Leveraging Our Networks: During Every Encounter

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Every year we have dozens of built in opportunities to network.  We attend our children’s school and sporting events, participate in holiday parties, workout at the gym and stop for coffee every morning at the same coffee shop.  Over time we get to know dozens of people, or do we?

We’ve probably delivered the same proverbial elevator speech we’ve written and practiced over time when we’re asked what we do for a living, as have they, but we often categorize them as “personal” rather than “professional” friends.

One of the most successful business development executives in the consulting industry, who lives in a Chicago suburb, attended both his daughters’ soccer games during their high school years.  During those years, he often sat next to their teammate’s father, was happened to be the CEO of a healthcare company.   When the company wanted to improve their performance, he received a call from the CEO.

While working with a team on a consulting engagement for a graphics company in New York we learned the company had just been purchased by a company in Chicago.   The purchasing company sent a representative to listen to our findings, we were thanked and dismissed.  Two weeks later the team got a call to present to the buyers in Chicago, who happened to be someone he met at a neighborhood Christmas party.

This same man’s passion has always been airplanes.  He holds a private pilot’s license, owns his own plane and is a member of multiple aerospace industry associations.  About ten years ago one of his friends, also a pilot, asked him if he could put a team together to help streamline aircraft production.  The team was successful and since then the preponderance of consulting engagements he’s been responsible for have been in aerospace.

His success is well earned.  Ask anyone who knows him and they’ll tell you he and his wife have spent their lives giving back.   When one of his former clients lost his job due to a merger, my colleague hired him immediately.  He served on the board of a start-up company for a new aircraft largely used for disaster relief and quietly worked to help them secure the additional funding they needed.

His genuine interest in other people shows with everyone he meets.  As a result he’s never really networking – he’s having a conversation.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Leveraging Our Network: Introductions

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Making the effort to connect people whose relationship may be mutually beneficial is a networking habit that demonstrates to members of our network that we hold them in high regard.  Almost like match-making – when we meet someone who appears to have parallel interests with someone else in our network – we can check with them to determine if they have interest in the connection, then make the introduction.  Although nothing may ever come of the introduction we have complimented both through our effort.

When a colleague makes an introduction on our behalf it’s important we acknowledge that compliment by following up on the introduction.

I’m reminded of an accomplished executive who I added to my team on a consulting engagement.   She had a deep background as a subject matter expert in a specific field.  As I got to know her I recognized it was important to her financially to be selected for additional engagements.

With her permission, I introduced her to two former colleagues of mine.  One owns her own firm and often has work she outsources.  The other is a highly sought after consultant who is often in the position to refer subject matter experts.

I received notes from both my colleagues thanking me for the introduction but, to date, have never received any feedback about subsequent calls that took place.

The learning for me was I could have been any of the parties involved in this scenario.  In this case I made the introduction.  I’ve been the person who was introduced and the person to whom someone was introduced.

I could be left with the feeling that I wasted my time; however, making the introduction gave me the opportunity to reconnect with two colleagues I admire.  It also reminded me how important it is to acknowledge the effort when someone makes an introduction on my behalf.

There may come a day when we need to contact that person, or someone else in our network, because we’re looking for a referral, a reference, or an introduction.  If we’ve established ourselves as someone who refers, provides references and makes introductions; and, who acknowledges our colleagues when we’re referred, when a reference is provided on our behalf, or when we’re introduced, we’ll be less reticent to ask for one when we need it and more likely to be the recipient of the support we need to be successful.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Leveraging Our Network: References

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A reference is a testimonial of someone’s suitability to fill a specific role in an organization.  When we find ourselves in a position where we’re asked to provide a reference for a colleague who’s interviewing for a position, it’s important to provide an honest assessment, particularly if that person wasn’t a top performer when we worked with them.

Although we’d all like to believe we were top performers in every position we’ve held, there are a multitude of reasons – some that might have been outside our control, this might not have been the case.  The same holds true for everyone in our network; therefore, sometimes it’s important to give them the same benefit of the doubt we’d like them to give us.

