Career Building – Acquiring Information and Finding Opportunities within Your Network

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What’s the whole point of building a network? Is it to find cool people to hang out with? This happens typically, but the real goal is to gather information and eventually find those unique opportunities that create success for you. Opportunities are interesting things – they are simply opportunities. iFor your career, t is the act of recognizing an opportunity when it occurs and being able to execute on that opportunity that makes all the difference. Your goal should be to use your professional network to help you go out and find the opportunities.

Great opportunities are rare. You don’t want any old opportunity. What you want to capitalize on are the career changing ones. These extend your competitive advantage or accelerate your Plan A or Plan B. Your career will probably not be a rocket to the top. You will have several different career-changing opportunities that come in the way of break-throughs, deals, or discoveries.

On your resume, you probably have your last series of jobs in reverse chronological order. You probably formatted all your jobs the same. This is actually misleading and your career does not physically develop like that. Every one of us has had breakout projects, connections, opportunities, and luck.

Developing Your Own Luck

Are some people lucky or can you develop your own luck. You can actually develop the habits and behaviors that increase the possibility of finding yourself in the right place at the right time. What I am saying to you is that, in fact, you can increase the quality and quantity of career opportunities that come your way.

You do this by becoming curious and get involved.

Becoming Curious

For career growth, this curiosity should be about industries, people, and their jobs. If you hang out with curious people, it becomes contagious. Once you get it, watch out…it is hard to turn off.

Once you catch the curiosity bug, you will see things in a whole new way. You will dramatically increase the flow of opportunities, the ability to tap your network, and court randomness.

The negative side of this is habit is that the return on your time and effort is very slow. Like farming, cultivating and generating opportunities takes a long time. If you are happy and gainfully employed, do this anyway. It is like a muscle – you have to work it to strengthen it. Don’t wait until you need the opportunities to start cultivating them. You never know when the break-out opportunity will surface or when you will need to pivot to Plan B. But you do know that you need to be ready when it happens.

Serendipity and Randomness

Your career is an endless journey. You can plot and plan, but you never really “arrive”. It has been said that hindsight is 20/20. It is easy to look back on your career and see how you got to where you are today. But, could you have predicted it at the beginning? Probably not. What actually happens is you attend a party or an event and you stumble upon someone with whom you hit it off or you learn a piece of information you are able to turn into a new idea or career opportunity. This is serendipity – unexpected good fortune. This is not winning the lottery – that’s dumb luck! Serendipity is being alert, accidentally coming upon a piece of information, and having the capability to act on it.

Being curious is only a piece of the puzzle. Typically serendipity and opportunity meet because someone does something. For example, attending an event or making yourself available at the right time. Be out, be exploring, and be on the move. You don’t stumble upon opportunity sitting in your cubicle at work or sitting at home watching television. Doing things creates the possibility that people, information, or industries will cross your path. When they come together, they create the opportunities.

What are some starting points for courting serendipity? Extend your next trip by a day and wander the city. Pick up a magazine you don’t normally read. Go to that event, even if you don’t know anyone else there. Here’s the problem though. General randomness creates undirected information. But, you don’t want to force the direction either. You never know at which conference you will meet the cousin of your neighbor’s mother who is now the president of a company and is adding a training team and needs a manager for the department. You don’t know which contact will return your e-mail and set up a lunch date with you. You don’t know which new tool will allow you to fulfill your idea and deliver the project you have been trying to create. The bottom line is that you just don’t know and can’t predict where it will come from. But, you can be strategic in what you do and how you court the randomness. You can go to a conference and identify interesting people and make it a point to meet them.

When you court randomness, keep your assets in mind. Play to your competitive advantage. For example, if you don’t like parties or social events, this is probably not the way for you to court serendipity. You need to do what fits your personality.

Groups and Associations – It is All About the People

People create opportunities. They don’t just show up. If you are opportunity hunting, you are looking for people. If you are evaluating a job opportunity, you are really evaluating the people that surround the job. Companies don’t offer you jobs – people do. It is all about the people.

People with good ideas and information typically hang out together. If you want to advance in your career, you need to tap the circle of people that offers you the best chance of accessing the ideas and information you want. For a history lesson, look at Ben Franklin. Yes, he was intelligent. He was an excellent facilitator of information. He believed that if he brought intelligent people together and facilitated discussions in a relaxed atmosphere, conversations would flow and amazing ideas would come to life. This is exactly how associations started.

For the Learning Industry, the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) is a good organization with which to be involved. Another is the eLearning Guild. If you are a technical writer, there is also the Society for Technical Communication (STC). Volunteering and showing up to events will start you on the path I have presented.

One set of organizations you may not be thinking about, that you actually already probably belong to, is a group of employees that worked at your previous employers. I know that I have worked for several large employers – Disney, Computer Associates, and Harris Publishing. All of these have large groups of past employees, some of whom I have some relationship with already.

A group is only as valuable as the quality of people that it attracts. A group or organization has several things that make it valuable.

