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Networking: Be Proactive and Be Direct

How would you define networking in your own words?

I would define it as going and meeting people who you would meet in a normal social setting to expand the number of contacts you have in a particular field.

When you go talk to people, you get a more balanced view, a broader view, and are more informed across the broader market. Let's take our CEO of investment management. She may look at things more holistically based on, "How do we grow the business?" She could go out and talk to other CEOs who are in the same growth environment. Then, she would come back with ideas. "I sat on this CEO panel, and I talked to these guys, and I find out that they're doing this. Why don't we do this?" Things you don’t even think of, and, all of a sudden, you start to think, "Maybe I should be investing in data analytics." These are the kinds of things I think about when I talk about networking.

Obviously, from an undergraduate’s perspective, the primary thought is, "How do I get a job?" I have found that your intelligence is number two in terms of getting a job. Who you know is number one. I've seen people who know the right people get great jobs and they have no idea what they're doing. I've seen some really smart people who just can't get a line yet. It frustrates them, and I get it, but you have to get to know people.

Do you believe that undergraduates should build a professional network before graduating from college?

I think that it's critical to do that. It's difficult when the student may not necessarily know what they want to do, but certainly later on. An internship is the easiest way to build a network because, all of a sudden, you're submerged in whatever environment you're interested in pursuing.

How can students use their network to learn more about their career field?

You have to be very active with your network, first of all. You can't just connect with people on LinkedIn and call that your "network." You have to, to your point Tola, go to events, interview people, reach out. They're not just going to tell you things; you have to ask them.

That's one way: proactiveness. Go to events. Introduce yourself to as many people as you can, and try to get in front of them. Tell them what it is you want and ask them how to get it. Be very up-front about it. I get emails from people all the time saying, "I want an informational interview. Tell me about Voya." I know what they're trying to get at - they want to get a job. They want to send me their resume, get an internship, etc. Yet, they are skirting around the question. They say, "What is it you guys do? Tell me about your day-to-day work." They never ask me, "Do you have any openings?" They just leave it at that. They’re like, "Okay, thank you." Then I never hear from them again. So, they've connected with me on LinkedIn. They've sent me an email wanting an informational interview, and then that's it. I never hear from them again. That's pretty much a waste of my time, waste of their time.

Did networking play a direct role in how you earned your current position?

Absolutely. I am a Portfolio Manager. I earned this position mostly through the work environment (because I didn't have a background in finance.) So, you, Tola, are way further ahead now in your career in finance than I was at that point. But I happened to get a computer job at a finance firm. Being amongst finance professionals, they explained to me how the business works and about finance in general. I learned about investing; I learned what a stock was, what a bond was — all the basics. Luckily, I also got exposed to the client network. To support software development, I was on the phone regularly. I was in contact with multiple clients and these were the largest financial companies in the world: JP Morgan, ING, and several other ones. That expanded my network even more. Now I could reach out to any number of contacts at any number of firms to find out what they've got open, to find out what opportunities are available.

Well, I didn't end up needing to do that. Luckily, one of my clients reached out to me because I've worked with them, and they liked me. They said, "We've got a job for you. We thought of you. Come down to Atlanta and join AIG." So, I would never have known these people if I had not been in that field. Once I got to Voya, my network expanded even more because now, not only was I working with the software that I developed, but I was still in the team that analyzed the data from it. I'm on the floor with the portfolio managers (PM); I'm on the floor with asset teams, the traders.

I remember going to my first meeting here, and, at the time, I still wasn't well-versed in investments. I went into one of the conference rooms upstairs - we used to hold a weekly meeting where our CIO would give everyone a background on the markets, and I was amazed because this guy spoke about the markets like any of the anchors on CNBC or Bloomberg. I didn't understand what they were saying, but they sounded super intelligent. I was just in awe. Holy crap! And I know that guy because he took me out to lunch the first day I showed up on the job. I thought that was really cool.

Being in such proximity to people like that is super valuable, especially at a company like Voya. The culture around Wall Street seems to be very exclusive. There's almost a certain arrogance that some of the PMs and traders have. If you don't add any value to them, they immediately dismiss you, and they don't want to talk to you. Here, I can go up to any of the PMs, traders, or asset managers and ask them a question like, “What's a mortgage?” (Not saying that that's a dumb question. If you don't know what it is, then that is an excellent question. ) To them, they have no reason to waste time with someone who asks a question like that, but they did. They sit you down, and they will explain to you precisely what it is. Every single person on that floor will do that. That's how you learn. That was the environment that I grew up in here. It allowed me to move from software development to data-analyst, all the way through to finally end up as a PM.

Do you have any networking pet-peeves? Things that you absolutely hate that people do when they want to add you to their network?

Yeah. I think it’s super important to tell someone what it is you want. You're probably not interested in my career. You want an internship, so let's get that out of the way. "Hey, I'm a student, and I realize the importance of getting an internship. I'm looking for an internship. Do you guys have anything available? If so, what?" If you can tell me that right off the bat - that's great. I already know what you want, and I can tailor the conversation to help you out.

My number one pet-peeve is when people, who I don't know, send me a request on LinkedIn, and they don't include any message that goes along with it. If I'd never met you, and you just want to be added - fine, but tell me that. "We haven’t met; I’m a local student here. Please add me." That's fine. Have some interpersonal skills where you can give me some context on how you found me. Or, maybe I do know you. 1) We met; you sent a very nice email. Imagine it was two months later, and perhaps I forgot. 2) People who I've met long ago or at some function where we spoke very briefly, and I can't remember who they are. If you include, “Hey, we met here. Please add me to your network." That's fine too. Don't just search CFA on LinkedIn and connect with everybody. I don't need that.

Do you have any networking tips or pointers that you would like to express?

The practice is the most important thing. Go to events in person; don't just network online. Talk to people; tell them what you want; put yourself out there often. Keep in touch with people you've spoken to and keep them updated. “Hey, six months ago you and I met. I wanted to let you know that was very helpful. I just got an internship at this place. Let me know if you want to grab a drink.” Something like that. Keep in touch with everybody. Even if it's just a quick message, and then if anything happens in your career - you've kept in touch with people.

LinkedIn is a great tool, and I'm not knocking it. But it'’s not the only tool, so you need to utilize it in conjunction with person-to-person contact. Imagine if something goes down - if you get fired, and you have five hundred people that you're connected to on LinkedIn, who actually remember you because you've kept in contact with them, or because you've gone to these events with them. One note on LinkedIn: "I'm looking for another position," goes out to five hundred people in various fields, at the same time, who all remember who you are because you've kept in contact with them, is so powerful. Also, it doesn't have to be just for your sake. I could network with folks in the medical field, engineers, or any walk of life. If a friend of mine is looking for an engineer, and I know thirty engineers out of my hundreds of connections, then I can say, "Hey, I've got this great person. I can vouch for them. Let me know." You can grow your network in that way as well.

More about the interviewee:

Paul Buren, CFA

Portfolio Manager, Multi Sector Fixed Income

Voya Investment Management