Voices of Transition #2: An ode to networking

“I couldn’t believe it. No one had ever done that for me before.  I was having a conversation with a venture capitalist who said ‘you have to meet so-and-so’.  He immediately turned and picked up the phone to call the person while I was sitting in his office,” said Karen, a food industry executive and dear friend from HBS.  “I didn’t really know this guy.  His wife and I connected one day during pick-up at our children’s school.  She said ‘you have to talk to my husband’ once she understood my status.”  Karen was sharing the positives – the surprises if you will – of transition after having navigated two unexpected transitions within five years.

For Novofemina devotees the Voices of Transition column is my attempt to introduce new ideas into my transition process.   For this interview I chose a dear friend – offering the dual purpose of helping me with the blog and of connecting me with a friend who lives in far-away Dallas.  What a Thanksgiving treat for me!

Karen is no shrinking flower.  She holds an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering from Stanford and an MBA from our august Harvard.  Yet – she was honest and humble enough to say that transition is hard… but also oddly worthwhile, a source of inner strength and  – if I was listening carefully – life changing.

Karen shared three lessons learned about her transitions.

Lesson #1:  You need to be prepared  – always  – for transition.  “I’ve changed the way I engage my heart in a job,” stated Karen.    “During my 1st transition I developed a five-year plan.   Now my current job is a succession step to my overall goal.  Prior to these transitions my job held enormous status in my life; often edging out other priorities even children and family.”

Honestly she was cajoled into developing a five-year plan.   Initially she was hesitant about this type of planning  – a trait we share.   Could a plan really be worth it?   “It’s your plan.  You can change it at any time,” said a colleague who coached Karen.    Do you have a plan?  Karen’s advice to me, “Take the time to develop a plan.”

Lesson #2: Maintain and build your network.  Since her 1st transition Karen has cultivated a diverse network through volunteerism, attending conferences to advance her thinking and leveraging the networks contained within her children’s schools.   Karen alluded to research on the science of networks which I looked into after our call.  In the December 2005 Harvard Business Review article entitled “How to Build Your Networkthe authors share research on the network effectiveness of Paul Revere and William Dawes – both riders on that fabled April eve in 1775.   The research suggests that because Revere had a diverse network he was able to connect with greater numbers of people in an evening.  Conversely Dawes,  who had a homogenous network, barely made the history books.  <If you register on the HBR site you can get three free article downloads monthly.>

We’ve heard this broad networking challenge again and again.  This Summer’s Book Review #4  Back on the Career Track, by Fishman Cohen and Stein Rabin, introduced “contact pools” and challenged readers to map relationships from work, volunteering, alumni networks, children’s schools, religious affiliations, etc.   (Back on the Career Track, pg 110)  Their approach cast a wide net, including the butcher, the baker and the candlestick makers’ wife who has her own business and could be useful.

Lesson #3: Build your stories.   In Karen’s view stories give you ‘street cred‘ when you are networking.   This isn’t a verbal resume exercise.  It is an engaging narrative that illustrates the unique value you bring — to the situations you care most deeply about.  “Make it real for your listener.  How do you deliver value?” said Karen.    Whether your story hails from volunteering, child rearing or divesting a corporate division, it is worth telling if it’s in your own voice and meaningfully conveys who YOU are.

So why an ode to networking?  Karen was almost religious about it AND it allowed me to stumble onto this great story that I had never heard.  Did you know that Bill Gates’ mother, Mary Maxwell Gates, sat on the board of the United Way with John Akers, then a high-level IBM executive who later became IBM’s CEO?  Gates’ mom talked to Akers about the new breed of small companies in the computer industry, which she felt were under-appreciated competitors of the larger firms like IBM.   After the conversation Akers took interest in smaller companies, including Microsoft.    Microsoft went on to win the DOS contract with IBM and eventually eclipsed IBM as the world’s most influential technology company.  (Uzzi and Dunlap in “How to Build Your Network,” The Harvard Business Review, December 2005.   (pg 1))

This Thanksgiving I am incredibly thankful for the wisdom of friends.  I have never been more convinced that it is our connections with others that will take us beyond that which we thought possible.   I am especially grateful to the connection with each of you.    As I hope Bill Gates said with great sincerity to his mom for many years, Happy Thanksgiving.

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9 responses to “Voices of Transition #2: An ode to networking

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