Last week I had the opportunity to speak to a few hundred Marines at Quantico about the transition from military to civilian careers. Specifically, I highlighted the importance of building a personal brand and focusing on networking as key steps to take when leaving one career and entering the next.
The Marines I spoke with mentioned that even though they knew that they would transition (in two, five, ten years), the process was daunting, and they felt unprepared for what was next. They heard the horror stories of their peers spending months, even years, struggling to get a phone call back on an interview, felt lost about where to apply for jobs, and experienced the frustration of job fairs.
As I've written about previously on Military.com, in order to stand out in a sea of resumés hitting a hiring manager's desk, today's job applicant needs to take ownership of the value they are promoting before focusing on the words on the resumé. In transitioning from service to civilian, veterans would benefit from spending more time on their goals, value proposition, and "personal brand" before sending out resumés to potential employers.
What is a personal brand?
Everyone has a personal brand. Think of your personal brand as your reputation and the way you live a life consistent with your values. Others around you assign you value based on the way they perceive your reputation.
Whether you are fresh out of military service or your transition has been ongoing for some time, your personal brand sets you apart from competitors and promotes your value in the marketplace. Personal brands are built on real, authentic values, not just fluff and "smoke and mirrors." The work I do with executives and veterans focuses on who you are, how you want to show up, and who will find you valuable. From there, we design strategies to position you to be most successful and impactful after military service.
One of the most common places we express our personal brand, our values, and our style is in networking. Whether we're at a business event, job fair, or standing in line at Starbucks, we're always in a potential networking situation.
Many professionals teach a "say and spray" method of networking – talk to as many people as you can to increase your odds of reaching someone who might possibly find you interesting and relevant. I take a different tact.
I believe your goal is to 1. Show up authentically; 2. Know your value proposition (what do you have to offer?); 3. Be able to articulate how your experience relates to the goals and needs of potential employers; and 4. Have a clear follow up strategy ready to go after the event.
My top seven networking myths debunked:
Myth 1. Online networking doesn't work
Online relationships (social networking) can be the most effective and impactful part of your career transition. For most of us, our online profiles are the first place a potential employer, interviewer, or recruiter will go to try to find us. Here are a few tips for building a powerful online personal brand:
Project a good image. Pay attention to your headshot and the tone of your online profiles. Are you projecting an image of someone who is welcoming, approachable, and professional? Or, does the absence of a headshot and the tone of your profile send the message that you are standoffish and aloof? Are you engaging and welcoming or confrontational and angry?
Use all the features. For instance, LinkedIn gives you the opportunity to fill out a robust and informative profile. Take advantage of as many of the apps and plug-ins as make sense for you. For instance:
- Include a summary of your experience in your profile. Be sure this isn't just resume-content. Use the summary to describe who you are and what you do (what are you passionate about?).
- Add the Amazon app plug-in to share your favorite books with your connections. Be sure to include a review of the book and whether you would recommend it to others. This gives your connections more insight into your interests.
- Include your past career experience – not as a resume. What were your successes at that job? What contribution did you make? What did you learn? What did you enjoy the most?
Talk about your military experience in ways that a recruiter or hiring manager will understand. If you use overly technical jargon and terminology, you might turn off the civilian recruiter. Instead, relate your experiences and skills to understandable values, such as: "Able to make effective decisions quickly…. Understanding of complex engineering systems… Team leader with proven track record for collaboration and effectiveness…." Use civilian language if you are looking for a civilian opportunity.
Myth 2. Networking only happens at business events
Networking can happen anywhere. When we are in a position to meet people, we can network. This means we should be aware of our personal brand and how we look, sound, and act in line at Starbucks, at our kids' baseball games, in the grocery store, and so on. Why would you act professional, approachable, and interested at a business event and behave poorly other times? You never know where you'll meet the next important contact in your network.
Myth 3. Networking is about getting business cards
The goal of business cards is to give and receive information for follow up. Your contact information, maybe a tagline about your work, and marketing information is on your business card. Likewise, the cards you receive from others serve the same purpose.
Instead of focusing on quantity of cards given and received, pay attention to the quality of the individuals you are exchanging cards with. You will need to follow up and engage with these people – are they your target audience? Can you serve them with value? Can you anticipate a follow up meeting with them?
