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Networking: Pay it forward and be Considerate

How would you define networking in your own words?

I think networking is a combination of meeting people to source potential relationships, and then developing the relationships that seem strategic to invest in.

Do you think that it’s important for undergraduates to begin networking in college or should they wait until after graduation?

I believe that students have already been networking before they get to college! A lot of times, the relationships that we have early in life - through parents’ friends or other friends that we had through school - they’ll be part of your business network later. Everyone comes to college with a network that they need to build on. However, they don’t usually see that, and they leave some opportunities on the table by not tapping into their preexisting network.

Do you think that fear has a lot to do with networking - for students?

Yeah, I think it can be due to a couple of things. First of all, many students are not sure that they have anything to offer. They’re in recipient mode instead of confidence mode. All these professionals have all this experience or know how, and you’re looking for the information. It’s hard to approach someone you respect, or you may not think they’re going to make time for you.

There can be a lot of fear of rejection, fear of inadequacy, and lack of confidence. Yes, there might be rejection at times. I’ve had a couple of people who asked me for formal mentorship, and I said, “I’m sorry, I just don’t do that.” They probably just thought, “she doesn't want to do that for me.” No, I just don’t do that. But I’m sure that was uncomfortable and was a rejection to them. I think there’s a lot of opportunities for rejection when you’re in a learning mode and you’re gathering, building, and doing all those things at the same time.

Let’s say you didn’t know me, and I wanted to add you to my professional network. What are some ways that I can keep the relationship going? After our meeting, what kinds of things should I be doing to follow up?

I always think it’s nice if you bring something to offer: “I saw this article, and it reminded of the conversation we had.” That’s flattering to the recipient and is a nice easy way to do something, even a couple of months out. Even if I maybe didn’t remember you or didn’t remember the conversation, I’ll be like, “Oh. Wow, that’s cool that they took the time to do that.” It’s something different than, “Hey, just checking in and saying ‘Hi.’” That's not a relationship.

If you choose to use LinkedIn, you might put something in the note such as, “It really struck me when you said (so and so). I’d love to keep you in my professional network and would love the opportunity to connect with you on LinkedIn.” I generally would connect, but I don't always 100%.

I think it’s always nice to pop in and say, “Hey, I just wanted to pop in real quick. I know you’re busy, and I’m not on your schedule.” I’m so glad you made an effort to come by to say “Hi,” because even doing that is another touchpoint. If you see me at an event, say, “I heard you say you were very involved in the economic development thing, and I saw The International Economic Development Conference is going to be in Atlanta at the end of the month. Are you involved in that?” Then, I’ll say, “Yes, I’ve been spending a lot of time on that.” It’s cool that she remembered that I was in something - even if that’s not how she knows me. I think it’s that extra effort, and that you’re not just ticking a box or trying to stay in touch only to access my contacts. At this point in my career, I have amassed a lot of contacts, and I prefer to build a relationship because I don’t want just anyone to go out and say, “Hey, I see your friends with Tedra too.” I don’t want to put any of my connections in a bad place with someone that might not handle them properly.

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

I intentionally network every day! That’s what I do for a living, but I’ll use the example of when I first came to work at Georgia State in the Robinson College of Business: Even though I’ve done business development in all kinds of ways over my career, I’d never done it for an academic institution. This was a new industry for me, and I had a huge learning curve of seeing how all the pieces worked together. (i.e. The faculty who do research, the faculty that teach, the supporting staff, etc.)

So, I would pick a major, like computer information systems, that I didn't know much about, and set up appointments with the department head. I would also introduce myself to the business managers to get an idea about what they did, their priorities, needs, and some of the trends of the industry. I didn’t need to be an expert in computer information systems, but since part of my job is to sell everything the college has to offer (undergrad, grad, all of the majors, etc.), I at least needed to have a sampling of who the staff were and what was going on.

I also intentionally set-up appointments with some of the department chairs. I would introduce myself to people on the elevator if they were going to the same floor, I would wander the halls and just see what people’s titles were. And, they would say, “Can I help you?” And I would say, “Oh, actually, I’m new, I just wanted to see what was involved here.” One time, my colleague jokingly asked, “Are you just walking up and down the halls? Because all these people are telling me that they’ve met you!”It was a straightforward way for me to get a broad picture of all the different types of people that were involved, and, in my opinion, were going to be resources for my success in the future.

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

Sure! One time I was taking MARTA, and I just started talking to the person beside me. They had a book in their hand, and I said, “I haven't seen that, could you tell me a little bit about that book.” We started talking, and, at first, it was just something that I thought was a little interesting. During our conversation, I said, “That’s really interesting to me with my work,” and they said, “What do you do?” I told them. The person turned out to be on staff at another college! So, I was able to build a bond with someone in a different college that I wouldn't have otherwise been able to cross paths with, and we went for lunch later on. Now, I know I have a contact there if I ever need any information on that college, or if I need an introduction to someone else that they may know.

Are you in any professional networks?

I am, but not as many as I was in earlier in my career. I am very involved with the International Economic Development Council. I served on their board of directors for ten years before I termed out, and still am reliant on a lot of those connections for other things I do.

