Want to learn? Spend time with A+ people

Hunter Walk, one of my favorite VC’s wrote a great post on spending time with A+ people in other industries. The post is geared for people who are early in their tech careers but can really be applied to anyone. I’ve long be a proponent for Hunter’s strategy and have gained a lot from my meetings with these people.

This week, I got the chance to meet an A+ person in Nikita. Nikita and I were introduced via a mutual friend (thanks Julio!) for an opportunity to write on my blog. While that never panned out, it was clear to me that from our brief conversation Nikita was an A+ individual, so after months of trying to coordinate through our busy personal/work schedules we finally got the chance to connect. It ended up being a fantastic conversation, and reinforced my belief in spending time with people who stretch your thinking. Here are some reasons why meeting with other A+ people is great:

They Challenge You – Nikita and I are similar in a lot of ways. In addition to both starting our career in consulting and at the same firm, we also have a similar approach for how we engage with others. For instance, we started catching up on work, Nikita began asking me a series of questions that put me on the spot, and made me consider things I hadn’t really thought about. At some point, she apologized for the inquisition (my friends tell me I tend to do this to them..) but it challenged me to think on the spot about things I hadn’t quite thought through.

They empathize with you – MBA graduates, regardless of where they went to school share a lot from the common experience. I’d be experiencing some challenges post-MBA lately and I thought I was alone, only to find out Nikita shared some of my similar thoughts and frustrations. Call it piece of mind, but at least I know I’m not alone!

They stretch your mind – I think a lot about my own management style since I’m now managing people, but a lot of this is done internally. We both are in positions right now where we are directly/indirectly managing others. Comparing/contrasting our experiences managing people made me think differently about how I could alter, improve, or iterate on my own management techniques.

They give you motivation – Nikita’s working on some big things – you can read about them here. It takes courage and conviction to speak and pursue a big goal, and something that I’ve struggled with because I’m human. But seeing and hearing other people who are doing it motivates me to push aside any doubts or concerns and do the same for myself.

Last but not least, they give you ideas – such as this post 🙂

TLDR: Conversations with A+ people give you thoughts, ideas, and energy that can be helpful to other areas of your life. Go and find some A+ folks to chat with and let me know what you learn.

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Here’s how to Be great at Networking

For many of us, networking can seem like a necessary evil. We understand it’s importance, but can’t always get ourselves to follow through. Why? There is a lot of work required and it’s easy to make mistakes along the way However, the rewards from networking and building relationships can be significant.

Over the course of my career have been on both ends of hundreds of networking conversations. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes but I’ve also built some incredible relationships that have helped me grow personally and professionally, and have learned some great lessons around how to network effectively.

Be Specific – It’s great that you want to “pick someone’s brain” over coffee, and while your intentions are probably good, picking someone’s brain could mean so many different things. To be most effective, you’ll want to be specific about what you want to talk to someone about, and you’ll want to communicate that in advance so they know how to prepare. Also, be sure to follow networking etiquette.

Be Grateful– If someone is going to give up 30-60 minutes of their day to talk to you, that’s 30-60 minutes that they are not working on one of their many priorities on their daily to-do list. Make sure to show gratitude for their time by A) being gracious and polite in all communications and B) by using the time effectively by not going over time, and by making the conversation as thoughtful and engaging as possible.

Be accommodating – We all live busy lives, but if you’re going to ask someone to meet with you make sure you are showing some courtesy by being flexible around their schedule. You want to make it known that you value their time, so simply telling them you can only meet on weekends during these windows is probably not the best approach.

Be Efficient – When you reach out to someone to introduce yourself you don’t need to tell the your life story, just the highlights and your purpose. I’ve gotten (and seen requests) that read more like novels. A brief introduction and a specific ask (ex: a 30-minute phone call sometime this month) is suffice. Also, since we’re all so smart-phone driven consider that there’s a decent chance this person might be reading your request on their mobile device – novels don’t show up that well.

Be Prepared – Show courtesy and respect for their time and willingness to meet by coming prepared to your meeting. Take the time to do your research. While you don’t always need a formal agenda, coming with some prepared questions and objectives for what you want to talk about always helps guide the discussion. And if possible, avoid questions that can easily be answered by a simple Google search.

Be Valuable – Networking is a two way street. You might be asking for their time and advice, but you can (and should try) to be valuable to the other person. Perhaps you can offer them something, such as expertise on a particular topic they are interested in, or feedback on something they are working on. At the very least, most people can appreciate a thoughtful and/or intelligent conversation on a topic that interests them, so consider saving time in the conversation to engage them on topics you know they care about.

Be Persistent – Networking doesn’t end when the conversation ends – it’s actually just beginning. If you want to cultivate and get value out of a new networking relationship you’ll need to follow up down the road. For starters, it begins with a follow up and thank you email, but don’t let that be the end. Find ways to engage with that person down the road, whether it’s to see how they are doing or what they are working on, or, to provide an update of your own. Other people appreciate when you think of them, so finding appropriate and friendly ways to engage will help you build relationships.

Networking is an investment, of time, energy and other resources. While it may seem daunting or cumbersome, I’ve found that taking the time to follow these rules has not only yielded strong relationships but has made the process incredibly worthwhile. Anything worthwhile requires an investment, and networking to build up your personal or professional life is certainly one worth making.

A Masterclass in becoming a better networker

As a Director of Product Marketing at Salesforce, Jason Perocho (Kenan-Flager, ‘15) works with numerous cross-functional stakeholders, which has made building relationships and networking even more critical to success. In addition to this role, Jason is a hiring manager, and former MBA student, and has conducted numerous informational interviews and hiring interviews with candidates and alum. He took time to share with us some of his thoughts and learnings on how MBA students can effectively network to further their own personal and professional development.

 

Careerschooled: As a former student and now someone who hires MBA students, what’s something you wish more students paid attention to in their networking pursuits?

Jason: I wish that students focused more time on personal development and less time trying to impress the other person. Pulling out an obscure fact from our recent investor report or news release is not advised because it may be outside of my area of expertise. Focusing on learning about the other person, and creating a genuine 2-way conversation tends to yield better results for both parties.

 

CareerSchooled: What’s a lesson you’ve had to learn in order to be a better networker?

Jason: Learning to read body language and listen for tone & contextual clues was key. I wish there was a secret trick to tell, but it just took experience (and a lot of rejection) to learn. Phone calls were the hardest because it was tough to gauge how strongly I was connecting with the other person. I eventually learned to pick up on verbal cues to determine who would be my advocate to those who would probably not talk to me again.

CareerSchooled: What are some characteristics of a good informational interview?

JasonA good informational interview is focused on personal development. Most alumni would agree that we take informational calls with students to return the favor that was shown to us in business school. Great informational calls start out with a minute of banter on the latest developments (and gossip) of what’s happening at school to establish a rapport.

Next, moving on and making a personal connection to a value or topic about my company. The personal connection should be a short story that compasses your past experience and how it connects with obtaining employment at my company. This helps demonstrate a deeper level of thought went into why you wanted to work here.

The rest of a great conversation is spent learning about the options for MBAs and then trying to determine the skill set they need to develop. The best students ask questions from my perspective, not theirs. This is a subtle nuance, but it makes the person you’re talking to feel appreciated.

 

For example, questions through the student’s lens are:

  • How can I be successful at your company?
  • What skills do I need to get a job at your company?
  • How can I stand out in an interview?

These same questions can be framed from the person you’re networking with by asking:

  • “What makes a Product Marketer successful at your company?”
  • “What didn’t B-School teach you before becoming a Product Marketer and how did you learn those skills?”
  • “As a hiring manager, what has stood out to you from the best candidates you’ve interviewed?”

What are some characteristics of a bad one?

  • Showing up late
  • Not being gracious, humble, or patient
  • Calling my cell phone rather than the dial-in on the calendar invite. (This is my pet peeve because it shows a lack of attention to detail)
  • Dominating the conversation and talking just about yourself
  • Complaining about how hard it is to find a job or internship.
  • Asking for a job.
  • Submitting my name as a referral on the website without asking me first.
  • Not knowing the absolute basic information of what my company does.
  • Referring to “tech” generically. The tech landscape is extremely varied so have a Point of View on where you want to go.
  • Asking a question about an obscure fact you found on an investor report or buried deep on the website.
  • Scripting the entire conversation. Trust me, Interviewers can tell. Instead, build off of what I’m saying with deeper questions on the spot.
  • Asking to talk talk to someone else when the conversation is clearly not going in a positive direction.
  • Trying to fake a shared interest

 

CareerSchooled: Many people know that warm introductions are helpful, but sometimes you just don’t have a connection to someone you want to speak to. Do you have any advice for how to reach out to individuals you don’t know?

Jason: If the person you want to speak to is an alumni, then I recommend using LinkedIn to reach out. Be gracious and offer a wide window of availability. If they’re not an alumni, use LinkedIn and see if you have any connections to that specific person.

If you are from a protected or underrepresented class (African American, Veteran, Woman, Disable, LGBTQ etc) or even an international student, I recommend reaching out to the leaders of affinity or employee resource groups. There are a tremendous amount of diversity initiatives going on at tech companies right now and these may be your best bets.

Careerschooled: While having a great informational interview is a great first step, it’s often not enough to get in the door at a company. What other things can a candidate do in order to build a relationship with someone?

Jason: Get scrappy and get local. To get scrappy, social media is a blessing and a curse. I have often researched interests and the places lived of those I’m networking with to build a personal connection. For example, I chatted with someone recently and we found out we were both Eagles fans. On the Thursday after the Super Bowl, I received a photo of them at the Super Bowl parade with a very short note that said:

“I know you’re stuck in SF, so here’s a glimpse into the parade craziness! Hope to chat again soon!”

I was impressed because it was short, relevant to my personal interest, and didn’t make an ask. I’ll absolutely talk to this person again.

Getting local is a bit harder and takes commitment. I lived on a friend’s couch for a bit as I was job hunting so I could have informational interviews in person and attend professional meet-ups. I recently went to a Product Marketing meet up and at the end, the MC alerted everyone that if you’re looking for a job, to come up to the front of the room and meet some of the recruiters. I would have never known about that if someone I met local didn’t invite me to the group and then had the ability to attend it a couple weeks later.