When you are handed a business card, resist just sticking the card in your pocket and moving on. Look at the card, acknowledge something on the card, i.e. "Oh, I see you're based in Dallas?," and show appreciation to the individual who handed it to you. This will help you remember the person with the card more effectively.
Myth 4. Your networking goal is to locate decision makers
Many people mistakenly think the goal of networking is to meet decision makers – These are the hiring managers, senior leaders, and people who can hire us, contract with us, and buy from us. The problem is that often, they are the most sought-after individuals in networking situations and they get overwhelmed with inquiries.
I'd like to offer you two additional categories of contacts to consider having in your intentional network: information sources and cheerleaders. Information sources may or may not have the power to hire you, promote you, and buy from you, but they might bring some unique industry information or insight that makes you more competitive, relevant, and better at your job. For this reason, when you meet someone who is potentially a valuable information source, you should network with them as if they are a decision-maker.
Similarly, a cheerleader is another vital part of any networking strategy. These are your fans. They cheer you on when things get rough and give you support and references when you need them. These positive, supportive people are very valuable in an intentional business network.
Keep in mind that each of these people will require that you provide them with equal value (reciprocity) to make the relationship work for both parties. As you network, consider how you might be someone else's decision-maker, information source, or cheerleader.
Myth 5. Follow up is overrated
The greatest mistake people make in networking is not having a well-developed follow up plan. Why leave something so critical to chance?
Consider whom you want to meet, how you want them to perceive you, and how you will build that relationship over time. Then, when you meet that person, consider options to follow up and stay in touch. You might choose to: connect on LinkedIn, send a note of appreciation for any advice/connections/information they offered you, introduce them to someone they want to know, refer them to a source you deem credible, send an article of interest to them, or add them to your contact list to touch base with regularly.
Your networking follow up can be formal (letter) or informal (handwritten note), but it should always happen very shortly after meeting this person. Be specific in your correspondence (i.e. "It was great to meet you at the ABC Event, and I enjoyed speaking with you about your years in the Navy…."), and conclude with an action item, (i.e. "I will phone you next week to follow up on your introduction to Mr. Smith.").
Myth 6. Memorize your elevator pitch
An elevator pitch is a statement you can deliver if you get into an elevator with someone and they ask you, "What do you do?" Before the doors open at the top floor, could you adequately get someone's interest – and tell them what makes you different – in just a few seconds? An elevator pitch (that quick 30- to 60-second overview of your skills, background, and goals) is not a speech you memorize and recite verbatim.
Whether you are introducing yourself at a business event, cocktail party, or at a presentation to a potential employer, an elevator speech has impact when it is:
- Authentic and genuine. Speak from the heart.
- Relevant. Speak to me as an individual. How does your work affect others? Why should I care?
- Descriptive. Tell me what it is you do and how.
- Concise. Keep it short and sweet. Make me want to learn more!
- Interesting. Don't read your resume or tell me your life story. Give me enough information to want to learn more about you.
Be sure to describe what you do in your speech, and then describe how you do it. Do not repeat your job description, the title you hold, or the number of years you've been in the job unless it makes you unique. Focus on what is it you do differently than your competitors. If you have a niche, tell me about it. The goal is to entice the listener to want to know more.
Myth 7. Be transparent and don't hold back
While I agree that authenticity and transparency are key to building relationships, in networking some people can take this too far. When you first meet someone (anyone) you should not reveal all of your frustrations, anger, and disappointment over the job search process. Telling someone too much can work against you. You might believe you are building rapport by sharing your pain, but the other person is forming beliefs about you in those early moments of first meeting you. If you share too many details about why you haven't found a job, you could actually plant the idea in the other person's mind that maybe there is a reason you haven't found a job… and they should avoid you as well!
Make sure you answer questions, show enthusiasm (even if you don't feel it) about your future, and focus on your strengths. We all have pain, sorrow, and hurt in our lives, but networking is not the time to reveal those to your new (and hopefully long-term) contacts.
In today's highly competitive job market, networking can prove to be one of your most successful and impactful efforts. Whether you are networking online or in person, your goal is always to represent yourself with confidence, authenticity, and a focus on results. Your reputation – and personal brand – is everything!