Investing in your network is investing in yourself.

Fair or not, personal connections matter. People like to help someone they know and they like to know the person they’re helping (especially if they’re going to stick their neck out for you). The last time I applied for a job posting I randomly found on the Internet was 10 years ago. It was a part-time job in college as a Customer Service Representative at Ecolab. Since then, all of my jobs have been obtained through personal connections.

I’m sure that makes me sound very lucky or like  someone who is a natural at networking, but the truth is there is nothing out of the ordinary about me. In fact, I don’t like chitchat and I get nervous when approaching people I don’t know. That is why I work in Operations and not Sales. But, you get creative really fast when you’re a college kid staring down $50k of student loans (and that is just from my undergraduate – what a lucky guy my husband is!). I started seeking out people for advice because I wanted to know one thing: How do I get a job after graduation so I can pay off my student loans? What I’ve discovered since then is networking is actually very easy and anyone can do it well if they just stick to the basics.

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Rule #1: One-on-one is the most effective way to build a strong network.

I’ve never had any luck at the large events where you wonder if it’s a networking event or cattle call; and you walk away with 15 business cards but no real connections. It is better to meet with someone one-on-one because it is more personal. You don’t have to worry about being interrupted by anyone else and you can pick the time and location. You will also feel more comfortable talking about your experience and asking questions, and they will feel more comfortable providing honest feedback and advice.

Rule #2: You need to ask for a meeting in order for it to happen.

Simple, right? Wrong. This is the part people seem to dread the most, but if you don’t ask it won’t happen. Sometimes people will say no, but most people will say yes because it’s flattering to be asked for advice.

How do you set up the meeting? You figure out if you want to target someone at a certain company, in a certain field, with a certain degree, etc. Then, you find someone to introduce you. That could be a friend, family member, old classmate, or even a Recruiter. Email introductions allow you to think about your wording when you introduce yourself so this is the method I usually prefer.

Rule #3: Don’t only network when you need it.

You should always strive to make personal connections for a few reasons: it’s a good way to learn about different areas in business, new people bring new perspectives to your life, and it makes it easier when you do need help. I’ve found new opportunities through old classmates, people I’ve met at trainings, and casual work acquaintances. I didn’t intend to meet these people because I thought they might be able to help me at some point. I met them because I was genuinely interested in learning about what they do and where they work. In most cases, they reached out to me when they learned about an opening they thought I’d like. If you only network when you need it, you risk missing out on bigger opportunities that might come up when you least expect it.

Rule #4: Stick to the purpose of the meeting and stay positive.

Meeting new people to learn about their job or company isn’t the time to trash your employer or boss. It isn’t even the right time to dwell on personal struggles too much. The purpose of your meeting should be to learn about the person you’re meeting with, share your story, and get advice. You want to give the impression that you have a good outlook on life, have turned your life challenges into motivation, and are easy to get along with.

Rule #5: Return the favor.

If someone wants to meet with you about your job or company, return the favor. It’s only polite.

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In addition to these basic rules, you should follow standard etiquette you’d follow with an interview: be on time, send a follow-up thank you email for their time, be prepared to talk about yourself, and ask good questions. Networking or informational interviews shouldn’t feel like an interview, but it is respectful to be prepared with questions and what you want to get out of the meeting.

On the flip side, networking is also a good way for you to see if a company culture, department or boss is someone you wouldn’t want to work with. When I was finishing my MBA, I met with a guy in Strategic Business Development at a large local company for coffee to learn about his job. The guy was 15 minutes late and had that slicked-back hair look about him. He referred to my experience as “back-office” and didn’t seem engaged in anything I had to say. I was so put off by him that I didn’t even apply for the job.

What have you found to be the most effective networking approach? Do you have an awkward networking story you’d like to share?

Vocab Builder: mawkish

mawkish ( môkĭsh)

adjective

1. Excessively and objectionally sentimental. 
2. Nauseating or insipid in taste.

How to use it in a sentence:

It is tough to trust whether the affection is genuine when it comes from a mawkish person.