When asked to be a reference I’ve found I can serve all parties more effectively if I have the person asking for a reference send me an EMAIL.  In that EMAIL I ask for a description of the position they’re applying for, why they want this particular position, why they want to work for this company, and why they believe they’re a good fit.  Using that description, I prepare specific of examples of when I’ve observed this person doing this work successfully, being careful not to stretch the truth or fabricate any of the information.

Using what I’ve written and the information of why the individual thinks he’d be a good fit, I review this information with him so that he has a good understanding of what I’ll be sharing with his prospective employer.  This gives us both the opportunity to ask clarifying questions and allows me to not only represent him accurately but provide a reference that’s relevant to the position.

When we’re asking a colleague to provide a reference we can follow the same process.  We call the colleague and ask if he is willing to provide a reference for a specific position (or opportunity), why we want to work for this company, why we think we’re a good fit, and offer specific examples of when we’ve done similar work with him.

If our colleague is willing to be a reference, we let him know we’ll be sending him an EMAIL with the background information and, during the call, we schedule the quick follow-up.  This insures we’re aligned on what the reference will contain.

It’s important to let our references know the outcome of our candidacy, regardless of whether or not we get the position.  We certainly don’t want to put ourselves in the position where the next call we make to them is to ask for another reference, referral, or introduction.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Leveraging Our Network: Referrals

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Referring someone for a position is an opportunity to assist not only them, but another member of our network who’s looking for a person with that specific set of skills, talents, and knowledge.

It goes without saying, however, that referring someone or a company when we have reservations about their ability to succeed can not only contribute to their failure, but can reflect poorly on the person who gave them a chance, and damage our credibility.  The good news is, when we’re called by a colleague and asked the proverbial, “Do we know anyone who is looking for a …”, if no one immediately comes to mind we can usually honestly say we don’t.

When we’re seeking a referral, we have a better chance of getting the one we want if we carefully define why we’re seeking the referral, what we have to offer, what company needs that product or service, and who in that company can make the decision.

For example, we read in our local business journal that Smith’s Engines just won the contract to design and manufacture engines as a sub-contractor on a multi-billion dollar defense contract.  Our company is in the business of providing aerospace design engineers and has had success augmenting the staff of several other defense contractors.  We believe the person who can either make or influence the decision is the Vice President of Engineering.

We could certainly figure out who that individual is and place a cold call … but so could every other engineering firm in our space.  Instead, we check through the simple database we keep of the more than 500 members of our network to determine who knows the Vice President of Engineering at Smith’s Engines and ask our colleague for his advice on the best way to get in front of him and for his referral.

Recently I was leading a consulting engagement and two members from another team became available.  Their project lead called me and asked if I could find a place for them for a few weeks while she worked on securing another opportunity.  She wanted to be certain the two of them would be available for additional work if she was successful.  We chatted for a few minutes about each of their capabilities and figured out how they could temporarily contribute to my engagement.

They turned out to be two powerhouses who came in and after ten minutes of introduction got right to work.  Because of those two capable people we were able to exceed my clients’ expectations.

That other project lead put her reputation on the line when she referred two members of her team.  Her willingness to do so; however, said it all.  In an industry where we’re all independent practitioners, referrals are risky because while one bad referral won’t end your career, it can cost you the good will of someone who would have brought you work down the line.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Building Our Network: Professional Organizations

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Building a network within our industry or profession is another method of networking.  Most industries or professions have at least one professional organization and many have a wide selection organizations who would love to have us as members.

Finding a professional organization where we fit takes some effort.  We can get online to do the research and query our peers and advisors for information about their organizations.  If there’s a local chapter we can often attend one or several meetings as a guest and consider whether the organization’s purpose and approach works for us.

There are many models for professional organizations. One model is as a business whose purpose is to provide education, training, and certification in a specific field.  These organizations work to legitimize the need for the certifications they offer and attract new members who will purchase the training to earn these certifications.  They typically have a paid professional staff that facilitates their efforts and produces conferences that are educational and offer networking opportunities for their members.

