If you ask most IT managers, they’ll admit they are more comfortable in building out and maintaining a computer network than in creating and maintaining their “personal network”—the group of professional contacts that can help with their careers.
You know what? I don’t blame them.
Personal networking is hard work for most of us. While pulling cable, installing server operating systems, and connecting client machines isn’t easy, at least you have documentation to help you, as well as other resources. When it comes to personal networking, on the other hand, you’re pretty much on your own—unless you count those overpriced business books with the huge margins and triple-spaced copy, bearing vacuous titles such as Affirming Your Inner Affirmableness, Firewall: How Anti-Success Viruses are Sabotaging Your Dreams for Corporate Riches, or Personal Networking Tips of Marshall Zhukov.
In this column, we’re going to look at why personal networking is so difficult for technical managers and offer some suggestions on how to overcome those difficulties.
The power of focused audacity
Of course, for some people, personal networking is easy. By and large, these folks are fearless in their capacity for personal rejection, so long as the reward is big enough.
What do I mean?
Consider for a moment Tim, a guy I knew at college. Midway through his freshman year, he decided that he wanted to go into advertising after getting his degree. Therefore, he reasoned, it made more sense to get a paid internship at an ad agency during the summer break than to work at a restaurant.
The only problem with this plan was that Tim knew nothing about advertising. He hadn’t even taken the first class on the subject. (I’m pretty sure what sparked his interest in the field was watching Dustin Hoffman working as an ad guy in the tearjerker Kramer vs. Kramer, but that’s another story.) The university’s Guidance Department and his department chair said the same thing: Take a couple of classes, volunteer for an unpaid internship or two, and then shoot for a paid internship after your junior year of college.
Sound advice, but Tim had another idea. A few weeks before Spring Break, he went to a bookstore, got the latest issue of Advertising Age, and turned to the section where ad agencies announced staff promotions and new hires. He then bought some nice letterhead, took the cover off of his IBM Selectric, and typed 20 individual letters, each of which went approximately like this:
I read about your promotion to [title] in the latest Advertising Age. Congratulations! Getting such a great job at an agency like [name of agency] is a huge achievement.
I’m going to be back in the city in a couple of weeks, and I’d love to get together one day and buy you a drink to celebrate.
I’ll give you a call.
As you can see, Tim was very smooth. He didn’t attach a resume, ask about paid internships—anything. All he was looking for was an opening with someone in the business.
About a week before Spring Break, Tim called all the people he had written. He got through to about half of them. Those ten he did talk to all said the same thing: “Thanks for the letter—but who the hell are you?” Tim replied truthfully enough that he was a college student who wanted to make a career in advertising. Eight of those ten people thanked him again and quickly got off the phone. The other two, undoubtedly impressed by Tim’s chutzpah, agreed to meet him for a drink. One of those two gave Tim the name of someone who was looking for a paid intern for the summer, and made a strong call on Tim’s behalf. He got the internship, and spent the summer wearing a coat and tie, working in a glass tower in Manhattan, and meeting people who would be extremely valuable when he got out of college.
I spent the summer working in a factory, putting together refrigerator components.
Don’t get me wrong: the money was good, and I was glad to get the job for the summer. All the same, I couldn’t help but feel that Tim had done more with his summer than I had.
Yet I couldn’t see myself doing what he had done. When I was 18, I just didn’t have the moxie to write those letters and (more importantly) make those phone calls. “Weren’t you worried about what they would say to you?” I asked him.
“Why should I worry?” he replied. “What are they going to do to me—take away my birthday?”
For years afterward, I took the wrong lesson away from this encounter. I used to say to myself that were two kinds of people in the world: guys like Tim, who could make those phone calls, and guys like me, who couldn’t.
I now think that’s wrong. Focusing on the cold calling was a mistake. Here is the real lesson: Given the right circumstances and training, everyone can take control of their professional career. Granted, few of us will be as smooth as Tim, but that’s OK.
Here are a few tips to help you get started:
- Have a plan: While it may have seemed random, Tim’s plan was pretty methodical. As he explained it to me, he hoped to get six or seven of the people he’d written on the phone, and hoped to be able to get one or two to take him up on the drink offer. Once he had a private meeting, even in a bar, he felt confident enough in his ability to persuade that he hoped to get some help on the internship.
- Dare to be oblique: Tim never directly asked any of his contacts for a job. Instead, he asked for their help in finding him one. This kind of approach can still work now. Not too long ago, I received e-mail from two former colleagues on the same day. (They both worked for the same company, which went out of business.) The first told me of his situation, and asked if I had any openings that he would be right for. I responded politely that I hadn’t any such openings. The second person explained his situation, and then asked if I would be available for lunch sometime. He wanted my advice on what direction his career should take now. I responded that I would be happy to do so, and we set a time for the lunch.
- Don’t burn bridges: This is obvious, but necessary, advice. In the technology sector, things change so quickly that you just don’t know who may end up being important to you in the future. Your old boss could end up being your new boss. For that matter, your former employee could end up being your new supervisor. Maybe that’s why those two ad execs agreed to meet with Tim—or maybe they were just trying to help out someone who was just getting started.
We’ll talk more about personal networking in the future. For right now, the important thing is to realize that you do have a certain amount of control over your career. Not total control, certainly. But you’re not helpless, either. That knowledge should be liberating.
What do you think?