“Honesty is the best policy” turns out to be a wise maxim rather than a mawkish platitude, but only if others follow the same principle. Social trust is a valuable community asset if – but only if – it is warranted. – Robert D Putnam

One night in college that involved too many Seagram’s & 7-UP drinks causes me to cringe when I think of the mawkish drink.

 

How can Millennials shape America’s future?

There are a lot of articles written about Millennials (also known as Gen Y).  It seems like they are either the worst generation because they are lazy, selfish, and expect too much; or, they are the best generation because they are tech-savvy, entrepreneurial and socially conscious.  What I’m really interested in is this: how can this generation productively shape the future? How can the good (and even the bad) of this generation be used to advance our society?

Since I’m right on the cusp, I can never remember whether I am X or Y so I spent a little time researching the birth years. It’s like the Internet could read my mind because I stumbled upon a quiz titled ‘How Millennial are you?’. I scored 52, which apparently means I’m an average Millennial.  Since I wasn’t tech-savvy enough to figure out what 52 means, I seriously question if I’m very Millennial at all.  I considered this week victorious because I figured out how to schedule my tweets via Hootsuite today… three years after forming my Twitter account.  Yep, I’m a little behind my peers.

Anyway, back on track.  The definition of what birth years make up each generation differs based on organization.  This is how Pew Research Center classifies each generation:

  • Silent: 1928 – 1945
  • Baby Boomer: 1946 – 1964
  • Gen X: 1965 – 1980
  • Gen Y/Millennial: 1981 +  (they list ‘+’ on their website, but it’s generally accepted that it extends through 2000)

The typical Millennial is considered tech-savvy, team-oriented and socially conscious.  According to the Ivey Business Journal, 70% say giving back and being civically engaged is one of their highest priorities. This is an area where I am strongly Millennial. I have worked at companies that were genuinely involved in their community, and I have worked for a company where my boss told me to take a vacation day if I wanted to participate in the Habitat for Humanity company event. It is important to me to work for a company, and to some extent a boss, with values that align closely to mine.

The less desirable traits associated with Millennials are: they seek instant gratification, have short attention spans, are demanding, and are too comfortable sharing (I am definitely a ‘sharer’). Their use of social media typically leads them to have two personalities – an online persona and a real-life persona. It can be easier to express themselves in writing than verbally so their online persona is typically more expressive and witty.  (So that’s why online dating profiles don’t usually match up with the person in real life!)  This reliance on technology can make it difficult to close generational gaps with coworkers because older generations, like the Baby Boomers, are typically more comfortable with face-to-face interaction.

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By 2020, Millennials will make up 40-50% of our workforce. What does this mean?  How can this generation shape our future?

Millennials can help close our technical skill gap.

The US has a labor shortage for jobs requiring technical skills. We will face a shortage of 224,000 hi-tech workers by 2018. These are the kinds of jobs we need in the US to invent or develop products that employ thousands of people to manufacture, market and support the product.

Even though Millennials have a low % of student enrolled in STEM programs, they are the most well-educated generation, they are tech-savvy, and entrepreneurial.  These three characteristics will help us continue to innovate.  I will write a post separate post at some point about the importance of students enrolling in STEM programs.  I agree there are risks associated with having low involvement in STEM programs, but I believe other characteristics of Millennials will help us mitigate some of the risks. Mark Zuckerberg is the perfect Millennial example of a tech-savvy entrepreneur who came up with an innovative new product.

Companies will need to become more socially responsible to attract top talent.

Millennials are demanding, socially-conscious, and will make up half the workforce in less than 10 years. This is the ‘everyone wins a trophy’ generation, which isn’t necessarily bad because they are a group of people who feel personally responsible for making their community a better place. There are a lot of companies that already prioritize corporate citizenship. One of my former employers allowed employees up to five days of each year to volunteer, which was in addition to the many volunteer activities offered at work during the year. Millennials will drive this to be the majority of businesses (maybe not this specific policy, but you know what I mean… hopefully).

The workplace will become more flexible.

