’) Decisions driven by your perception of income levels, standard of living or “coolness”.

Examples:  It’s the best paying position I was offered. That career path is what I’m supposed to want (everyone else wants it). If I take that I can afford a new Acura.

4 – Laziness (ie: Path of least resistance) Any decision predicated on the fact that you haven’t worked at generating more interesting options. You’re following the well trodden path because it’s easy, not because you want to.

Examples: I just applied for the positions that were posted. I don’t have time to go meet with people outside the company given my busy schedule. I don’t have time to think about what I want.

5 – Our own illusions – Sometimes we haven’t re-thought our own goals in awhile and are holding on to some path for reasons that are no longer valid.

Examples: It’s always been my dream to do x (except it really isn’t anymore and I won’t let myself off the hook).

Conclusion

I want to make two points in closing out.  First, we all get caught up in other’s expectations to some degree. The point of this post is to get you to think through your motives and make sure there is a big part of the direction you’re headed that is YOU.

Second, any of the above reasons may be a perfectly appropriate motive if it is in line with your own internal compass. It’s great if you and your parents and friends all want you to be a doctor. BUT, if everyone wants you to be something that feels like the wrong track to you then I would start thinking through your direction.

My next post will be about ways to think about what YOUR goals are.


Managing Personal Career Risk

September 6, 2009

Several conversations I’ve had in the last week made me want to capture some thoughts on how I think about risk in your career decisions. So many decisions come down to some version of “what’s the upside” versus “what’s the downside”? I’ll run through a few concepts I try to impart and then use an example or two to illustrate how differently things can play out from the same situation. This post builds on a few ideas I laid out in an earlier one entitled “Career Choices”.

How do you perceive risk?

One lesson from my grad school experience (Yes – I actually learned something!) was a simple psychological one. Our professor challenged us to think about the question “how comfortable are you with different types and amounts of risk?”

He then loosely categorized personalities as:

  • “risk averse” (ie: any loss is painful. Will settle for more certain outcomes)
  • “risk neutral” (ie: ambivalent about risk and thus able to weigh both upside and downside and go with best choice.
  • “risk seeking” (ie: willing to bear tremendous losses in search of big gains.)

Personally, I’m risk neutral. I’ve been willing to take some creative fliers in my career and make big changes, but always felt they were calculated risks with limited downside. Or least bearable downside. I’ll discuss one example later.

So, how comfortable are you with risk in your career and what works for you? A few questions that I ask people (and myself) when faced with significant decisions include:

(Note: Major assumption for this is that you have gone through some thinking about what you want. I have written about this in prior posts and will try not to repeat myself here. )

  • What can you/can’t you live with? Some things may have great aspects, but some of the tradeoffs simply won’t work. Simple examples could be “great job, but pays half of what we need to be viable” or “Perfect position, but I can’t re-locate right now.”
  • How bad is the worst case? If you completely blow it, how bad is it really? There’s a big difference between “I move back into Mom & Dad’s basement for a few months” and “I lose the house and can’t cover the kids’ private school tuition.”
  • How big/exciting is the best case? If everything works out, how cool is the upside? If the upside is your life-long dream, it may trump all other considerations.
  • What’s you’re most likely outcome? In a probabilistic world we all know you can’t count on a specific outcome, but given what you know what do you think is likely?
  • How many of the outcomes are attractive (or at least acceptable)? Again getting at probabilities.

So let me pose two examples that I see quite often. The first is a student coming out of school with several choices available to them and the second is a mid-career professional (in this case me) debating a move.

Soon to be graduate

This candidate has a good job offer at a stable, respected company. They are also pursuing several very competitive and prestigious positions. They have an “exploding offer” from their summer employer, meaning that they will have to decide on the “bird in hand” before they have any input on the prestigious “birds in the bush”.

So what do you do?

Well, it depends. I’ll paint two different scenarios that I think are entirely reasonable based on your risk profile.

Scenario 1: The good offer I have now is OK, but I just can’t see myself doing that for the next 2-3 years. The work is too easy for me and as a result I think I will stagnate.  I’m going to roll the dice and see how the more exciting path works out.

In this case, my push back includes:  “Do you really understand the position?”, “Can you make the position more than it is on paper?” “Are you OK if other alternatives don’t play out as you hope?”