  • Each individual must be high quality. The gang that hangs out at local bar may not be as high quality as the set of business owners you meet with once a month. Evaluate the people in the group.
  • The group of people must have something in common. Shared interests and values create trust. Trust leads to the flowing of information.
  • Proximity. Even in today’s high tech world of web conferences and skype, you cannot replace the interaction and collaboration of people in the same location at the same time.
  • Everyone must want to share. For your network to be valuable, you need people in it that want to share information, invest time in each other, and help one another.

If you can’t find a group that meets your needs, the solution is simple. Make one yourself. You can use the web site Meetup.com or simply hold an event and invite some people. Some will come and some won’t. No big deal. You just need a committed percentage of them to start a group. The benefit of being the organizer is that you are now the central node of the network. In all fairness, why do you think I am the creator of this blog? I took a presented opportunity that appeared because I was at an ASTD event and chose to have people recognize me as a hub of connections and information. Slowly that is occurring and I am starting to see others modeling my behavior – which is the goal.

Opportunity Knocks at the Worst Times

This is something that is very hard to accept. They rarely appear on your schedule. They rarely appear when you need them most. Typically the timing is imperfect and often difficult to manage. Most of the time you will be in the middle of something else. That’s when it happens!

On top of it not being predictable and on a schedule, it is also usually covered in what we like to call “unknowns”. Rarely will you know if the opportunity is the right one. You might feel like you need to “keep your options open”. If you are going to take an opportunity…commit to the opportunity. Committing to an opportunity reduces opportunities in the short term, but creates them in the long term. To advance in your career, you must commit to opportunities as part of a plan despite the inconvenience and unknowns.

I Moved Five Times in One Year

I courted opportunity because I felt I could do better for myself in my career. The company I worked for, in Sarasota, Florida, was not paying me what I thought I was worth and the only opportunities that presented themselves were from outside of Florida. So, I made the decision to move my family and me. I took the chance of picking my family up and moving to Lexington, Kentucky in 2000. I did this for a contract position at the printer company, Lexmark. My contract expired after four months and I was left to survive in a town I really did not care to be in. So, I found another contract at UPS, out of Louisville, Kentucky. For two months, I drove an hour and a half every day to work. But, I knew this was not the final stop. I kept courting contracts to get me back to Florida, now that my salary had gone up. I met a contractor whom I worked with for a few months and within two months he got me into Alltel, in Jacksonville. I had family there, so it was a great idea. So, we picked up the family and moved to Jacksonville. Luck had it that we moved within the same apartment holding company, so we really did not break a lease! That contract went sour and the contracting company closed the office that was supporting me. So, again, I was dangling. This was now seven months after I had already moved to Lexington. The job that presented itself was in Melbourne, Florida – two hours south of Jacksonville. Of course, I accepted the position – and it became move number four. Again, we got lucky and the apartment company we were moving between had a complex in Melbourne…but it was nasty and we did not want to stay there. So, we paid a higher rent to have an “out clause” in three months. Move number five was to a nicer complex we could stay at for a while.

Let the serendipity kick in! I worked with Harris Publishing for about three years. I made the decision to take my wife to a career fair at the University of Central Florida. I happened to talk to a company there and they said if I was ever in the market to call them. Well, it so happened that a few months later, I was put in a position to be in the market again. I called them and accepted a position in Orlando at Metavante. Over a period of two-three years, I built my internal career clout with this company. At a corporate event, I ran into a guy in our HR department that turned out to be the guy that  helped me get the contract at AllTel, in Jacksonville. We developed a friendship and he became my support person at Metavante when I made the decision to Pivot to Plan B. When Plan B did not work as well as I had hoped, who do you think I turned to for assistance? My HR buddy. He was able to find me a new position at Metavante, since my old position was filled. By the way, that person eventually set me on a path that caused me to get my certification in Instructional System Design and I now have my old role back within the newly merged Metavante and Fidelity (FIS).  So, it all came full circle…but I had to move five times in one year to get there. Talk about inconvenient and weathering a storm.

What are the lessons in this story? I took a few chances when it did not really make sense to. I networked and built relationships with recruiters. I courted serendipity and went to a job fair, when I did not need to. I followed up on a chance meeting at the job fair. I reached out and introduced myself to someone at a company event.

What Can You Do?

  • Be different. Do something out of your “normal”. Underbudget your time next week and read a book you would not normally read. Take a co-worker from a different department to lunch. Attend a seminar or sign up for a class.
  • Identify the most curious person you know and go to lunch with them and attempt to become infected with the curiosity bug.
  • Attend an industry conference. I can attest to this one. Every time I go to the free expo, I come back with new contacts and incredible ideas. I make it a point to go to at least one per year.
  • Identify people you know that are involved in interesting things. Understand what they do to be involved and resolve to model their activity with things you find interesting.
  • Set up your own group or meeting. Start inviting people to a monthly lunch or to a one-time meeting.  Try to share ideas or resources. You can use a wiki, LinkedIn, or Facebook to continue communications and organize further events.
  • Subscribe to magazines or web sites like Wired or MIT Technology Review. This will keep you updated to what is coming up. The goal here is not information for information’s sake. The goal is to get a global picture of the coming waves, so you can be aware of them and figure out how to be ahead of the curve when they happen.
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