Millennials want flexible work hours.  Obviously, this will happen within reason.  Companies will still need to ensure people are available when customers need them.  However, what this could mean is location of work becomes more flexible.  Telecommuting increased 61% in the US between 2005 and 2009 and it continues to increase.

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Each generation has probably changed the workplace significantly in their own way. The interesting situation with this generation is technology is advancing at a very fast rate. It is now easier and cheaper than ever to find ways to be your own boss. Many Millennials are underemployed or unemployed because they don’t have the experience required to get a job in their field.

We will need to overcome the short attention spans and need for instant gratification if we truly want to achieve our full potential, but overall I am optimistic about how this generation can shape our future. The combination of a creative, tech-savvy group of people who need to make a living could lead to some interesting developments over the next few years.

Your thoughts and comments about the generations are appreciated.  

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Minneapolis: the first (real) snow of the season

The Weather Channel is calling it Winter Storm Caesar.  Minnesotans just call it winter.  Whatever you want to call it, we had our first real snow of the season today.  I’m sure Western Minnesotans could put these pictures to shame, but this is the evolution of our patio between 9:30am and 5:30pm today:20121209-172359.jpg

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It doesn’t look like much of a change between the last two pictures, but I guess when you pass six inches of snow it’s tough to consider two more inches much of a change.  I really enjoy the snow when I don’t have to drive anywhere.  After our first round of shoveling, I took a walk around our neighborhood to check out the lake and creek.  This is what I found on my walk:20121209-172631.jpg

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20121209-172742.jpgI mostly wanted to see how the lake looked with our new snowfall.  I never bother to look at it until I realize it’s already frozen over.  I found some trees and branches struggling under the weight of the snow, as well as some ducks that looked very cold.  20121209-173101.jpg

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20121209-173600.jpgThe End.

Managers have bad days too.

Prior to managing people, I had strong opinions about how I would handle situations differently (so much better, of course) and what I was owed.  After four years of managing teams that have ranged in size from 2 people to 100 people, my perspective has changed.  In some cases, I would have cut my manager more slack.  In other cases, I would have demanded more.  I tried to summarize my reflection into 3 things I would tell my non-manager self.

1. Managers have bad days too.

I used to overanalyze my manager’s behavior.  ‘What did I do?  Am I getting fired?  Should I stop checking my Hotmail at work?’  It had to be about me, right?  Wrong.  We all have bad days and get snippy.  Managers are no different.  (it should be rare, but it still happens)

Some days, the political jockeying or finger-pointing is too much.  When this happens, we’re not short with you because we’ve decided you’re a bad employee; we just want to hide in our office with a bag of Cheetos and hammer through that power point that is one week overdue.  Maybe someone just yelled at us, or maybe we lost our temper and yelled at someone else.  Or, maybe we’re just in a funk.  Today, I was emotionally tapped out by noon.  My biggest victory was that I didn’t go for the Cheetos until 5:00pm.  Days like this are rare and I try to compartmentalize so I don’t take it out on my employees; but sometimes it’s tough to fake enthusiasm.

My caveat to this is that attitude is one of the most important factors of success.  Your manager shouldn’t be having a bad day every day.  This pertains to employees too.  You don’t need to be Susie Sunshine, but you do need to have an open mind.  If you’re frustrated by a process, think about what is needed to improve the process rather than just complain about it.  If you feel like other groups aren’t good at sharing information, be the first to reach out to discuss how you can work better together.   Or, if you think other groups are just plain terrible at their jobs (and maybe life in general), try to understand if it is really them or if there is something else going on.  Chances are, they are dealing with bad process, unclear roles and responsibilities, or poor morale.  Dig in and figure out how you can be part of the solution.

2. Good managers will be invested in your performance and job satisfaction, regardless of your career aspirations.

There are three kinds of employees: promotable, valued contributor, and needs development.  I’m sure I’ve been in each category at one point, but I’ve only had a few managers make it a priority to have the discussion with me regularly.  As a result, other managers were very surprised when I turned in my notice because, apparently, I was highly valued.  How was I supposed to know that if I wasn’t being told?

