Written by Philip Black
How to get out of your own sandbox to launch or accelerate your career
This fall, I gathered with 35 marketing professionals and students to participate in a panel discussion event alongside my peers Sarah Goebel and Paula Kapacinskas.
Titled “Expanding your network—How to get out of your own sandbox to launch or accelerate your career”, the discussion explored our personal networking experiences and perspectives. The Chicago AMA’s Michelle Batten and Pon Angara designed the panel to be the very first in a series of pop-up events that dig into specific areas of interest.
As we transitioned from a relaxed time of networking into our panel session, Pon opened up the floor, referring to our discussion as an exploration of “purposeful networking”. This struck a chord with me. I’ve found if you’re not purposeful with networking, it can easily become a drain on your time and energy instead of the valuable asset and practice it can be.
From the very onset we wanted this session to be an interactive experience. Michelle kicked off the discussion by having members of the audience introduce themselves, tell us their zodiac signs, and share their biggest phobia about networking. Let’s face it: if you’ve done any networking at all, you know it has its awkward moments. Why not get that out of the way up front?
As we went around the room, I was pleasantly surprised to see how diverse the gathering was. There were students and seasoned professionals ranging in ages 25-65. There were also multiple ethnicities and recent transplants to Chicago, including a few internationals. The conversation was lively from the get-go, and the attendees were engaged, funny, and thoughtful.
Here are my top five take-aways from the evening:
- Narrow and deep
Many of us spoke of forming meaningful personal connections in contrast to focusing on a set number of contacts made. Panelist Paula sets a low bar numerically so she can set a high standard for quality interactions. My personal objective in networking situations is to make a genuine connection with each new person I meet, even if I only have time to meet one or two people.
For me, it’s important that each person I meet feels valued. If you’re easily distracted like I am, challenge yourself to maintain eye contact throughout a conversation. A good way to show someone you’re listening (and that you care about what they have to say) is to ask a few questions based on information they’ve already shared with you.
By the way, you can’t fake this stuff. People can tell when you’re going through the motions. And people help people they like. Think about it: is there someone in your life that has helped you advance more than anyone else? I’d bet that their willingness to assist you has come out of a place of cultivated trust and relationship.
- Try to make a meaningful connection with one or two people at your first event. Approach someone who is not with anyone, or look for a group with an odd number so you can engage easily
- Start a conversation with open-ended questions (“What’s your story?” or “Where’s home for you?” or “What brings you here tonight?”) rather than jumping right to the rather obvious work question “What do you do?”
- Comment on something that was said in a presentation, and ask the other person what they thought
- Something to give
You have a lot to offer. Regardless of whether you’re seeking employment or looking to help others advance, take stock of how you can be of assistance to those around you. Paula shared that while she is in-between jobs, volunteering has been a productive way for her to engage in the marketing community. Sarah, having recently moved to Chicago from Germany, was able to meet a mentor through some of her first AMA events.
Giving can be done effectively on a smaller scale. In his book “Give and Take”, author Adam Grant writes about the impact of doing ‘Five-minute favors’ for people. This applies well in a networking context. Once you’ve made a connection with someone, take a peek at his or her LinkedIn or Twitter profile. If they’re sharing content you find interesting, consider amplifying their efforts by re-sharing or commenting on social media. In doing so, you’re partnering with your connection in an activity they find valuable.
In my experience, this has helped me connect to important people and potential partners, including a well-known business author and TV personality. You just never know.
- Shared interests and affinity-based networking is very effective. Consider the groups and communities you’re a part of, and causes you care about
- Volunteering is a great way to expand your network and make long-lasting connections
- Remember that social media can be a great secondary touch point to foster new relationships—and network during a presentation
- Naked and brave
Transparency in networking is powerful. It opens you up to help others and be helped. Panelists Paula and Sarah both shared their journeys to their next opportunities, and what the “in between” place has been like for them. I believe this cleared the air, giving people permission to be more honest about their current situation and drop the desire to appear self-sufficient. I was struck by one young man’s admission that he wanted to grow by learning how to interact more naturally with people he didn’t know. This was brave.
A year and a half ago, a friend and business colleague called me to check in. At the time, I was considering a new season in my work life. I was looking to make the move from being business owner to being a part of a larger team, interacting with larger clients and new challenges. As a 12-year entrepreneur, it was hard for me to divorce my identity from my business—and I felt very vulnerable.
This friend asked what was new in my world. Would he judge me? Would there be an awkward silence and “Oh, ok… that’s nice.” I took a gulp, then told him.
In the next breath, my friend said he had someone he wanted me to meet. A few weeks later, I met with that CEO, and within a month, I rolled up my business into Avenue’s and joined their leadership team.
Who knows what would have happened if I’d played it cool, like I “had it all together”, as if I knew where my next few steps were headed.