A second model is used by organizations formed to work on issues that are common to their profession or industry and advance the collective knowledge.  They often publish a periodical with articles of interest written by or of interest to their members.  Companies who are suppliers to the businesses within the industry, or of interest to the members of the profession, often sponsor annual conferences attended by hundreds of members.

A third model is an organization formed solely to allow their members to network.  These run the gamut from meet-ups open to the public to those with memberships limited to specific groups. The costs associated with membership range from a small fee to attend each meeting to an annual fee of six figures for a professionally facilitated meeting of CEO’s or business owners.

Whatever organization we choose we need to determine whether the time and price of participation has value One method is to join an organization for a year and take stock when it’s time to renew to determine if we’ve been interested in actively participating or found reasons not to attend the meetings.

If not, why not?  Is it that the organization isn’t a good fit with our goals or interests?  Are we at stage in our lives or careers where we can’t or don’t make the time to participate?

If, however, we’ve found a good fit we can renew the membership and continue to look for ways to actively participate and build our network.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

The Executive’s Network: Building our Peer Group from Previous Organizations or Affiliations

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Peers with whom we’ve previously worked, attended school, or worked toward a common purpose can be valuable members of our network.  Our shared history provides a common ground and a known resource for information, references, and referrals.

Since we’re no longer in the same organization, and in some cases, not even in the same geographical location, finding a method for keeping in touch that benefits both parties can be a challenge.

Social media, EMAIL, and messaging have largely replaced telephone calls and the U.S. Mail as the channels for staying in touch.  However, the investment in time required can be significant and often, impersonal.

The good news is, believe it or not, most of us have this issue in common – we really don’t have the mindshare and focus to support a huge network.  We can, however, support people in our networks on an individual basis when we have the opportunity or wherewithal to promote their corporate image.

Consciously looking for opportunities to endorse, introduce, reference or refer a member of your network is a surefire method of maintaining long-term relationships with our peers.  Even when someone doesn’t reciprocate it keeps the line of communication open between the two of you.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Building A Peer Group Within Our Current Organization

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If we look at a traditional organization chart, everyone on the same rung of the ladder we occupy can be considered a peer.  The thing we have in common, in most organizations, is there are fewer positions at each level as we climb to the top of the ladder.

To remain on the ladder at all we have to contribute to the success of the organization.  However, even if we’re a superstar and our part of the organization is humming, unless we collaborate with other departments it’s difficult to affect the overall performance of the organization.  To do that we typically must collaborate with our peers.

This can be a challenge, due to the inherent competition peers face.   In many organizations, it’s not unusual for the senior executive of a functional area to work independently, with her subordinates, and with her boss, and only interact with their peers at a weekly staff meeting or on projects where they’re representing their functional area.

Because this is the norm, executives who develop peer relationships within their organization that transcend one or the others departure is the exception rather than the rule.   Even though it may involve stepping outside of our comfort zone it can be well worth it, particularly if we consider it the distinguishing trait our boss would look for in his successor.

  • Seek Their Counsel and Collaborate for Success

When we demonstrate to someone that we respect their opinion enough to seek their counsel, particularly as it pertains to their area of expertise, we’re opening the door for collaboration.

One opportunity to do this can be when we’re drafting a presentation or plan to make a change in how our department or organization does their work.  Calling or visiting a peer for their perspective demonstrates respect.  It also builds trust.    After all, if every time we are going to propose a change in our area of responsibility that affects one of our peers, they know we’ll run it by them and consider their perspective, we demonstrate we can be trusted.

When we look for opportunities to collaborate with our peers it changes our perspective from. “How can I be successful?” to “How can we collaborate to insure our mutual success”?  If we can align on an approach we also have a greater opportunity for success.

This approach is not without risk.  We’ve all had situations like this backfire, some of them with long-term consequences.  Being prepared to diffuse a situation when a peer makes a derogatory or inflammatory comment is essential as often our initial reaction is to respond in kind.

