Becoming a connector

In the best Malcolm Gladwell book, the Tipping Point, Glad well defines networks and people in networks. He assigns people in the network to one of four roles: participant, connector, maven and sales person. Many of us start out in a network as a participant. That is, we are in a network, but not commanding attention or effectively linked to many other people. Most people in a network are participants.

Increasingly it is helpful to become a connector – to know a fair number of people and to help others make connections to other participants in the network. To be a connector you need to 1) know a fair number of people in your network and 2) be willing and able to make connections between participants. To make connections, you need to understand WIIFT – what’s in it for them? Both the individual who requests a connection and the individual you connect to are asking themselves – what is in it for me? Too many connections can weigh down people or cause ineffective networks. Others may worry that everyone you connect to them wants something, and this is another important point.

The folks at TechStars have a mantra that I’ve grown to like a lot. They talk about “giving first”, and this is a good idea in a network. Ask yourself what you can give to the network or people within the network, before or as you ask for things from the network. You may be able to give: introductions, connections, introduce new information or people to the network and much more. Always think about what you can offer your network – your friendship, your help, your insight and your knowledge.

Eventually you may be come a connector, or if you have deep knowledge about a subject, an industry, a technology or something else you may become what Gladwell calls a “Maven”. Connectors are people who know a lot of people and are good at connecting them. Mavens can be connectors, but they are often connected “to” because of what they know, not whom they know. Finding connectors and mavens in your network is vital, because the first is connected to everyone and actively works his or her network. Mavens aren’t necessarily aggressive connectors but have a lot of knowledge that other people seek out, so working closely with mavens and with connectors increases your opportunity of reaching more of the network.

The Networking event

Since I was restructured, I’ve been building my network, primarily on my own steam. I’ve been doing this by reaching out to people I know and networks I’ve cultivated over the years. I’ve since built a network of about 350 people, and frankly I can’t connect with all of them all of the time.

However, I decided on the advice of a friend to attend a networking event, and found it interesting and instructional. The event of choice was a program in RTP called Networking with Nate, which I’ve since found out is a long-running and well-respected networking program. There were probably 25-30 people there looking for new opportunities.

What I liked about the event was the focus on refining messages, building resumes and getting better conversations. I sat in on a breakout using a set of cards to help identify the things you like doing best. The card deck contained cards with statements like “I like to build things” or “I see the big picture”. The idea was to select the 8 cards that most aligned to your interest and skills, then find in those one cards the actual activity or thing that drives you or gives you purpose.

From that it was interesting to me to see the cards I ended up selecting. They had to do with growth, identifying and advancing good ideas, having the big picture in mind, and good design. These attributes seem to do a good job reflecting what I enjoy doing and what I’ve done in the jobs I’ve enjoyed previously.

This led me to check out the cards and the company that creates them. The gentleman behind the cards is Richard Leider, who is a thinker who is deep into the power of purpose. Definitely worth checking out.

I have attended other networking sessions, both as a job seeker and as a coach or facilitator. Networking with Nate was well-run, and I think the exercise did a lot to continue to clarify what I’d like to do in my next opportunity.

Repurpose, Refocus or Redirect

When you start looking for a new job after losing one, a lot of ideas pop into your mind. Should I double down on the role or industry where I have been previously employed? Is it time to pivot, to try something new? What skills or capabilities do I have and how can they be best applied?

For me, I think it is important to constantly explore opportunities This goes back to my nature, diverging before converging as noted in an earlier post. I think any job seeker has several paths in front of them:

  • – Refocus – continue in the same roles, with the same responsibilities, in the same industry or geography.
  • – Repurpose – keep one or more of these factors the same, but change others. This is an adjacent strategy, taking skills from one industry and applying them in another, or shifting the focus from a large company to a startup, as an example.
  • – Redirect – think about entirely different roles or capabilities that you can offer the marketplace.

It’s my opinion that every individual owns the responsibility to make themselves attractive and employable. This means constantly gaining skills, constantly exploring emerging needs and capabilities, and being able to shift to roles, positions, industries or other opportunities that are gaining traction, rather than simply holding on tenaciously to jobs, positions or industries that are stagnant or shrinking.

Jim Carroll, who has built a really fascinating business in keynote talks about the future, demonstrates a good example of what I call repurposing. Recently, he shifted his focus to de-emphasize innovation and increase emphasis on digital transformation. This doesn’t mean that innovation isn’t important; it’s simply a recognition that digital transformation is increasingly more important to customers. Thus Jim, and others of us like Jim, must consider how or if we incorporate digital transformation capabilities in our tool kits and in our job search.

So the question is, as you search for something new, do you stay the course, explore adjacent opportunities, positions and industries, or shift to a radically new opportunity. And as you consider that, ask yourself another question – how have I prepared myself to fill that opportunity, or what do you need to do in order to be capable in a new role?

Divergent and Convergent

My path through this search seems a bit strange to some of my colleagues and friends.  I guess the wandering path I’ve taken so far is a result of my innovation experience, where we constantly tell our clients to diverge first, explore a lot of possibilities and then converge around the right answer.

