I’ve spent the past three days going through thousands of my LinkedIn connections one-by-one, as part of a launch prep effort around our new startup, Hearty. The process is an emotional roller coaster of good, bad and missing memories going back to the start of my professional journey 25 years ago. Some people have taken unusual and risky paths—for better and worse—while other connections have been in the same company and position for decades.
It’s impossible to tell from a LinkedIn profile who is truly happy with their career decisions and lives, but I worry that some people who haven’t ventured outside their comfort zones could be happier in a new place. It seems the world conspires to keep us in that “stable” job: Economic pressures always seem high, and family connections keep people in a location that may lack opportunities, despite the promise of a remote work revolution. And looking for a new job feels like a second job. But I think too many people miss a shortcut to success that also is a powerful backup plan: The power of our trusted networks.
A Tale of Two Conversations
A few weeks ago I was a guest lecturer in an MBA class. Afterwords one of the students asked me for some career advice. She was on the back-half of mid-career and had pursued this MBA—a massive investment in personal time and money—in hopes of standing out more in applications for new jobs. I, too, got my MBA many years ago in order to change career paths. But in my career since then, most of my jobs and the many people I’ve hired have been based on trusted recommendations from people who have worked together. I advised her to “work her network”—yet noticed that she had more years experience than connections on LinkedIn.
Later that week I was catching up with a woman who was a star at my previous company, and had just been recruited to join a bigger company in a bigger job. While still in her 20s she had achieved many accomplishments. I asked her how she thought about her career moves. Her answer:
“I was attracted to startups out of college and worked at a few that went through ups and downs. I also volunteered at startup community events, where I got to meet many other people. When my last company folded, I ended up getting multiple job offers from startups that were succeeding, based on the relationships I had formed. I continue to invest in my relationships with people, which means I can take career risks, and I’m not worried about ever having to work hard to find a job.”
Adding credentials (like an MBA) and building trusted relationships are each strategies for success in the business world. They both take real time and energy outside of the usual work week. But as almost any hiring manager will tell you, the letters beside your name, or university you went to, only help in the first step or two in your career. After that, the small (network) world you live in is the biggest factor in finding and securing job opportunities.
Take Risks to Change the Game
I had another conversation this past week with a woman who had recently joined a new company. The firm was in high-growth mode and suffering from a lack of process and organization. She could see what needed to be done, but her new manager could not—and she was beginning to see bigger problems on the horizon. My advice to her was to proactively bring solutions to her manager, rather than waiting for him to ask. I suggested that:
“Either the manager sees your value, and gives you the right to make the fix, or he fails to listen and you know where you stand—so you can quickly move to a new company before too much pain and suffering sets in. After all, you have dozens of trusted connections at other top companies who would love to hire you.”
Your network reputation insurance should do more than keep you comfortable—it should be a powerful tool in charting a better path for yourself. Taking risks is where the best things happen, whether you’re looking to add skills, accelerate a promotion, make more money, or just spend a bigger percentage of your workday doing what you love with people you love.
My MBA many years ago was key to breaking in the door at Procter & Gamble, who wouldn’t have interviewed me, a guy who worked in banking, before that. Once I started I realized that I was: (1) surrounded by lots of other very high-quality people; and (2) one of hundreds of new hires in an up-or-out system that pruned each “class” over time.
Based on this I came up with a strategy: Do big things that no one else at my level was doing. At best, I would stand out as a leader among leaders. At worst, I’d fail by aiming big, which itself is still impressive—and I could always start over at another big company. Over the next few years I went big, won some, and lost some. But I won more, learned more than I would have without taking risks, and ended up building relationships with outstanding peers and managers that benefit my career today.
You don’t have to be an extrovert. You don’t have to be a big idea person. Most of “networking” is really about impressing your co-workers day-after-day with outstanding work between 9am and 5pm. You’ll build a positive brand and trusted relationships in the process.
And you don’t even need to know where you’re ultimately going in your career when you play the reputation+network game well. There’s a big roulette table of life, and the more people who know and trust you, the more chips you get to distribute around the board. Then luck and opportunities come to you….