  • Promote Their Corporate Image

Looking for opportunities to remark upon contributions our peers make is an attractive professional trait.  During a presentation or conversation we can often find the opportunity to attribute ideas we received from a peer or comment positively on their contribution as instrumental to achieving a goal that’s important to the organization.

Conversely, when we’re disappointed in the performance of a peer or her organization, the only person we should discuss it with is that person.  One organizational dynamic that never leads to success is when we disparage someone’s reputation explicitly or implicitly.

That doesn’t mean we have to disingenuously endorse someone who’s not performing.   It does mean we have to disengage from conversations that can be damaging to their professional image.  We’ve all had such conversations and although it’s sometimes tempting to “dish the dirt” those statements can come back to haunt us.

  • Provide Honest Feedback

Most of us feel uncomfortable providing unflattering feedback.  When we do it out of genuine concern, or because we’ve been asked, particularly with our peers, we have to tread carefully.

One method of doing this is to start the conversation by making positive statements about their experience or the approach they’ve taken.

In Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, the principles he articulated in 1936 still apply today.

He advises us to: “Begin with praise and honest appreciation.”  This can be easier if we rehearse our opening prior to discussing an issue with a peer.  In the quiet of our own minds we can usually find genuine positive attributes.

He also offers the suggestion that we “Talk about our own mistakes.”  This demonstrates our understanding that we’re all just “works in progress” and also goes a long way to showing that you’re genuinely concerned in ensuring this person’s success.

He goes on to recommend that we, “Ask questions instead of giving direction.”   For example, “In the competitive analysis you’ did a great job of showing X.  What did you find out about Y?”

Like any relationship, peer relationships grow deeper over time.  By not being in a hurry and giving peers the opportunity to collaborate you can develop relationships with peers in your current organization.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

The Executives Network: Building Your Advisory Board

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Our Advisory Board is exactly that – the people we go to when we need advice.  In order to insure advice we receive from them is sound they need to have some specific characteristics.  They have to be willing to provide advice, they need to be wise so the advice they offer is sound, they need to have the experience to offer advice that is pertinent to the issue at hand, and the advice they’re offering needs to be unbiased.

  1. Willingness.

The willingness to seek and listen to advice is a mark of maturity.  When I consider those times in my career I’ve failed, without exception, I could have prevented it.  I always knew I was in a situation where I was in trouble and there was always someone who, had I been willing to seek and listen, would have provided the advice I needed.

However, when we’re finally in the situation where we know we’d benefit from some advice, we need to already have developed trusted advisors who are willing to provide us the benefit of their counsel.

Not everyone is comfortable, and even our most respected advisor might be uncomfortable, providing advice in certain situations or on certain topics.  If, before we ask for advice on a particular topic, we consider why it is we would ask or accept advice from this particular person on that particular topic, we can avoid putting ourselves and our advisors in a situation where they, like us, don’t really have the background or experience to provide us counsel.

On the other hand, we all know people who, will give advice, unsolicited.  They’re just wired that way.  If we are together for any amount of time, enjoying a meal or just walking across a parking lot, and describe what we’re working on or struggling with, they’ll offer advice.

We can choose to consider this type of advice as the gift it is.  When we’re fortunate enough to have people like that in our lives, for goodness sake, we can at least consider what they’ve offered and thank them for it.   Typically, they won’t hold it against us if we don’t follow their advice if we don’t bring the same issue up repeatedly.

  1. Wisdom.

A young client once said something that’s still stuck with me almost twenty years later.  We were talking in his office after a particularly contentious exchange between two of his team members.  Both were extremely bright and hard-working.  One had the responsibility for solving a particular technical issue and presented a path forward to the team.  The other, countered his proposal at every turn by discrediting the soundness of the approach.

He shook his head and offered, “There’s a difference between smart and wise.”

Understanding the difference between the two causes us to develop solutions that pave the way for future success without seeking to win at someone else’s expense.

This understanding also gives us the wisdom to seek advisors who are both.

  1. Pertinent Experience.

Seeking advisors who have experience pertinent to the business challenge at hand is a matter of defining what we’re trying to accomplish and exactly what experience it is we don’t have.  In other words, we have to “know what we it is we don’t know” and seek an advisor who does.

