Jan 112012

I have the unique experience of starting to build a professional network… twice. Most people build it once and keep it. I built my first a few years ago when I had to. Two years ago, I moved to a new city and found myself once again without a group of professionals who could provide insight and direction in my new home. Starting over has been almost as daunting as the first time. In some ways, it has been harder. Here are seven things I have learned about starting building a network.

  1. It is easier to do when you have to.
    The first time I built my network, I had to. I was out of work and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career. My coach held the proverbial gun to my head and made me get started. She held me accountable every week with questions: How many contacts did I make? How many interviews did I attend? How many follow up names did I get? I knew those questions were coming and that fear of not having an answer drove me. This time, I have a good job. I (mostly) know what I want to do for my career. I  don’t HAVE to build a network. My coach isn’t holding me accountable every week. Therefore, it is harder to make myself do it. I have spent two years trying to get serious about doing it again, even though I know it is important, have the experience, and know no one is going to bite. Having to make that first call because I WANT to is harder than doing it because I HAVE to.
  2. It is better to do it when you don’t need it.
    When I was out of work, I was driven because I needed a job. That need would come across in my voice and face, no matter how hard I tried. I battled inner demons that told me I was a loser. Now, those demons are not there. I can relax and have a conversation with my new contacts. They know I am not desperate and therefore, their response has been more relaxed as well. I get different information from them, more of it useful. I think this is because both our defenses are down and we are connecting as friends.
  3. People are willing to help.
    When I was looking for a job, I was amazed at how many people were willing and eager to help. I have found it exactly identical now. So far, everyone has opened their rolodexes and pointed me in fascinating directions. They take time from their busy schedules to share a few minutes. Never underestimate the giving capacity of people. They are wonderful!
  4. Setting a goal with a measurement makes all the difference.
    I have been telling myself for months I needed to start talking to people. I made a little bit of a start and then stopped. Then a couple months later, I tried again. And stopped. I couldn’t get any traction and I am the one preaching to everyone to do it. Physician heal thyself.One of my goals for 2012 is to make one new contact every week. Like a good kid, I wrote down the goal. I shared it with my wife. I am now responsible. I made my first appointment by Tuesday. The second appointment came on Wednesday. I thought that was good for the week, but fate stepped in. I hadn’t, after all, made the contact for last week. On Sunday, I ended up in an unexpected meeting with a neighbor I have respected for some time. We naturally fell into conversation and I worked my network interview right into the flow. I got my new contact for the week.Side note: I blew one aspect I always preach. I forgot to ask him for additional people to contact. After he left, I kicked myself for the next hour. Then I sat down and wrote a quick note, thanking him for the time and asked if he could recommend some people. He immediately replied he would make a list. Moral of the story? Even if you goof up, follow up and they will most likely still come through for you.
  5. Having some sort of tracking tool is very helpful.
    One of the most difficult things I faced when building my network a few years ago was keeping up with all the contacts. I was, of course, making connections full time. The number quickly increased exponentially and I was overwhelmed trying to keep track of everyone. I had to fall back to a spreadsheet and a calendar to keep up with all the appointments and contact information. Once I set up a tracking system, it became easier and routine. I didn’t lose track of anything and I could concentrate on meeting people again.This week I decided I needed to get in front of it this time. I have searched the web for a good network management tool for years without luck. I even contemplated using a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool, like Act!, but since they are geared to the sales process, I found it cumbersome and expensive. This week I found a potential tool that is web based. I am trying it out for the next few weeks. If it proves to be worthy, I will review of it soon. Since I have already found some gaping holes, I don’t want to give it airtime just yet.
  6. Starting with friends is the easiest way to overcome inertia.
    Everyone always asks me how to get started, because beginning is scary. I always give the same answer: Start with your friends. You already know them and they know you. They love you and have your best interest at heart. They care enough to give honest feedback. They will be flattered you asked them first and will hand over their friend’s names more readily than anyone else you meet. By starting with your friends (and family, for that matter), you will gain valuable experience on how to run the interview and it will be much easier to tackle someone you have never met by the time that level comes along. Trust me on this one.
  7. It is still the funnest thing I have ever done.
    Yes, I a an extrovert and love talking to people. I’ll tell you, though, once the initial fear is conquered, this can be the most fun you can have for $5 (price of coffee). I have never had as much fun as when I was doing this full time. It was full time, too. As I said, I did over 125 interviews when I was out of work. I put in an easy 40 hours each week with all the paperwork, correspondence, and meetings. It was the best job I ever had. If I could figure out how to make talking to people pay, I would quit my job in a heartbeat. It is rewarding, intriguing, and enlightening.

I hope you take the challenge and reach out and expand your circle of friends. Find someone new and learn what they do. Get started. Don’t wait another day.

Nov 232011

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. We have much to be thankful for and I hope you take a few minutes to reflect on your blessings. This is the time of year when things slow down a bit (and in some workplaces, a lot) with people taking time off work. I know my office will be pretty much shut down around Christmas/New Years. My previous employers were just about the same. As a project manager, we always plan for a slowdown in the work for the last three weeks of the year.

So what if you are still working and not vacationing somewhere warm? Now is a perfect time to take my Holiday Challenge. Pick up the phone and make an appointment with someone on your network. Go to lunch or just get together for a chat. Chances are they will have some free time around the holidays as well and will be glad you called. Take a few minutes to reconnect and find out what they are up to. Find a way to give them a hand.