- Just as you will be asking questions, you want to be ready to answer others’ questions for you. Make a list of 5–8 questions that you think others could ask. Then take a few minutes to prepare how you will respond
- Being transparent doesn’t mean you should feel the need spill all your issues. This isn’t a counseling session
- Try to find more experienced people who are willing to be mentors or supporters. For instance, Chicago AMA has a mentorship program, or consider your alumni program
- Tip of the iceberg
If you’re going to develop meaningful connections, you’ll need to put some time into it beyond the networking event or original meeting point. Then be sure to follow up with people after the event to advance a conversation. If you feel you had a great conversation, be sure to send a note over email within a week. You may also look them up on social media, invite them to connect on LinkedIn or follow them on Twitter. Like dating, just don’t advance too quickly, or all at once.
I’m typically rather time-constrained, so I don’t take a one-size fits all approach here. With some contacts, there’s a heightened need or opportunity. So I look to arrange a call or in-person meeting in the next week or two. For others, a simple “nice to meet you” note will suffice. And there are those who I don’t want to invest time with right now, for instance providers with a service or product I don’t need. Those business cards just stay in my file. No action required.
- Bring a pen and write notes on the business cards you receive. Date, event, location, a memorable note from your conversation. Follow up with an email note within a week
- Set aside time to touch base with contacts you’ve met. You may want to enter calendar appointments or time-based reminders to help keep organized
- Consider setting up a lightweight contact management tool to keep track of your contacts, conversations, and to-do items. I’m a fan of 37signals’ easy-to-use Highrise Their free plan is a great place for anyone to start
- Workout your digital presence
For professionals, LinkedIn is the single most important social media channel. (91% of B2B marketers use it) Before I meet or have a call with anyone, I look them up on LinkedIn. Same goes for anyone else I’ll be collaborating with on a project.
Take the time to complete your profile and get to “all-star” status. If you’re looking for a job, consider the keywords you’re using. Just think about the effort you put into your resume—except many more people will likely see it now.
To draw another parallel, let’s say you’re looking to meet someone on an online dating platform. Someone shows interest in you, but they have a rather incomplete profile with the bare minimum information. Think you’re going to meet with this creeper? Far less likely.
There are different perspectives on how LinkedIn can be used. I call this “open source vs closed system.”
Open source: Panelist Paula seeks to openly connect with people, unless it seems obvious they’re from completely outside of her loop. She takes an ‘aspirational view’ of her network—you never know who could be of help to you, or vice versa—so widening the circle is a good thing.
Closed system: On the other hand, my personal preference is that I typically do not link in with someone unless I have had a few interactions, or at least one in-depth conversation. I want to feel like I have an authentic human connection with someone before that is represented digitally. These authentic connections increase the value of my network and the value I can offer them. In the event I get a LinkedIn invitation from someone I don’t recognize, I respond with a short, friendly note to ask where or how we’ve interacted in the past. This isn’t to say I’m aloof or unapproachable, but that I’m simply being discerning about my professional network.
As for other social media platforms, there’s so much that I could say here, but I’ll limit it to what I’ve learned from my friend and previous client Margaret Molloy: think Linkedin plus one. In other words, use LinkedIn as your primary platform, then augment with one other platform.
For me, the ‘other platform’ is Twitter. In the context of networking, Twitter is a fantastic tool for interacting with other attendees during a speaking session. And unlike LinkedIn, I’m less reserved with people connecting with me on this channel.
For the Chicago AMA’s Michelle, it’s about her blog. Michael Cates, one of the attendees said it best: “… the most memorable part for me was Michelle sharing about her blog. I think knowing of people with outside-of-work identities are inspirational. It also validates some things I’ve been hearing lately about more consciously developing a digital presence.”
- Having a LinkedIn profile strength of “all-star” and 500+ connections increase your chances of being found by a Hiring Manager/HR
- From an international perspective, Sarah was surprised to learn how important LinkedIn was to networking and her job search. Since Chicago attracts people from all around the world, LinkedIn can be used to lay an important foundation
- As you build your LinkedIn presence, be prepared to respond to requests from outside your network. Know when to ask questions, know when to yes—and no. Diplomacy is required
I’m honored to have been able to participate in this session and share a few learnings here. Stripping away the layers, fancy words, tools and tactics—we humans meet because we all desire community. Each of us has something we can give to those around us. Each of us has something someone else may need. When we gather in community, a large part of what we do is to exchange.
In our professional lives, ‘networking’ is simply the label we affix to this type of gathering. As in other areas of life, there are a variety of motives a person can have, with varying degrees of nobility. To be able to exchange well, it’s essential to know you have both parts of the equation—we each have needs and something to offer. The gathering of people for just such a purpose is a beautiful thing.
My encouragement for you? Think about networking in simple but powerful terms:
Develop authentic relationships with people. Do it all the time and in whatever venue you find yourself. And don’t do it for what you can get out of it.
Over the past fifteen years in the marketing and brand strategy world, every single career opportunity that I’ve had has come through trusted people in my network. I am fortunate—and thankful—for the relationships in my life.
About the author
Philip Black has a 15-year track record of helping business leaders achieve their full potential in ways that yield tangible results — such as creating and establishing brands, developing employee and customer engagement programs, launching new products and attracting outside investment. At Avenue, a leading B2B marketing firm, he helps shape early-stage client strategy and map out business growth with new engagements.
Photo: Tommy Martinsen
Special thanks for our venue sponsor i.c. stars and our other guest panelists and event organizers: