Networking + Mentorship: A Few Keys

What do you do on campus?

I’ve got two roles. I am the director of the PACE (Panther Accelerated Career Experience) Program. That means that I teach PACE, but I’m also responsible for finding companies that will participate. In addition to that, I work with Panthers on Wall Street, which is a secondary responsibility.

How would you describe leadership in your own words?

It’s hard to describe leadership without using the word leadership. I suppose it’s taking control, and it’s having people follow in order to achieve a goal or an objective. I must also give them a reason to seek guidance from me as opposed to others.

How would you define networking in your own words?

When I network, I am talking to others who have an experience that I want and I'm trying to get them to help me in whatever way, whether it's through an introduction or just through advice to get me to my next level.

Do you think it's important for undergraduates to begin networking in college, or do you think that it would be better for them to do it after they graduate?

Yes, definitely in college. I always tell the students that you should start networking freshman-sophomore year. You don’t want to be two weeks away from graduation saying it’s time to look for a job. Quite frankly, if you’re not starting by the time you are a sophomore, you are a little bit behind. This process takes some time; certainly when you graduate - it’s never too late, but you've missed an opportunity if you’re waiting that long.

Can you tell me about a time when you intentionally networked?

Sure. My background is different than most professors. I was an investment banker in New York, and the industry would periodically have seminars and conferences. You never really went to a seminar or conference thinking that you were going to learn anything because, as a frequent speaker at these events, we wouldn’t be discussing proprietary things. Often, we were talking about things on the surface that weren’t really new news. You actually went to these things because you wanted to meet others in the industry. In my field, you never felt like you were going to be in a position for more than five years. Sometimes you did, but in Investment Banking (IB) people moved often. You needed to figure out who else was in your space, who else was running departments, and you needed to know them. So, when you went to a conference, you went there to meet people. You didn't go there to learn, but instead to meet people.

So, I would go to a conference, and I would make sure I touched base with the people I knew, and also meet as many new people as I thought could help my career.

Can you tell me about a time when you unintentionally networked?

In 2002, I was between jobs. I was working for a company called Marsh & McLennan, great company, not a great job. And Marsh & McLennan had done something that almost shut them down. They probably had about 30,000 employees, and they did something that the State of New York took exception to, but it almost put them out of business. As a result, Marsh had needed to shut down a number of departments and fire 20% of the people. That's a lot of people, and I wasn’t doing anything meaningful there. My department was breaking even, which is not a good thing to do when you are working. You want to be highly profitable, and our department wasn’t. So, I found myself without a job, but I ended up talking to a former client who had an idea that I could help. He was wading into something that was my area of expertise. Midway through the conversation, I’m thinking, “Hmm. I bet I can parlay this conversation into something more than just helping them out. I bet I can parlay this into finding a position for me.” So, I did that. I worked with that project for about a year and a half. It was just the right time, right place, right opportunity. That networking just shifted gears and became more than it would have been.

Do you think that fear or nervousness plays a part in building a professional network?

Well, it does. More so at your age than my age. I think, oftentimes, from a student’s perspective, you approach somebody who looks like me, and you say, “Well, clearly I can’t offer anything to you.” You’re just looking for me to give you something. A lot of times, it stops the students because they are afraid to take that step, but the reality is that when you get to be as old as I am, you have this desire to give back, so when a student approaches me, whether they’re nervous or not, and they say, “Barry, I need some guidance, or I need some help,” or “How do I get that next job?” Most people are happy to help that student out because we were in that position before, and we knew that we needed help. Most students have that fear that they're just asking for something, and “Why would they help me?” But my perspective is “Happy to help!” All you have to do is ask. I think once a student knows that the faculty or somebody who works for an organization wants to help you, you can get over that fear. And it's always hard to ask people for a favor. It’s hard to make the first step, but it's easier than you think.

Do you have any networking pet-peeves?

I do. The easiest way to network is to find a common denominator. For example, I work at GSU. You go to GSU. It’s a common denominator. When somebody who went to my school seeks me out, we have something in common. If somebody who lives in my neighborhood comes to me; we have something in common. If someone comes to me and we don’t have anything in common, and they just, out of the blue, ask me for a big task? That’s a pet-peeve.

But, my biggest pet-peeve is if I introduce someone to somebody, and there's no follow-up, or they don’t tell me about how they did. One time, I was working with a neighbor, and he did the exact right thing. I had made some introductions, and I had spent a lot of time with him. He was great about saying, “Barry, here’s what I’m doing. Here’s where I am in my search.” That’s great. But I made an introduction to a PACE student last semester, and he truly desired to work for this particular company. So, I made the introduction. Haven’t heard from him. I’ve emailed him a couple of times, and *crickets.*


Some people feel that I’ve helped them, and then their obligation is over. But, if I’m going to put my reputation on the line, make an introduction for what would be a perfect position for this person, the least I expect from them is, “Hey Barry, I met with him or her, and we had a conversation, and it’s leading somewhere.” I keep a network of networks. So, if this person is successfully placed, he is going to hear from me. The next student who wants to work in that particular field is going to get introduced to that person. There’s no cost for me helping them, but you’ll pay it forward. Never pay me back, but always pay it forward. So, I want to know if I can count on that person.

How important do you think thank-you letters are?

They can never hurt. If somebody sends me a thank you letter, it doesn't necessarily break a tie if I’m looking for someone to hire. But my advice is always to do it, and do it handwritten instead of sending off an email. An email could say, “Thank you very much. I really enjoyed your conversation. Blah, blah, blah.” But, if I get something that is written in your pen, it’s a little bit more meaningful that you took the time, put a postage stamp on it, or you came to my office and dropped it off. It's a neat thing to do.