Divergence has always been a mindset for me.  I’ve always been the one in the room asking if we’ve explored enough options, thought carefully about our scope.  In the Foursight model (a good framework to assess potential innovators) I am a clarifier/ideator, which means I’m always asking if we have the scope defined correctly or if we need more discovery.

My sense is that this makes it a bit difficult to fit neatly into a specific role or organizational box, but that’s OK for now.  I’m really interested in exploring several pathways for my next passion.  I’m also certain that when the time or opportunity is right the convergence will happen fairly quickly.

Understanding the players

Every job search involves understanding the ecosystems within industries and the people who can help you find new opportunities.  There are several layers of people, external to organizations and internal to organizations, who can be helpful, provide information, guidance, connections and introductions.

In the first category – the people who are in an industry but external to companies you might be interested in – are funders, analysts and influencers.  For example, if you are interested in working in the innovation space, there are people and companies that provide analysis and reporting on the innovation space and influencers or analysts who write about the space.  In my career, I’ve commented on and written about innovation, so I may have some role as an “influencer”.  These individuals know a lot about the space and can be very helpful identifying what’s happening and who the leading companies are.

When you have targeted specific industries or companies to talk to, then using the connections and guidance from influencers or analysts to identify people within the company is invaluable.  In my experience, finding the right person to talk to in a job search is a lot like a sales effort.  People fill a number of roles:

  • influencers,
  • economic buyers,
  • technical buyers and
  • decision makers.

You need to find the influencers who can give you the inside scoop, who can tell you what the economic buyers and technical buyers will want to know about your experience and value proposition.  Ultimately, you’ll want to find the decision maker, the person who will do the actual hiring and where the job reports.  He or she will take advice from the economic and technical buyer, and may be somewhat influenced by the influencers inside the organization and outside.  Most of the internal folks are there to winnow out candidates and will do so for many reasons – experience, education, background, perceived fit and so forth.  That’s their job, and most do it really well.  However, if you want a position badly enough, don’t let a “no” from anyone other than the decision maker stop you.

Lessons Learned from my network so far

I’ve been out networking, talking to my existing contacts and new acquaintances, for a little over a month now.  I am getting an education in several areas simultaneously.

First, I’m learning about the job market and where the opportunities are now, and where they are likely to be in the next few years.  Fortunately for much of the work I want to do, there’s not a lot of disruption on the horizon, at least based on the conversations I’ve had so far.  But  there seems to be a significant amount of disruption coming for some jobs and some industries.

Second, I’m beginning to see gaps between what “everyone knows” and what is real.  Take, for instance, IIOT.  Many companies will make claims about the growth of the industrial internet of things, but what most companies, consultants and software firms are telling me is that the manufacturing side of IIOT is relatively mature.  Most companies have all the hardware they need, and are awash in data that they can’t use effectively.  There seems to be a real gap between implementing IIOT and using the data the sensors generate effectively.  I am still convinced there is an opportunity for IoT in the consumer space, but I think we are still a year or two ahead of that market.

Third, there are a lot of opportunities in the marketplace in Raleigh and in the Triangle.  I’ve told a number of people that when you start scratching the surface, there are a number of interesting companies here that are growing and need help.  It’s no secret that we could use more venture money in the Triangle for second and third stage rounds.  Many venture backed companies I am talking to are going to California or other locations for their larger investments.  It would be great if we had the ability to make larger rounds locally.

Finally, a lot of the networking is paying off in my continuing education.  Where I was considering one course of action, a lot of feedback and education from my network has convinced me otherwise, but has also opened up some new areas for consideration.

I’m grateful for the people in my network and the opportunity to learn from them, and trying to balance between pulling all the data and contacts I can from the network (and risk exhausting them and not contributing back) or going slowly and carefully (not always my first inclination).

Really listening to your network

I’ve been out talking to a lot of people in my network.  These discussions have led to new introductions, which means I get to add more people to my network.  I started with about 120 people, and through conversations and links from friends I’m now approaching 300 people.  But does what you can measure really matter?

Measuring what matters was brought home today during a coffee with a friend.  Shawn listened to what I wanted in a new opportunity and told me to think about the perspective of the people I was talking to.  You see, for me, marketing is really fascinating.  It includes strategic aspects, content and thought leadership, go to market campaign planning and execution, social media, direct mail and so much more.  But what a lot of people think of when they think of marketing is:  lead generation.   Many people define it very narrowly.  Shawn suggested that I talk about wanting to take on a role of Growth Officer – which might include sales and marketing, but which is a more expansive idea.

Shawn turned the entire conversation around.  Rather than talk about what you want, think about what the listener hears and how they position what you say.  While I have a broad and interesting definition of marketing, others may have a more narrow definition and may not value the work as much as I do.  Find out what they value that you can do.  Of course this is good sales procedure, and sometimes I forget that I’m “selling” my experience, my knowledge and my passion.

What’s all that got to do with numbers in the network?  Shawn wasn’t the first person to tell me to rethink how I positioned myself in marketing.  Others had said the same thing. One member of my network suggested that I pitch myself as a COO.  Another encouraged me to highlight my sales leadership experience.  What several of them were saying, perhaps without saying it directly, is that while I think marketing is a valuable capability and important in many settings, the people I’m meeting with may have a more narrow view of what marketing is and the value it delivers.