If you are up for a real challenge, expand your network by meeting with someone new. This is the perfect season to do it. Many are in a giving mood and the calendars are a little more relaxed. Some people are more rushed, so be flexible. However, I know as I get closer to the end of the year, my ability to accomplish tasks is severely impacted by the absence of others. I always have time available for odd tasks. Networking is one of those perfect fillers.

Have a holiday party coming up? Dreading standing around not knowing what to do? Take the challenge! These parties are a perfect opportunity to meet someone and talk for a few minutes. You never know who you’ll meet and it can be real fun. I love going to my wife’s work Christmas parties. I don’t have to worry about office politics and there is always someone sitting bored. This is the perfect chance to strike up a conversation an find out something about them. Who knows – you may be the best thing that happens to them all night long.

Make this season bright by meeting someone new or renewing a old relationship. Take the challenge and make an appointment today. Let me know how it works out. I bet you will have a wonderful time.

Nov 032011

If public speaking is the most feared task in the world, meeting someone new to discuss my career has to rank right next to it. Even the most extroverts of extroverts pale at the task. How do I know? I am an extrovert and it scares me to death every time. If it makes me shy away from making contact, imagine what it must do to person who is naturally shy? Yet, in today’s economy and business climate, we must have a strong network.Here are some ideas I hope help.

  1. Practice on friends. I always recommend starting a network with friends and neighbors, people who already know and respect me. They will give me the benefit of the doubt regardless of how many mistakes I make and give honest feedback and advice. I started my first interview with a good friend. Even at though I had known him for years, I was terrified when I sat down in his office. He was most kind, listened carefully and complimented my courage. He expressed his own fears of building a network. In fact, that comment was one I heard many, many times. Everyone knew they should build their own network, but they had the same fear. They respected me for breaking past those fears when they hadn’t.
  2. Prepare questions.  Write out questions before hand and have them on the top sheet of the notepad. It only takes a few questions to fill 15 minutes, so it isn’t hard. I carried a portfolio, with a pad of paper for note taking on the right. In the left pocket, I carried a list of standard questions and a couple copies of my resume. I didn’t use the questions each time, but they were there for me if the conversation lagged. Knowing I had something ready to fill a gap of silence helped me relax and listen.
  3. Role play  Take an opportunity to practice. Sit down with a spouse, child or family dog and play it out. Children absolutely love doing this, by the way. They know how to plan “make believe” better than anyone. Play both sides of the interview. How would you feel if someone asked you to give the advice on what you do for a living? It is an honor. It provides a feeling of accomplishment to be asked for advice. Try asking questions in slightly different ways and see how they sound. Practice makes perfect.
  4. Meet at a neutral site. It can be very intimidating to walk into someone’s office and start asking questions. One way to relax the exchange is to meet someplace neutral. Starbucks is one of my favorite locations. They spend a lot of money to create a calm, relaxed atmosphere that begs for a conversation. It may cost you a few extra dollars to buy your new friend a cup of coffee, but the relaxed atmosphere can be well worth the money.
  5. Remember, they will envy you! I can’t tell you how many times people complimented me on doing something that terrified them. This included everyone from the janitor to CEOs. Meeting people takes us out of our comfort zone and we respect people willing to take the chance. Take the risk and be the one others admire. Then you can help them face their fears and follow your lead. They will always remember and thank you.
  6. Realistically, what’s the worst that can happen? Seriously, what is the absolute worst that can happen? Let me tell about my worst experiences. If you have one worse than this, I would love to hear about it.

    I was recommended to meet with the CEO of a successful group of companies. After getting on his calendar, I walked into his office and introduced myself. He wouldn’t speak to me. He sat there and stared at me, not saying a word. I instantly began to sweat and knew it was going nowhere. I explained my background and how I wanted his advice. He continued to stare at me and said nothing. I stammered through the rest of my presentation, thanked him for his time and fled. I left shaking. I had already done over fifty interviews at this point, so I knew the process worked. What happened? I couldn’t understand it. I happened to have two, back-to-back interviews lined up that day, both with CEOs. I was terrified to go to  the next one after that experience. Because I had an appointment, I forced myself. I must have still be shaking in the introduction because he asked me what was wrong. I briefly told him of my previous experience with the silent CEO. He laughed and assured me he knew exactly how I felt. This CEO treated him the same way. I then relaxed as this CEO opened his entire rolodex to me.

    What is the second worst experience? I made a call to a vice president at the recommendation of a colleague. As I introduce myself and explained who had put me in touch with her, she responded, “I don’t know this person and I wish she would stop using my name.” She was unhappy and didn’t want to speak further. I apologized and hung up the phone.  Oops. I crossed her off my list of people I would ever get to meet. There is no way I could have anticipated this exchange, trusting this colleague who said they had a relationship. It happens. Some people like to drop names. I can usually sniff them out and discount their advice. Apologize and move on. Ironically, I later did meet this particular vice president when I interviewed at her company. To my relief, she didn’t remember my name and I certainly didn’t offer to remind her of the experience.

When putting oneself “out there”, bad things can happen. However, it isn’t the end of the world. Write off the experience to learning and keep moving. Not every interview is going to go well, but most will. However, in over 130, I have had just two I would call bad. If only I could get anything else in life to have a less than 2% failure rate.

While networking can be uncomfortable, it is so rewarding. The people I have met have been pleasant, encouraging and eager to help. Take the leap of faith and try one. It is worth it.