Scenario 2: The good offer I have is OK, but not my dream job. There are other roles I am more excited about, but I can see myself in this job.

Here my pushback is focused on probabilities and comfort level with getting to the end of recruiting and having no offer. I’ll also ask whether they have explored the position and can they make it more than it is.

After I grill people and make them play out the scenarios they have to make a choice. In the last several years I have seen people go both ways and think that they are usually making a good choice for themselves. It comes back to how good or bad will you feel based on where you land on the payout matrix. If you are comfortable taking the risk and the offer in hand makes you depressed then turn it down in good conscience. But if you can’t bear the thought of not having something, then take the offer and focus on being excellent at it and making it more than it is by going beyond the role.

The point is to be thoughtful about your own sense of self and career. Own the decision and then move on and make the most out of whatever path you take. My point to students coming out of school is that they are so early in their careers that almost any choice they make that authentically reflects their values will work out. They have nearly infinite time to adjust.

Mid career

So now you have more mileage and have accumulated commitments; family, house, expectations…

I’ll give an example from my own experience. In a prior life at 3M I had an opportunity to leave a stable, prestigious position that I enjoyed for a different position within 3M that I felt was more entrepreneurial. It also was treated within the HR system as a “project” which meant it wasn’t tied to an existing product P&L. That means if the project doesn’t go well, you’re on the “unassigned list” and on your way out the door unless something unusual happens.

My prospective boss was someone I knew and respected and he’s still a good friend today. I was frank and said I knew the risks, but was really interested in the autonomy and the specific industry so I was committed to making the move even if it didn’t work out in the end. He told me something to the effect of,” don’t worry. If this doesn’t work out we’ll find something for you. “ I told him I appreciated the sentiment, but we both knew full well that neither of us could control the outcome if things didn’t go well.

At the time I had two kids and a mortgage. I weighed my personal goals, career aspirations etc. against the downside risk fairly carefully. I decided that the risk of NOT taking it was larger. You only get so many good pitches to swing at and this seemed like a great one. I felt fairly confident I could find another job in the Minneapolis market in 3-6 months and had a sufficient cash cushion for longer than that.

In the end it went well for me, but had it not I was OK with the downside. And for me personally staying where I was had more risk because I get complacent if I’m not stretching myself. I also got to move to China briefly, travel globally and learn a ton. So the potential payouts were well in my favor and the downside risk seemed acceptable.

As evidence that it can go wrong, a similar venture started at the same time in the same business didn’t go as well and a number of people were “unassigned”. Many found internal positions, but many didn’t. It can go either way. Often for reasons entirely beyond your control.

Closing Thoughts…

Let me offer a few platitudes that are mostly true in my experience.

If you can’t take simple risks, like being daring in a class assignment in school, how will you ever take them when you leave? I would challenge you to be more daring, but we are who we are. It’s OK to be OK with what you have. As a student of mine pointed out just today, not everyone wants to be a leader or run everything. That’s an important realization. Just don’t expect the benefits of running everything if you’ve made choices to settle for less.

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Having a tangible opportunity is very valuable. It gives you a platform to perform on and earn invitations to bigger things. No one will know how good you are if no one sees you work. I think people become too enamored with “the hardest thing to get” and prestige. There are lots of ways to achieve your goals, don’t get too locked into only one path. I also think people fail to adequately explore or understand the “cool” things they want assuming the coolness will overcome the difficulties and hardships. As a friend of mine once put it, “The grass is always greener, but all lawns have to be mowed!”

Don’t worry too much about individual choices. Most things will work themselves out in the long run if you are patient and diligent. Much success comes from “mistakes”.

Don’t have regrets. I don’t know many people who regret things they did. But I know A LOT of people who regret things they didn’t do. The Marines call this making “errors of commission” (ie: proactively learning). These are usually good mistakes. You learn. “Errors of omission” are things you didn’t bother to do or take action on. Bad. Passivity leads to victimhood. Also, sometimes the risk is not taking a risk.  This can cut both ways though.

Calibrate the consequences. Losing the house is different than losing 6 months early in your career. Scale of potential mistake is a big deal. I don’t mean to minimize it. This is why its so important to understand your own comfort with risks.