You and your manager should be discussing where you fit at least 1-2 times a year, including what you want to get out of your current role.  Do you want a promotion?  Are you happy in your role, but you want to take on more responsibility?  Do you want better work/life balance?  This is a two-way street, so if your manager hasn’t initiated the discussion you should set up the first meeting.  Your manager should be prepared with feedback.  If this doesn’t happen, press for it.  You deserve it.

On the flip side, your manager should be very honest if you aren’t doing well.  You should know specifics about what isn’t meeting standards, actions you need to take to fix it, and the timeline.  You deserve the chance to improve and your peers deserve to have a team full of equally contributing people.  I strongly believe addressing performance issues isn’t just for the benefit of the employee having the issues, it’s for the benefit of the entire team.  We’ve all had coworkers we think aren’t pulling their weight, and our second thought has probably been, “Why isn’t my boss doing anything about it?”.

3. We know more than you might think, and (sometimes) our decisions are based in logic that isn’t easy to see.

This applies to a lot of areas: poor performers, what our employees do on a daily basis, big changes that might be coming, etc.  I had a boss I was certain kept piling work on me because he was ‘buddies’ with my coworker.  It made me so mad that I actually took a different job within the company.  In retrospect, he was trying to stretch me to take on more responsibility because he had confidence in my abilities.  Even if his intention really was to help out his buddy, I’m the one who ultimately benefitted from being stretched.

Managers won’t know everything their employees do on a day-to-day basis.  If they do, they’re micromanaging or not focusing on the best things for their team.  However, what they should know is their empoloyee’s skills and how those might be causing frustrations in their job or how those skills can be used to benefit the team.  If someone doesn’t have a high attention to detail but they have a highly analytical job, it is the manager’s job to recognize that and help their employee work through it.   Chances are, the employee also has skills that make them successful in other aspects of their role.  They might not be great with details, but they’re good at building relationships or they bring good ideas out about how a process could be improved.

Employee issues are an area it is (or should be) easy for a manager to figure out what is really happening.  Since the team’s work is a reflection of the manager, it’s rare that a manager doesn’t see a performance issue.  Your lazy coworker?  He could be on a performance improvement plan, but that isn’t exactly something we can share for ethical reasons.  My caveat to point #2 is your manager should address performance issues, but you won’t know they are addressing it (if it isn’t you).  Try to be patient.

My non-manager self would probably have advice for me too.  I’m sure it would relate to fairness and spending time understanding my employee’s daily responsibilities.  Or maybe it would mostly be about giving big raises.

Life insurance: because we’re not fortune-tellers

(originally posted March 25, 2012 on my former blog)

Sometimes life is unpredictable.  (whomp, whomp… I know that makes me sound like a depressed person)  My grandma passed away at 91, my aunt passed away unexpectedly at 49 and a friend from graduate school was killed by a drunk driver at age 33.  No one likes to think they won’t be living to 91, but sometimes you need a contingency plan to protect the loved ones you leave behind.  By a strange coincidence, I purchased life insurance earlier this month.  So, this post is intended to give you a quick reference guide on life insurance options.

There are two basic types of life insurance: term and permanent.  A good analogy is that term insurance is like renting and permanent insurance is like owning.  With term life insurance, there is no cash value accrued and coverage is only guaranteed for a set period of time.  With permanent life insurance, cash value is accrued and coverage is guaranteed for your entire life at the same monthly premium.

Term insurance is the least expensive and the premium is usually about $10/month per $100,000 if you’re a young, healthy adult (but gets more expensive as you get older and/or less healthy).  You pay the premium for a set time period that you want coverage.  This is usually good for younger people with limited financial responsibilities/means and parents who want to insure their minor kids are taken care of if something happens to them.  The idea is that you may only temporarily want life insurance because you’ll eventually hit a point in life when the equity in your house or your other savings and assets will eliminate the need for life insurance.

