Networking Primer III: The Wall

I met with Mary as part of a Seattle Times “Career Makeover”  column and wrote the following summary of our conversation for the journalist writing the story.

Mary wanted to talk about how to land a marketing job — but couldn’t stop talking about her work as a videographer. She’s a freelancer with clients ranging from a gaming company (“I’m a gamer, I’m passionate about gaming,” she says) to an animal rights nonprofit, to weddings and other celebrations.

“But,” she sighs, “It’s pretty inconsistent.” I can hear the stress and financial strain behind her sigh.

We talk about using her network to find a marketing role – with a steady paycheck! – where she can leverage the skills she’s developed as a business owner. She talks about how she enjoys figuring out what the client wants; she talks about developing business and her joy in collaboration. I have to remind myself that the professional sitting across from me is only 25 years old, only a couple of years out of college.

Only a couple of years out of college, and already Mary has an extensive professional network. “You’ve worked with fairly high level people in your videography work. They like you,” I say. “They’re the ones who are in all likelihood going to help you find this next thing.”

Mary and I talk about The Wall. I often recommend that my career transition clients designate a blank wall in their house to their networking strategy.

“Start with your “nexus” people,” I say. “These are the kinds of people who seem to just know people — connected people, you know? Start with, say, 10 contacts and don’t try to decide whether they can help you or not – you have no idea whom they know. Just go have coffee with them and talk about what you want to do.”

Each nexus person is a sticky note down a column on The Wall, and each networking coffee yields an additional name or two to talk to next. Those names go on additional sticky notes on The Wall. The goal is for The Wall to grow exponentially (logarithmically?) – in any case, to visually show her work on this big research project.

“A spreadsheet can also work, of course,” I tell Mary. “But I find that clients love their Wall, love seeing their progress, love seeing the connections and interesting intersections. You can love a spreadsheet, too – do whatever works for you, just make sure you track it.”

In addition, I suggest Mary identify 10 organizations that she might be interested in working for or learning more about. List them on sticky notes on The Wall, and then figure out whom she knows there.

And this is where LinkedIn comes in. The larger her LinkedIn network, the more likely she will have a connection to someone at an organization she’s interested in. I share with Mary my standard rule of thumb about growing a LinkedIn network: If you think the person will recognize your name and have a positive association with it, send them an invitation to connect. And don’t bother with writing a custom message – that just puts the onus on them to write you a personal message back – all of which just slows down the process.

“What if I don’t know anyone at an organization I’m interested in?” she asks.

I suggest she be creative. Find out who the marketing leader is and send that person a hand-written note – how unusual would that be? Create a video of herself – what would she say? Send out an appeal to her extensive network of Facebook friends asking if anyone knows anyone at that organization. “Have fun – what do you have to lose?” I ask her.

I challenge her to start her networking project with 20 sticky notes: 10 nexus people and 10 target organizations. “I had a client once – a very senior corporate guy – who said he wanted to have 20 lines in the water at any given time as he looked for his next thing,” I tell her. “That sounded like a good goal to me: try to have 20 emails or conversations or email strings going at once.”

“Are you comfortable with these networking coffees?” I ask, ready to talk about having scripts prepared to handle the difficult questions.

“Oh sure,” she replies. “I have client coffees all the time.” (I can’t believe she’s 25.)

Something’s bugging me about this conversation, though. She talks about wanting a full-time job, but she  lights up when she talks about her freelance business. “If your videography business were steady and financially secure, would you want to do that?” I ask her.

“Oh, absolutely,” she says unequivocally.

I suggest she cheat a bit on her Seattle Times makeover. “Add a third group of sticky notes to your Wall,” I say. “These are your business development leads. Ask your clients and former clients whom they can refer. Reach out to likely organizations who you think could use your videography services.”

“This is work you love,” I tell her. “That’s important – that’s a gift. Chase it. Fight for it.”

“Otherwise,” I add, “I’ll see you again in about 10 years.”