Timing is everything. When can you afford to take risks?

So think through what matters to you and come to terms with your comfort level with career risks.

Related posts:

On making career choices: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/career-choices/

Starting transitions: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2008/10/04/exploring-interests/

It’s your career: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/19/its-your-career/

Dreams: https://philscareerblog.wordpress.com/2007/03/11/dreams/


Career Choices

June 6, 2009

I’m often faced with an advice seeker who is very clearly either stuck in an infinite loop trying to figure out how to not make a personal choice in order to extend their period to make that choice (the deferrer) or is in a hurry to make a rash choice to move to something “better” than what they have now (the jumper). Both tendencies are destructive. I’ll comment on both and offer some advice on how to be Goldilocks (& get it just right).

Jumpers. Early career and aspirational people are often trying to get someone to define the path to “certain” success for them. They will network aggressively, seek influential mentors and generally invest a lot of time in trying to get the right answer. In addition, they tend to get very invested in what progress (both in position and pay) their peers are making. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact I strongly encourage networking and mentoring.

The problem comes when people mistake the path for the journey. Each person’s path was based on their specific skills, opportunities and choices. Everyone will offer you advice with good intentions. What you can’t always understand or see in their advice are the subtle, implicit assumptions and deeper experiences underlying them. You have to actually go do things to really learn them. So don’t underestimate the value of genuine learning and development.

For pay and status jumpers, make sure you understand what you are getting into and what you are giving up. Don’t leave a position you are really growing in with support from management for a “bag of beans”. I see a lot of people jump for 10%. Your future is worth more than 10%! If it’s truly “better” then it ought to clearly align with your career and development goals.

Deferrers. Many of us always want the “perfect” position. We also tend to want to be able to wait for enough information to come in to make a better, more data driven decision. Unfortunately this is often more of a crutch to avoid taking a decision than it is a responsible strategy for improving decisions.

The problem comes when it’s used to delay decision making in the belief that there is only one path or a “perfect” job and neglects doing hard and good work to earn the success sought. There is no one path and you can massively over-think the planning.

My buddy’s “fallacy of infinite possibilities” rule is essentially that time wasted or deferred is making choices passively. Some doors close simply because you waited too long. A corollary is that the waiting is often in vain as you haven’t pro-actively engaged in choosing your own path. Essentially, you’re letting things happen to you. In this case, you are missing paths you aren’t even aware of because you aren’t moving or progressing.

So what to do? My personal observation is that most people are both more passive and too active in their career management than I would advise. Here’s my advice:

First – Be thoughtful about what you want. I’ve written about this in prior posts. Do you seek life balance, interesting work, high compensation etc.? What are your goals and how do you prioritize them?

Second – Work on implementing your dreams. Do all the things active professionals should do: networking, seeking mentors and advice, building your skills…A dream that you aren’t working on is a pipe dream.

Third – Recognize that there is no “perfect.” Too many people focus on “one step” moves when their desired position is logically a multi-step jump. Ask yourself when some new opportunity comes up “is this moving me in the right direction?” If yes, consider it even if it’s not perfect.

In my experience, many of the non-obvious opportunities turned out to be the best ones. I see many early career professionals agonizing over decisions that in the long run aren’t as momentous as they seem. This is not to say don’t think about it, just don’t lose perspective or get paralyzed.

Fourth – Be patient (but not too patient). You need to actually develop expertise in things. If you always jump around, you are not doing this. Weigh how much you are developing in a current role (skills, leadership and specific subject matter knowledge) before jumping to a new one for a few more dollars or a job grade bump. Make moves for the right personal reasons.

Many exciting career opportunities are “emergent”. They weren’t predictable or knowable to you before they came about. For example, my job didn’t exist until it was created. I don’t mean the position, I mean the job. The combination teaching, consulting, mentoring responsibilities I have as Professional Director for the Consulting Enterprise is relatively rare. However, I knew I liked teaching and consulting, stayed engaged in the school, pursued positions at my prior employers that related to these interests and so was well positioned when the opportunity came up.

My final advice: be true to yourself and make purposeful moves that build in your chosen direction.

As always – I’d love to chat or write about specific cases, so please feel free to follow up with me.