Ironically, I went to a conference this summer for the National Association of Corporate Relations Officers for Universities, and I knew about a half dozen people there from my Economic Development days who had crossed over. It was nice to reconnect with them. Since we already knew each other and had a relationship, they made introductions for me to other people in the field while we were at the conference together.

It’s imperative, especially early in your career, to be involved. People will continue popping up across the course of your life, whether you realize they are going to or not. You need to try to be mindful of that in your interactions because they’ll keep crossing your path.

Yes, that is definitely true. Did you join while you were in college?

I did not. I actually entered a new industry that I did not go to college for. So, to invest in making relationships and expanding my knowledge base, I jumped in with both feet and started volunteering for committees and such. Because I wasn’t very knowledgeable of the field, I wanted to make some quick contacts and create a network that I can go to for guidance if I needed it.

Do you have any networking pet peeves?

Yes, I have a list of networking pet peeves! Probably number one is the business card pusher who walks in, and I feel like they have a quota for how many business cards they can push out. So even if we don’t have any common ground, they feel like they need to push their business card on me and get my business card from me. I find that very disingenuous. To me, it’s a red blinking light that they don’t understand how the process works.

Number two is when people send me connection requests on LinkedIn with no message or reminder of how we knew each other. I have no idea why they would contact me, and they’re not giving me any description or reason to contact them. Or, if they’ve never met me, they’re just reaching out because they want to add to their LinkedIn numbers or have access to my network.

Thirdly, is when people you meet, even if you have a lot of common ground, corner you for an entire networking event or the whole time. Even if you have a lot of interaction, a lot of overlap and many things to say, there are also other people at the event that are worth meeting. A great way to transition is to talk for five or ten minutes, then say, “We obviously have a lot to talk about. I’d love to be able to reach out to you and get together for coffee so we can continue our conversation. I know there are probably a lot of other people for you to visit who would love to connect with you.” So, it gives you another chance to reconnect, and you may not miss out on other opportunities to be there.

Would you say that being considerate is the responsibility of the person who is trying to corner you, the person that is being cornered, or does it matter?

If the person that is cornering is not aware, then the person who is being cornered needs to be aware. Even if you’re approaching someone else, and you are like, “Oh my gosh! This is exactly the kind of person I’d like to meet!” It’s not fair to them, nor you, for you to monopolize all of their time. I think the onus is on both parties; It’s just not considerate.

Oh! Another pet peeve. I have one more: if I’m talking to someone or if they’re talking to me, I don’t like when someone is constantly scanning over my shoulder, over my head, to see if there are “better people,” that they want to talk with. Whatever your interaction, whether you initiated it, or they did, give your undivided attention to whoever you’re speaking within that moment. Then, remove yourself from that situation and then you scan to see who else is out there, but not during your interaction. I have lots of opinions.

Do you have any networking faves?

1) I love when others invite me into a group, make me feel welcome, or at least acknowledge me. If there’s a group of two or three people talking, and you enter, and they may say, “hi!” They may acknowledge you and go on with their conversation, or even turn around and make introductions to the other people there proactively.

2) If I’m going into an event, and I’m talking to someone in line, I like it when they don’t just ditch me as soon as they see someone else after entering. The person doesn’t have to stick with me the whole evening, or I don’t have to take them on, but I believe it is good to at least help usher someone into the event. If there’s someone I see and know, I can say “Hi, before you move on and grab a drink, let me introduce you to so-and-so right here.” It’s good to make that introduction, and you can even kind-of dismiss them afterward, and say, “Hey, go ahead with the rest of your event. I just wanted to make sure you met (whoever it is).”

So, there are ways to disengage yourself from that, and I think that is a skillset. But I do believe you can still be gracious, polite, and considerate while having the invisible clock ticking in your head for how long interactions are taking.

For students, if they go to a networking event, and there are drinks, and people are drinking, would you suggest that they also drink?

If they’re not of age, then they definitely should not drink. Otherwise, no matter what, a student should probably not have more than one drink because they’re probably not experienced drinkers. It’s always fine to get a tonic or club soda with a lime in it, so, that way, it doesn't look like you’re not drinking. Your drink looks like everybody else's, but you’re not necessarily drinking alcohol. Also, you may feel more confident if you have something in your hand as everyone else does. I also think it's essential, especially for students, to not stay in clumps if they go to things together because they may end up not meeting other people.

Additionally, if you’re invited as a student with a professional, faculty, or someone else, or if you’re someone’s guest, that as a courtesy to your inviter, you shouldn’t stick with them during the entire event. You may excuse yourself to get something to drink or eat, and then you need to make an effort to meet a few people on your own while you’re out. Then come back. Even though they’re doing a kindness for you to bring you as a guest, a kindness back is to give them some space and not just be stuck to their hip the entire evening. You might then be able to bring up the interesting person you met and have something to talk about on your own. You could say, “Oh, when I went to get something to eat a while ago, I met someone from ‘X.’ I don’t know if you know them or not, but they seemed very interesting” etc. That’s a way to pay it forward and give back to your host.