I think the old (marketing) adage is that you have to repeat a message 5-7 times before it is heard and understood.  I think that’s why talking to your network and actually listening is so vital to finding the next passion.

Early Lessons

I’m a few weeks into my search for a new passion, and the experience so far has been educational and enlightening.  I’m also happy to say the experience was been rewarding and very engaging.  I’ve been very appreciative of the people who have willingly opened their networks and made introductions to people I don’t know.

I’ve also been surprised at how many people have been willing to talk about their companies, their needs and their networks.  Based on one good introduction, whole new pathways and networks have opened up.  In the past, I’ve tried to be responsive to requests from my network, and it’s awesome to see such a great response to my requests.

I’ve learned a few things so far, so this may help others:

  1. I tell people I’m not asking for a job, but that I want to know what their company does, how it sees the near future and finally who the individual I’m talking with thinks I should get to know.  I’m using this experience to gain more knowledge, and I want to put the people I’m talking to at ease.
  2. Many people will want to know exactly what job, job level or job title you hope to achieve or fill.  In my case, since I’m more interested in the right growth team or company, the actual position is a bit less important, so that means I have to describe what I want and why and allow the listener to determine who I should speak with.
  3. Most companies have defined roles (no surprise) but many people of my age and experience may not perfectly fit into those definitive boxes.  I’m trying to understand when or if companies or teams are willing to morph their roles or perhaps create a new one that allows me to do what I do best.  This is why learning and understanding are so important.
  4. A resume is helpful but not all that important.  LinkedIn and its ability to communicate your experience is important, and easily observable deliverables or content online also help your case.  In my case, with my innovation blog, websites I’ve developed and other supporting evidence (books, speaking engagements) it makes it easier to evaluate the work I’ve done because some of it is public.

These are just a few things I’ve learned while out seeking a new opportunity.  I’ll provide more learnings in subsequent posts.

The power of networks

When I received the news that I would lose my position due to restructuring, I started out by listing all the people in my immediate network.  I’ve always found that networking – talking to people in your network and letting them know what you are looking for or hope to do – opens doors and creates conversations like nothing else.

So, from a list of approximately 150 people I’ve started to expand the list.  In each conversation I am talking to people about what I want, and asking for introductions to other people that might find my experience interesting or valuable.  I always try to reciprocate, opening doors and making connections for others, but more often right now I’m in a position of asking favors more often than providing them.

What is always so overwhelming in these instances is how open people are to help, to talk, to connect me to others.  In some instances I am talking to people two or three levels removed from my initial contact.  Networking is like playing the Kevin Bacon game, but in smaller cities like Raleigh I often find that many people are no more than two or three degrees of separation away from almost anyone else.

As I talk with old friends and new acquaintances, I’m often struck by how powerful networks are and how willing people are to help.  People who barely know me, who have been introduced by friends or colleagues, open up their networks and introduce me to new people.  It’s a really interesting, positive experience, plus I get to meet a lot of new people and test my thinking and learn from them about their companies and roles.

If there’s one thing to learn from this, one thing to impart it is this:  building and sustaining networks takes time and requires commitment, but networks are exceptionally valuable.  I have to be careful to try to return value to the network even as I ask for help from the network, but more importantly keep the network fresh and constantly add to my network, something that can be difficult to do when I am working on projects or other tasks.  Networks are only as valuable and flexible as the work you put into them, so start early to build a network, keep it fresh by interacting with your network and provide value to your network by being a source of connections or information.

Position or Passion?

One of the interesting things about looking for a new job is that jobs are often aligned to organizational hierarchies or specific positions.  To be relevant, you’ll often have to describe the role or position you want.  Many job seekers do this by stating they are looking for a “senior management role in finance in a consumer packaged goods company”.  That’s all well and good, but it assumes that companies want to fill slots rather than to attract talent.

The truth is, I think, companies want to do both – fill existing, well-defined positions in the corporate organizational chart, AND attract talent that can help them morph to address new opportunities.  Increasingly I think, boundary spanners who have skills that can cross organizational siloes or span a divide between say entrepreneurs and large corporations are going to be more valuable than people who can fill a defined position.

This makes job searching and even networking very interesting.  When I first started contacting my network to discuss the people they knew and opportunities they were aware of, the network asked the logical question:  what job or position are you looking for?  You can imagine the feedback I received when I gave my contacts some of the “What I’m looking for” documented on the website.  Increasingly I believe we need to find ideas or teams that engage our interest or passion and frame jobs around those skills.  That’s not where many organizations are today – and I acknowledge that.

So, while I am seeking the right idea or team that aligns to my interest and passion, I am also responsible for helping connect my background and skills to the needs of the organization and the skills and responsibilities for the roles that exist, or to explain why my skills and experience may introduce the opportunity to modify or extend a current unfilled role.  This means I have to communicate my skills and capabilities effectively, and I’m still learning to do that well.  Several recruiters have been especially helpful in this regard.