Once we’ve defined what it is we need to learn there are multiple advisors whose counsel we seek based upon the issue at hand, particularly if we realized some of our advisors are people who are people we’ve never met whose writings and work we follow.

In fact, finding an answer can be as easy as typing, “How do I …?” into our Internet browsers.  There are volumes of materials and instruction available on about every topic if we are looking for it.

Sometimes, however, we need an advisor who will be sure we are asking the right questions.  The Small Business Administration recognizes the importance of this and through their SCORE program has a virtual army of retired executives who are willing to mentor.

  1. Unbiased.

Our advisors provide unbiased advice on issues because they have “No Dog in the Hunt”.  Unlike mentors or peers in our current organization our advisors can offer us an outside perspective.

One of the most fruitful sources for advisors is people with whom we’ve previously worked.   Maintaining those relationships throughout our careers is an investment worth making.

Building a personal advisory board, just like the advisory board to a business, is a valuable source of wisdom and counsel when we populate it with the right team.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

The Executives Network

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In the book still often credited as being responsible for creating more millionaires than any other, Think and Grow Rich, originally published in 1937, Napoleon Hill advises readers to assemble a group of masterminds.  He defines the purpose of this group as, “Coordination of knowledge and effort, in a spirit of harmony, between two or more people, for attainment of a purpose.”

Building that network is a lifelong undertaking, yet for most of us, the only time we have energy or make time to invest in building our network is when we’re looking for our next job or client.

Even with the availability of social media, making the time to keep up with people we’ve worked with can be a challenge, particularly when there aren’t enough hours in the day as it is.   I know I’m not alone in admitting that when I’m fully engaged with my work I have little mindshare left to invest in keeping up with my previous clients and colleagues.

However, networking is like exercise … an investment in our future selves.  The more we stay connected to the people with whom we worked, learned from, and with whom we share a common set of experiences, the better we get at what we do.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.

Finding Balance and Focus: Matching Our Lifestyle Choices to Our Goals

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The congruence of our lifestyle choices with our goals is as much a predictor of whether we’ll meet those goals as it is whether or not we’ll enjoy the journey.

When I was young I could dance the night away, grab a couple hours of sleep, take a shower, drink a cup of coffee, and still show up for work on time and never miss a beat.  It rarely occurred to me how much more effective I could have been on the job with a healthier lifestyle, and when it did, that thought only lasted as long as the next party.

Fortunately, for most of us, the lifestyle choices we make change over time as our careers and families become more important than being the life of the party.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have fun, it’s just what we find fun changes as we mature.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for us to replace the time we spent having fun with time spent working.  Sixteen hour days, fueled by energy drinks, and then a large evening meal, might work in the short term, but not over time.

In our culture, as medical practice has started to shift from “heal your illness” to “keep you well”,  opinions are changing regarding the importance of a healthy lifestyle.   In our parents time almost everyone smoked and stopped off for a drink, or several, after work and few people exercised.   Today it’s rare to meet a senior executive who smokes, drinks excessively, and who doesn’t get some form of exercise.

Our culture is also finally beginning to reclaim the need for balance in our sleeping habits.  It wasn’t long ago that someone who claimed he didn’t require more than four or five hours of sleep a night was admired.   We can all get by on four or five hours sleep in the short term, but it doesn’t take long for our judgment and motor skills to become impaired.

Regardless of the responsibilities of our current position we have to adjust our daily activities to insure we have balance.   An executive for an international company can expect conference calls during hours she would typically be asleep as well as some overseas travel so she must figure out how to adjust her sleep pattern.  An executive at a manufacturing company can often expect to be at work before the first shift starts and to be there until that shift ends and the next shift is well underway might take time in the middle of the day for lunch with his spouse or a workout at the gym.

Understanding how to match our lifestyle choices to the requirements of our personal and professional lives gives us the mental and physical energy to perform successfully at work and the fuel we need to enjoy our personal lives.

Isn’t that what it’s really all about?

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in 2017.