If a student were to meet you at a networking event, and they wanted to ask a question, request an informational interview, etc., how would you prefer that to go about? At the event or afterward in an email?

I prefer an email. Earlier last week, a student came to me and said they had looked up my bio, and they were going to be a new student in the master’s program on campus. They saw that I had changed industries and they would love to have a conversation with me about my experience because they were looking for an industry change. He asked when I might have some availability over the next couple of weeks for a half an hour interview. I felt that he approached me perfectly. He told me why he chose me, what he was looking for in the interview, gave me the option of time, and told me how long it was going to take.

We were able to find time immediately. However, he had an appointment run late and said, “I may be running late.” But I had another appointment afterward. So I said, “It’s no problem if you want to reschedule. Let me know; I may be available.” He said, “That may be better because I don’t want to rush you.” Which, I appreciated. So, we rescheduled for the next week. I appreciated that, instead of making me feel rushed, he was communicating with me.

How important are thank you letters?

I think it depends on the situation. A thank you letter or email is great for an interview. You’ll want to send it out quickly because you know they’re going to make a decision quickly. You don’t want to have not gotten to them, and everyone else got their thank yous to them. A thank you letter is going the extra mile and is a differentiator. However, I think written follow up is the most important.

I met someone at a party on Saturday night, and we were talking about work. He said, “I would love to follow up with you.” He sent me a LinkedIn request that same night, and then he followed up with me on Monday and said, “Hey, can I have your email address, so I can send you that information we discussed?” We’ve already interacted four or five times this week, just since Saturday. He followed up, and I could tell that he searched around. He’d also said “Say ‘Hi’ to [so and so] too. Give her a hug for me. I haven’t seen her in a long time.” I said, “Oh, I didn’t know you knew her!” So, he’s making more sticky points where we connect. So, to me, he did everything just right.

I will say a written letter is the extra effort, and definitely makes an impact. We all get emails every day. We don’t get a lot of letters.

Do you think that a student should seek mentorship from their networking adventure?

I may have a different take on this. I’ve never provided a formal mentorship because I don’t prefer to invest that much into one person. That’s just me, and I’ve never asked that of someone else. There are people that I have spent additional time with, or I’ve asked, “Do you think we can go to coffee or lunch or something?” But formal mentorship is a huge time commitment from someone. I also don’t subscribe to that theory because you’d only get one person’s viewpoint and direction. I prefer to survey and gather information from different sources. So, even though I think mentors are amazing and I admire them, I want other people’s opinions too. Then, I can make my own decisions about life and where I want to get guidance.

I know I have a very different viewpoint on that than a lot of people. I know a lot of people love and had a great relationship with a mentor. I’ve just never sought or accepted that role.

I think there are a lot of forms of informal mentorship. I feel like I’ve invested some time in you, Tola, over time. Sometimes you and I spend time, or I’ll coach you on the spot, or I see something and come to you afterwards and say, “You know what? I think you have a lot of potential, and I’m a big fan of yours.” So, I can do that, but I wouldn’t want to take you on as a mentee. I want to have the opportunity to connect with other folks, and I want you to hear from other people, not just from me. There's an opportunity for me to do informal coaching guidance things along the way, and spend some extra time here and there with you and have some general conversations where it’s not as direct as mentorship on a regular basis.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I’ll say this one last piece. I gave my definition of networking as two parts: the scanning scene where there are opportunities to build relationships and then investing the time into building those relationships.

I saw someone early in his career and thought he was a superstar. If I ever have a chance to help him, I’m going to help him. He had that ‘it’ factor. One time, I called him when I saw a position. I approached the hiring managers and asked if they were interested in someone out-of-state. (It was an out-of-state professional thing). They said, “Absolutely.” He was hired and stayed in that position for three to four years. He was also awarded, “Young Professional of the Year” by the International Economic Development Council, which was cool.

In this deal, he said, “I’d like to thank Tedra. When I came to her and said I was interested in getting involved, she helped me do so. I told her what my career aspirations were, and when an opportunity came up, she reached back out. I hadn’t even talked to her in six months, but she said, ‘Hey, this could be a great job.’ I just really wanted to acknowledge that.”

There are probably going to be people that do things for you in subtle and overt ways like that all through your career, and it is nice. People do go out of their way for other people, and it’s nice when you acknowledge them then and even later on. He is leaving that job after six years, and he invited me to dinner to thank me and to ask if he had met my expectations. He wanted to know if I was proud of the job he had done and to make sure I understood why he was leaving that position for another position. It's is twice the pay and a whole great opportunity; leaving the past position is what he should be doing. He has a family now and everything, and he took the time, the week before he was moving from town, to get back together to thank me and acknowledge that none of this would have happened if I hadn’t thought of giving him the opportunity. That appreciation and acknowledgement meant the world and makes me want to do that for other people.

Make people want to do it for other people. That’s a way you can pay forward it even if you feel you don't have anything to give at this point in your career.

More about the interviewee:

Tedra Cheatham

Director, Business Partnership Development

J. Mack Robinson College of Business

Georgia State University