Jan 302012

Not only do they make diamond drill bits, but they make colorful gem diamonds as well.

Recently, I had a most unexpected networking experience. I was invited to visit an amazing company that does some truly incredible work. Chances are they will never make it to the cover of a major magazine or be the subject of a best selling business book, but they deserve to be. While they don’t make the flashiest of products (diamond bits for deep bore drilling rigs), how they do it and what they have become because if it is the real story.

From the moment I walked in the front door, I could tell this was not the typical manufacturing company I expected. Everyone from the receptionist forward was polite, happy and eager. I met my friend, the president of the company and he started me on a tour that would leave me astounded. He first introduced me to the IT team and left me in their capable hands for a few minutes. As they showed me around their area, the pride and excitement for their jobs was evident. They understood their job wasn’t to make cool technology, but to move the company forward. While cool technology abounded, they all knew exactly how it was going to help everyone else. Everything had a purpose and nothing was overkill, which I have seen in too many IT shops over the years.

They showed me some of the cool things they were doing to bring the company closer together as it grows. In the cafeteria, they have displays mounted showing the latest performance, safety and financial results. The cafeteria, by the way, was also completely unexpected to me. This is definitely a manufacturing company, but the cafeteria would have looked at home in Google or other hot company known for their pampering of employees. I was starting to get the idea I had stumbled into something special by this point.

The IT Director and I swapped stories as he showed me his pride and joy – a state of the art data center. He was proud of every switch, cooling system and server. He told me how they had embraced virtual servers recently that had reduced the need for new servers to the point of saving an entire second row. Huge savings for the company. He then proudly told me meant to showcase their network capability, but actually started to explain why this company is special.

Recently, the whole company had been working hard to win the Shingo Prize for Operational Excellence. When the award was announced, my friend wanted to do something nice for everyone. The answer? iPads for everyone. Keep in mind, “everyone” was around 800 people. The IT Director’s first thought was “Awesome!” The second was “I wonder if the network can handle it?” Yes, the network could handle the influx of new attached devices. The part that interested me was the focus of shared reward.

I have read many management books and have strived for years to be a different kind of leader. I gnash my teeth at the leaders presented in popular culture, like The Office and The Devil Wears Prada. I strive to be the kind of manager whose people are all more productive because of the work I do in the background. What I found at this company was exactly what I have been trying to espouse for the last decade and a half.

It was time to talk with my friend. He wanted to show me the floor. As we walked around, everyone knew him by his first name. He knew theirs, too. He proudly showed me how they take diamond dust, a fine talc-like powder and exert the same pressure the earth uses to create diamonds. The result is a diamond drill bit. He explained how they switched from a linear factory flor to LEAN processes, grouping several tools into cells. By making small teams that do several steps of the process together, they find defects fast – hours instead of days, saving thousands of bits being wasted should a defect crept in.

Quality is everyone’s job. Each team meets at the beginning and end of each shift to discuss how this could be improved. Everything is driven by these suggestions and rapidly implemented. I forget the number of improvements they have made at the request of the people doing the job, but it seems like it was over 10,000 suggestions. What is the result? These people make over 10,000 drill bits per day of the highest quality. That translates into a solid company that is very successful and profitable. And, you guessed it, the employees share in that profit.

I have read about companies like Toyota and Motorola who have pioneered this style of manufacturing, but I had never actually seen one before. I was simply amazed. Their systems were nothing short of amazing. The work they have put into making their product the best in class is obvious. I can see why they are so successful. I have read book after book on better process, management, leadership and alignment to create a better business. I just found a company that appears to live these principles. It actually exists! I am more motivated to take the ideals back and implement them in my own job now because I know it is possible. It has been done and I tip my hat to them. It was the most fun I have had in all my years of meeting people and companies. This is why I love networking – the chance of stumbling on a gem of a company or individual. In this case, I found a man-made diamond.

Bravo to them. Congratulations on the 2011 Shingo Prize. I hope someone writes their story one day.

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.

Oct 282011

One of the things I love about building a network is the people I meet. I love hearing their stories – how they chose their career, what they like about their job, and how they got to where they are. Everyone has a story and I am fascinated by them. People are interesting.

I found the perfect TV show recently. It is called The Story Trek and is a production of BYUTV. The premise is simple. Todd Hansen, former reporter, goes to a random town and, using a map and a pen, finds someone willing to tell him where to go. He then goes to wherever they indicate and starts knocking on doors until he finds someone willing to be on TV. He then listens to their story. Being a good reporter, he pulls some extraordinary stories from the most ordinary people. It makes for engaging television.

Hansen uncovers some of the most interesting people, all by serendipity. None are made for TV and the stories are too real to be scripted. Some may find it amazing what people will tell him, but that’s his talent. There is a little editing involved, but I find myself eager for the next story. Stories just come to him. I loved the episode where he knocked on doors for hours before he chanced on someone walking down the street who claimed he didn’t have a story to tell. He then proceeded to tell the history of the entire town, right down to the gold piece he lost as a child in the floor boards of the mill now bed and breakfast (he believes it is still there). If people fascinate you, this show will pull you in.

Truth be told, I want Todd Hansen’s job. I love listening to stories. Like most people, I have a tendency to want to tell my story more than listen to others, but when I sit still and just listen, amazing things happen. When I was a kid, I had a paper route. Back in those days, I had to go to every house and collect the money each month. I would set aside several nights to get to all the 60+ houses.

There were three widows on my route. I would earmark one night each to visit these wonderful ladies. I loved to sit in their front rooms and listen to their stories. They would talk for hours and hours. Mrs. Eversole told me numerous stories about her sons, especially John, who was killed in World War II and later had two destroyers named after him. Mrs. Sturdevant would quiz me on my schoolwork and then tell me about her years teaching. The other wonderful lady, whose name has sadly escaped me now, insisted on knowing what night I was coming so she could make cookies for our talk.

I learned a lot from my widows. I like to think they enjoyed having someone to talk to as much as I loved listening. At least, I hope I wasn’t a nuisance. I really enjoyed the visits. They were the highlight of my collections every month. I wonder if they knew I would save them for a special night, just so I could have time to talk with them. I miss having an excuse like that to talk with neighbors. I ought to do something about that. Wonder if I could get someone willing to talk to me. I’m not as adorable as I was when I was a kid, but my ears still work.