Twenty years ago, I had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. Through my recruiting connections, I was given the opportunity to organize a career session at a scientific conference. I’m not a meeting planner, but I decided that, since I had been given this chance, I might as well focus my networking abilities on getting the very best speakers that I could find. But there was a hurdle: I had no budget, and the people I wanted to invite charged $10,000 and up to give a talk.
I’ll cut straight to the happy conclusion. After I communicated the possible benefits the speakers could expect from attending an 8000 attendee meeting in the “burgeoning biotechnology industry” (and arranging to have their books and materials on sale at the site), I convinced two of the world’s best public speakers to attend: Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute Manager, and Edward de Bono, author of Six Thinking Hats and numerous other books.
The event was a huge success—pulling in the single largest audience that conference had ever seen—and the connections I made with those two key speakers continued for years. What I learned about networking and the value of making good connections builds on last month’s discussion of your “networking playbook.”
The four stages of learning
At the meeting, de Bono talked about how we learn a new skill, such as driving a car. Do you remember how uncomfortable it was at first? You knew next to nothing about how to do it, and reading the manual in the glove compartment wouldn’t help. The only thing you could do was get behind the wheel and actually try it.
It’s the same with networking. In the four stages of competence, you start out unconsciously incompetent. In other words, you have no idea how complex the task in front of you is.
But with networking, even if you are very early in the learning process, there are still easy, effective actions you can take. For example, in last month’s column I provided an example of how you might begin networking with peers. Exchanging information with people at your level who are going through the same job search process can help you move into the next learning phase: conscious incompetence. You’ll need to develop a thick coat of armor, because you’ll be out there making mistakes—and you’ll know it. My goal is to provide enough specifics to get you past this bump in the road without too many bruises—but at the same time, your ultimate success will come partly because you’ll remember each of these lessons so well!
Let’s say that you want to introduce yourself to the director of research of XYZ Company, who is also a part of the social committee you’ve volunteered for at a national meeting being held in your backyard. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable, and perhaps that discomfort will never go away. But after you’ve said hello and shaken hands, Dr. Smith looks you in the eye and says, “Tell me about yourself.”
Which one of these replies do you think comes from the networking newbie?
“I’m a plant scientist in Dr. Patel’s lab at Big State University, with significant research experience in improving efficiency of various cropping systems under a range of environmental conditions, as well as working with parent lines development and hybrid seed production. I’ve applied at XYZ Company and would love to hear about anything that you might have available for someone 3-plus years out of their Ph.D. Any chance we could discuss that?”
“I’m a plant scientist working with Dr. Patel at Big State University. My colleagues and I have published on improving the efficiency of cropping systems under a variety of environmental conditions. My own focus has been on parental line development, including field breeding methods and hybrid seed production. I love the fact that our work has impacted small farmers in a lot of Southeast Asian countries, and I remember that your team has collaborated with a partner of mine in the Philippines. If there’s a way that we can also work together with your lab, I sense that our efforts may fit nicely into your research mission.”
Hopefully you recognize that the first answer comes from the newbie. As discussed in last month’s column, it’s a cardinal sin to directly ask about job opportunities so early in the networking interaction. Instead, it’s best to show a more general interest in what you have in common with XYZ, as the second answer did, as opposed to the sledgehammer approach of a job inquiry. The more studied second reply also expresses both the “we” of the work you do as well as the “I.” Overall, these qualities of the second reply will, I assure you, leave a valuable impression behind with your contact.
Moving toward competence
After you’ve bumbled around and made a few mistakes—which you now consider solid lessons along the networking trail—you’ll find yourself developing competence in your approach. But just as you arrive at this stage, you will start to feel that everything you say and do—every networking call or meeting at a social event—has to be perfectly thought out before delivery. Yes, you've become competent, but it’s still not easy. Networking at this stage requires that you carefully plan every step. This is conscious competence.
Let’s stay that you’ve been offered an opportunity to meet with one of your LinkedIn connections face to face. That person is a peer, but she works at a company that you’ve long admired and in a job category you've been interested in. What do you do? Do you enjoy your coffee and talk about the kids you both have or drive forward with a series of questions that get to the bottom of what you’ve been longing to know about a career in regulatory affairs?
The answer is both. Newbie networkers generally go into a meeting like this well prepared—but that usually means a yellow notepad with a series of questions. That’s OK, because you’ll need those questions about her career track. Done the wrong way, however, it can come across as one-sided. Talking about those kids for a while can lead to questions about child care and the work environment, which can then lead to questions about regulatory affairs as a career path. Make sure you let a warm feeling of friendliness develop before you pull out your yellow pad! By being consciously competent, you’ll recognize that people need to warm up and find common ground, not just buzz through a Q&A session.
With continuing practice, someday soon you’ll find yourself working in the lab, perhaps thinking through an equation that is troubling you, when you’re interrupted by an assistant professor candidate being shown through the laboratories. Despite the fact that your mind never really leaves that equation in front of you, you connect with a solid handshake and comment on an article you saw her publish recently, followed by a short discussion about a possible tie-in to a project you’ve been working on. Ten minutes later, you’ve got both the solution to your equation and a new networking contact under your belt. Bingo! You’ve become unconsciously competent. Networking has now become both a career- and life-enhancing tool.
For me, there is no greater feeling than to think back on all the connections I’ve made and how we have enhanced each other’s lives. I hope that, given some time, you’ll grow to feel the same way.