Take a moment to think about some personality traits that great networkers possess. Some of these may come to mind: bearing, tact, unselfishness, initiative, enthusiasm, and courage. Do these traits sound familiar to you? In the military, we call these characteristics "leadership traits." These leadership traits, the same ones your first sergeant reminded you of every time you got into trouble, are also the characteristics of great networkers on the civilian side. As a transitioning veteran, you already possess the potential to become a great networker; you just have to tailor your leadership traits to a different type of battlefield. Let's take a look at how some of these leadership traits transfer.
Bearing Bearing is confidence. It's having a presence. Think back to your drill instructors. They are the perfect example of military bearing. But their confidence didn't develop overnight. It came with experience and grew over time. Just like the way your bearing and confidence grew as you gained experience in the military. Remember how difficult it was for you initially to give your drill instructors the morning report? Did you also notice that as you gained experience, not only did these seemingly difficult tasks get much easier, but also other soldiers were more interested in what you had to say? As you gained experience and confidence, it was suddenly much easier to influence operations and expand your network.
Coming out of the military, you already have a strong foundation of confidence; you just need to improvise and adapt it to the civilian world. Think of it as "renovating" or "updating" your military bearing to meet the challenges of the civilian world.
How do you do that? You have to step out of your comfort zone and take some risks. It helps to start small, just like in boot camp, and then build from each new experience. If you're a college student, almost every university has a student activity department that oversees student clubs, organizations, and other events in which you can become involved. Here you can begin the small steps of updating your bearing in a civilian environment. A great place to start is your university's student veteran's club. If your college doesn't have one, start one up. If you're not a student, there are plenty of organizations or non-profits that you can join in your community. Try starting with your local veteran support organizations and go from there.
Tact is the act of understanding how to effectively communicate with other people. Think back to your pre-deployment training. Many of you probably attended cultural classes to learn about the customs and courtesies of the Iraqi or Afghan people. You had to learn about the culture to effectively communicate with the local people. You may have learned the local language, basic courtesies, how to show respect, what to say and what not to say, and a host of other things. In other words, you learned how to be tactful.
There are many cultural differences between the military and corporate worlds. You can't treat your co-workers the same way you treated your troops. And talking to your boss with a dip-in is no longer appropriate either.
No one understands unselfishness better than a veteran. The mere fact that you joined the armed forces during a time of war shows that you have the inherent ability to put others before yourself. The key to networking is not to get people to do things for you or to "join" your team. The key is to help as many people as possible, whether it's connecting them with others in your network, giving a little of your time, or providing assistance to them in some other small way. You want to position yourself as the person that people come to when they need help, not the other way around.
Initiative may be the most important quality you can have in the civilian world. Once you're given your DD-214, no one is going to tell you what to do anymore. There's no more reveille, formations or a sergeant to tell you what the plan of the day is going to be. Some of you are probably saying "thank god," but it's a double-edged sword. Now, you're responsible for figuring it all out yourself. Abraham Lincoln once said that, "Good things come to those who wait, but only the things left over by those who hustle." This couldn't be truer, especially as it pertains to networking. A great networker is always looking for opportunities to help and connect others. He or she doesn't wait for others to contact them or ask for help. You were taught to never volunteer for anything in the military, but in the civilian world, you should be volunteering for EVERYTHING! Don't just ask to help, go help! Don't just give out your business card, ask for someone's contact information and follow up with the person! Don't expect anyone to help you or hold your hand. You have to take the lead.
No one wants to be around a boring person. People want to be around others who are positive and who make them feel better about themselves. In the military, showing emotion is considered weak. We are supposed to maintain an "even keel" demeanor at all times. And with good reason: We don't want people who freak out under fire. We want people who remain calm and can think clearly under the direst circumstances. In the civilian world, this demeanor can come across as boring or even a little strange. It's normal to show emotion and to be passionate about something. It will only draw more people to you and provide you with more opportunities to help others and meet new people. Smiling should be your default face!
Without courage, you can't network. It's as simple as that. It's amazing how Marines and Soldiers will run without hesitation toward the sound of gunfire. And it's equally amazing how hardened combat veterans are paralyzed with fear at the thought of walking up to someone they don't know and starting a simple conversation. We had a saying on recruiting duty: You have to get the "no's" if you want to get the "yes's." This means that you're not going to be successful in everything you do. You will fail. You will embarrass yourself. But at least you had the courage to put yourself out there. And if you continue to put yourself out there, you will ultimately succeed in whatever you choose to do. If you're not failing, you're not trying.
Ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that can possibly happen?" Is an Iraq combat veteran really afraid of someone telling them no? It sounds ridiculous. But some people are paralyzed with fear when placed in certain social situations or when faced with rejection. If you are one of these people, it's okay: we all have varying levels of anxiety in social situations. Experienced networkers and public speakers just know how to handle the fear and turn it into positive energy and enthusiasm. Start small with your university's veterans club and practice meeting new, likeminded people. Begin to renovate and rebuild your bearing, confidence, and courage. The next thing you will know you'll feel like that salty sergeant running the platoon again.
Michael Abrams is an Afghanistan veteran and Founder of Four Block, a veteran career development program based in New York. He is the author of Business Networking for Veterans as well as an Adjunct Professor at Fordham University.