Say I have my thank you notes in my bag. After our interview, should I write a thank you note, and then come back and give it to you? Should it be immediate?

Within a short period of time, however you define that, is the best way to do it. If you give it to me two weeks after, I may have met twenty students since then, and I won't forget you, but it's less meaningful for me than if I get it within a few days. And, I think it's out of sight, out of mind for you as well. If you took two weeks to write it, you’re not going to write it.

Switching gears for a little bit, do you think that mentorship is important?

Oh yeah. I mentor a lot of students, whether they come to me and ask to be mentored, or I take an interest in somebody who needs help. But it’s hard. Today’s economy is really good, so finding a job is easier today than it was a few years ago. But even though it’s easier, it’s not easy.

Quite frankly, I’ve seen more than you’ve seen because I’m so much older than you. If a student comes to me and says, “I think I want to be a consultant, but I don’t really know what that means” or “I think I want to be an investment banker, but I don’t know what that means,” I can say, “I can share my knowledge with you and potentially introduce you.” That’s free, and I wish I was smarter when I was your age to find somebody to mentor me. I didn’t, and it was a missed opportunity.

If you have the opportunity or identify somebody that you think can help you, do it. I can't imagine anybody would say no. Sometimes, people will ask me if I want to run a club? I have so much going on; I can’t really do that. But I'll meet with you once every two weeks for an hour, or buy you a cup of coffee or lunch and we can talk. I'm happy to do that. So, that’s a long way of explaining that yes, mentorship is very important, and don’t be shy about finding somebody that you click with.

So, you said you mentor a lot of students? Do you learn from your mentees?

Of course. It’s not just a one-way street. Often, when I talk to millennials, technologically, you all are far superior to boomers. You grew up differently and I tend to learn a lot from you all.

When I do my PACE courses, I learn from every single project. You’ll discover this: I’m not doing your thinking for you. I’m giving you direction, and I'm leading you a little bit, but, all these ideas you’re coming up with are your ideas. I go into these projects with ideas, but the students are the ones who come up with the really good ideas, and I learn from that. In the same way, when I have a meeting with somebody, I learn from them. I may not know anything about a particular company, so I'm going to do some research. They may be looking for a particular job that I'm not familiar with. So I'll learn from them, and I’ll learn from research. I always learn.

What qualities make a good mentor? What type of mentor should students be looking for?

You should look for somebody who clicks with you, who seems to take an interest in you. You’re going to have professors all the time. Some professors just go about their business, and they teach. Then there are those who take an interest. For example, you as a finance major may look to somebody with a finance background as a mentor. I happen to know a lot of finance professors, really good ones. Some are better than others, but it's not based on how smart they are, but how much they'll give you their time and how much they care. Some just want to do their job, and others want nothing more than for you to succeed. If it were me, I would be looking for those types to be my mentors. There are some professors that you just don’t like. Some, you're going to like a lot, so gravitate to ones that you think can help you out. Also, as I mentioned before, be prepared to give back. Pay it forward.

Would you say there’s such a thing as a poor mentee? Are there qualities in mentees that mentors are not looking for?

I think everybody is different. Every once in a while, you'll get a student that's not going to follow up, who’s not going to perform well. For example, I have lots and lots of contacts on the corporate side who are looking for talent. I think the neat thing about the school here is everybody is pretty smart. You have some amazingly brilliant people, and others you are surprised got here. But, mostly, people are pretty smart, so you’re not likely to find somebody who can’t do the work. Some students are more aggressive, who are saying, “Give me more work. Let me show you how good I’m going to do.” Those students I want as mentees all the time because I know that if I put them in front of my client, they’ll do great.

Then there are others. Some students say, "C’s get degrees." And, they do, but nobody hires these people because why would you want to hire somebody mediocre? They'll get jobs eventually, but not the same jobs you're going to get. So, when somebody comes to me who is not working hard or not breaking a sweat, I don’t want to introduce them to somebody because they’re going to disappoint my client. The client’s never going to ask me for help, and that’s going to disadvantage the next person coming down the line who would have been a great candidate for this.

What I try to find are people who are have something to prove. They will always make me proud, and they will always open the door for the next student to have an opportunity.

So, how do you think I should find a mentor? Or, do you think it’s something natural? Is it an active search? Or, if I see someone, should I go after them?

If you see someone, you go after them. The person may not have time for you, and they may have the best intentions. Quite frankly, in the order of importance for these people, a student isn’t always at the top. For example, a certified financial planner (CFP), if you don’t know (you should know), is a sales job. They are always calling, and they are always working. Let’s say that I was the client of this potential mentor. When the market gets weird, I’m on the phone saying, “Oh my god! Oh my god! What do I do?” And I take up all of her time. When the markets are steady, the potential mentor have more time for you, but you can’t predict when that’s going to be. If you look at what’s going on in the markets right now, and you should be looking every single day, it’s earning season. Facebook just laid an egg yesterday. NASDAQ is going to open up really badly this morning, and some people who made investments are calling that person saying, “Oh my god, what do I do.” That trumps your need.

With that said, after hours, before hours, weekends, getting a cup of coffee isn’t the hardest thing. If you’re trying to do that at ten o’clock in the morning when the markets are opening, it’s harder. I wouldn’t necessarily give up on that person, but you may need to be a little bit more patient with that person than if that person had worked in a different field.

More about the interviewee:

Barry Wood

Director, PACE Program, and Professor of Practice

J. Mack Robinson College of Business

Georgia State University