July/August

Dad didn't network

By Bruce Slade

I am an engineer. There are traits common to many of this profession. I always pick vertically striped wallpaper. When hanging pictures, the only options are to align the tops, the bottoms, or (preferably) the centers on a line parallel to the floor or stairs. I tend to feel uncomfortable walking up and starting a conversation with total strangers.

A number of years ago, I attended a three-day vendor's conference. I knew a few names from phone calls to technical service, but otherwise, I really knew no one else in attendance. During an evening reception, I gathered a plate of shrimp, cocktail sauce, and a few other finger-food items, stood near a wall, and watched the crowd. When the shrimp were gone, I got a drink and meandered about then returned to my room. At the end of the three days, I had spoken more in break-out sessions (asking questions) than I had all the rest of the time combined. At work, I can talk for hours on end, but in a room full of strangers ...

Networking skills were not a necessity in the past. When my dad graduated from college, he got a job and worked for the same company for 42 years, not unusual back then. Today, several job changes are to be expected. Some companies actually slow down promotions and pay raises if you stay over five years. To them, you "lack ambition" if you stay. I watched two engineers from the same college join a firm and perform quite well. After four years, one left to work for a vendor. Two years later, he returned with the same time of service and vacation as if he never left and at a higher pay grade and salary than his counterpart who had stayed. That is not the loyalty companies and employees shared in the 1950s and 1960s.

As an engineer, I am not naturally wired to network, especially at large events. In today's marketplace, you must network to survive. Too conceited to commit suicide, with no other alternative, I had to develop networking skills.

Good news: We ALL can develop this skill (and it is rather easy to do).

  1. Networking is a learned skill, not an inherited ability. (I am living proof of that.)
  2. In today's marketplace, everyone expects you to network. Ergo, there is no reason to be fearful when approaching someone.
  3. When at a conference or summit, you already have something in common with everyone there: You had been motivated enough to have done whatever it took to get there (and the work you did not do that week will be on your desk when you get back).
  4. You are a more valuable employee to your company if you are actively networking (i.e., "more promotable"). I was recently on a sales call where the client mentioned a hardware problem he was encountering, one I had never seen. I did remember hearing it mentioned over lunch at a conference. A quick call to confirm I remembered the right contact, and I introduced the two individuals. I had elevated myself to "resource and problem solver." Independent of any other skills or experience, I was now a more valuable contact to the client, I have a breadth of knowledge and experience my non-networking colleagues lack. Corollary: If colleagues are networking and I am not, my value is diminished.

Things to consider:

  1. Carry enough business cards (get a carrier so you always have some on you) and take extra to any conferences (keep some in your suitcase and some with your laptop).
  2. Maintain a professional e-mail account separate from your company account. My wife and I share a personal account for family and friends, but I have maintained a separate account, bruceslade@aol.com, since 1991. Despite working for several companies over the last 20 years, business acquaintances, society members (ISA, IEEE, TAPPI, etc.), and headhunters can still contact me.

Too many people see networking as a backup plan related to job hunting. That attitude is destined to fail. Instead of: "My name is Bruce, and I need ..." (easily forgotten); consider: "My main expertise is process optimization and DCS [distributed control system] upgrades. I really excel at HMI [human-machine interface] streamlining. If I can ever be of assistance, please don't hesitate to call." That is how you get people to remember your name and keep your business card (usually with a note on the back). Develop a network of people that see you as a resource, and they will be there when it is you who need them.

So why are you still waiting? Get out there and network. I promise it will get easier each time you do it, and in the end, you will reap the benefits you deserve.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bruce Slade, P.E., is the president/owner of Byte Size, process automation and process safety consulting firm, and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A professional engineer, Slade has been involved in process automation for over 30 years.