You Are Always "On"
Another admonition to remember is that you are always "on." You are always in the presence of potential employers, even if they are currently members of your own staff. One of the secretaries I hired years ago worked in White House personnel some years later. Had I been seeking a presidential appointment, her earlier judgments about how I treated her and her assessment of my professional abilities could have made the crucial difference in getting, or not getting, a job.
I remember the first time I was asked to serve as a reference for one of my former bosses. What a surprise! Back then I did not realize how quickly tables could turn. Someone you interview today may be called upon to judge your credentials for a position or a consultancy a few years down the road. Our lives are amazingly intertwined.
Forever at the Crossroads
We sometimes look back on a specific event—an interview or encounter—that resulted in a specific job offer. In our memory it is a kind of crossroads or pivotal moment when judgments are made and choices determined. In fact, we have many more of these crossroads moments than we realize. Let me use my own experience to illustrate this notion.
As I reflect on the process that resulted in the board of directors hiring me to lead NCIV, I was at a crossroads in my career, particularly on the day that I was interviewed by the entire board. As I looked around the room, I realized that I had known or worked with at least half of the board members present. In fact, long before that day, they had most likely drawn their conclusions about my competence and fit for the position that eventually came to mean so much to me. I was not aware of these crossroads when they occurred. Every time I interacted with one of these board members, each was making judgments about my skills and talents. Perhaps these judgments were subconscious, but they certainly played a role on the day of that fateful group interview.
Another example I refer to as "The Story of Frank." Frank was a summer intern at NCIV some years ago. I invited him to join me for a Youth Leaders International dinner. En route in my ancient Mustang, we encountered a mega traffic jam. We literally talked for more than an hour—about what Frank learned from teaching in China, his career goals, and his approach to one of his assigned projects.
I remember being so impressed with his values, ideas, and experiences. Later at the dinner, I watched him interact effectively with young people from sixteen countries. Toward the end of the summer, one of my staff announced she was leaving to get married. Guess who got the job? Yes, Frank, and probably the pivotal moment was that philosophical discussion in my car. My decision had already been made by the time of the requisite interview.
These stories are another way of illustrating the concept that you are always on and forever at the crossroads. We should also remember that plain good manners—treating everyone the way you would like to be treated—are a fundamental part of a successful career. Every day, each task you do and interaction you have is either increasing someone's confidence in your abilities or eroding it. Later on, that someone may play a major role in determining your future.
The Science of Record Keeping
I only wish that years ago some well-meaning counselor had told me how to maintain a database of the most useful connections made through networking activities, whether these individuals were encountered when I was a job seeker or as the incumbent of a particular position. If you assiduously follow this one piece of advice, it will be worth much more than the price you paid for this book. Each time you accept a business card from someone you find informative and interesting, or who is active in your field, record the details of the meeting and store them, with the contact information on the card, so they are easily retrievable.
Years ago I kept a three-ring notebook of annotated business cards and a Rolodex. Now an electronic database is essential—backed up, of course. For the exercise to be useful, you must record in each entry the date, place, and occasion of your meeting, along with a brief phrase that will help you recall the conversation or other details of your encounter. Meeting a colleague and being able to recollect an idea she expressed is ten times more valuable than just knowing you met her. It facilitates follow-up contacts and demonstrates your own intelligence and ability to listen (a sometimes underrated communication skill that is nonetheless valued by employers).
I cannot emphasize enough the value of a carefully annotated record of contacts. Too often, people collect business cards and toss them in a drawer, erroneously confident that their memories are more accurate than they later turn out to be. The quality and comprehensiveness of the contact information in your database are amazingly reliable indicators of your usefulness to an employer.
The Tyranny of Time
When you send any message requesting information or an interview, be conscious of the time the response might require. I remember (with a certain wistfulness) an era when the only methods of communication other than a meeting were the telephone, the US Postal Service, or (in some cases) telegrams. Now each day, any active professional is besieged by an alarmingly large volume of messages from a plethora of sources. On busy days I sometimes skip over messages not directly related to my daily work, musing to myself: "If this is really important, they will send it again." That is just a form of self-defense. I may be, as one of my professors once said, showing a "keen grasp of the obvious" when I offer this observation: the volume of messages we each have to field has risen astronomically, but we are stuck with only twenty-four hours in a day.
Over the years, when people have asked for my time to share career advice, I have often invited them to participate in a career roundtable so I can avoid the time-consuming, one-on-one interviews. There were a few exceptions. When a long-time friend or colleague whose cooperation I appreciated in my professional role (a board member, donor, or corporate partner) called and said, "my niece is studying international relations and she would like to meet with you," I would generally make time. Perhaps a grad student called and said, "I'm writing a paper on leadership. May I interview you about your leadership style?" Such a request was irresistible no matter how busy I was. There was a higher purpose. I was sure to learn something and it tapped my natural inclination to be helpful when someone is conducting research. If the student offered to bring cappuccino, I was hooked. That gesture told me they appreciated my time and wanted to reciprocate in some way.
Now, as an adjunct professor at the School of International Service at American University (AU), some of the papers I require are a kind of "assigned networking." For instance, for the research paper for my cultural diplomacy class, I ask my students to choose an organization that appeals to them and interview two managers there about how they measure success. I assist in scheduling the appointments as needed. This gives my students valuable networking practice and the colleagues they interview have the opportunity to reflect on the results of their work. Remember that reciprocity is at the heart of effective networking.