Permanent life insurance is more expensive and premiums vary based on the plan. The most basic benefit is it provides insurance protection and builds up a cash value (savings).  This is a little more detail about the benefits:

  • You can access the cash value by taking a loan against the policy, it can be used as supplemental retirement income, and it can be used as collateral for loans
  • You may get paid dividends if and when the insurance company declares them or you can have the dividends rolled into your cash value.
  • You are guaranteed the benefit for life at your initial premium, whereas term insurance expires and renewing may not be at the same premium rate.  With term insurance, you might not re-qualify for a renewal or it might become very expensive because of age or health.

So, there are a lot of benefits!  That is probably why premiums can be 8-10x more expensive than term insurance when you are a young, healthy adult.

How does permanent life insurance build up cash value?   Part of your premium pays for the insurance and the rest is invested by your insurance company (or, in my case, Northwestern Mutual).  The benefit of this versus saving or investing it yourself is there is usually a guaranteed rate of return.  You can also choose how quickly you want the cash value to accrue, which will be factored into your premiums (the faster you want it to build up, the higher your premium).

There are three basic types of permanent life insurance: whole life insurance, universal life insurance and variable life insurance.  I stole the descriptions of these from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners ‘Life Insurance Buyer’s Guide’:

  • Whole Life Insurance covers you for as long as you live if your premiums are paid. This is the most common form of permanent insurance.  You generally pay the same amount in premiums for as long as you live. When you first take out the policy, premiums can be several times higher than you would pay initially for the same amount of term insurance. But they are smaller than the premiums you would eventually pay if you were to keep renewing a term policy until your later years.  Some whole life policies let you pay premiums for a shorter period such as 20 years, or until age 65. Premiums for these policies are higher since the premium payments are made during a shorter period.
  • Universal Life Insurance is a kind of flexible policy that lets you vary your premium payments. You can also adjust the face amount of your coverage. Increases may require proof that you qualify for the new death benefit. The premiums you pay (less expense charges) go into a policy account that earns interest. Charges are deducted from the account. If your yearly premium payment plus the interest your account earns is less than the charges, your account value will become lower. If it keeps dropping, eventually your coverage will end. To prevent that, you may need to start making premium payments, or increase your premium payments, or lower your death benefits. Even if there is enough in your account to pay the premiums, continuing to pay premiums yourself means that you build up more cash value.
  • Variable Life Insurance is a kind of insurance where the death benefits and cash values n the investment performance of one or more separate accounts, which may be invested in mutual funds or other investments allowed under the policy. Be sure to get the prospectus from the company when buying this kind of policy and STUDY IT CAREFULLY. You will have higher death benefits and cash value if the underlying investments do well. Your benefits and cash value will be lower or may disappear if the investments you chose didn’t do as well as you expected. You may pay an extra premium for a guaranteed death benefit.

Which one is better?  If you don’t have a good retirement savings or already feel financially strapped, term insurance is probably the best option right now so you can focus on increasing (or starting) your 401k and building up a savings.  If you are looking to make more long-term investments in your life, a mix of term and permanent is probably the best.  I have both because I want a little extra protection for when I have kids (and you usually get a discount when you buy them together) and I want to diversify my retirement and savings.  If you’re young, now is definitely the time to investigate your options because you will get a better rate.  Even if it is a small term policy, it is better to have some coverage.  No one likes to think they would need it, but sometimes life can be unpredictable.

Who can you talk to if you want to investigate options further?

  • I know everyone dreads going to them, but talk to a Financial Planner.  They will be able to recommend if it is something you should consider or if you should focus your financial efforts somewhere else.
  • Your car insurance company probably offers term life insurance.  I know State Farm offers it.
  • When I was doing my research for this post, I discovered the Consumer Federation of America will evaluate your permanent policy (if you already have one) to determine if it is worth keeping.

Reflecting on HBR article & Women in Corporate Leadership Seminar

(This was originally posted March 30, 2012 on my former blog)

Today, I read a good article and attended a Women in Corporate Leadership lunch.  I’d like to share my thoughts on the article and the Women in Leadership lunch.  I know this isn’t the perfect topic for a Friday when we want to take a break from work, but it is what is on my mind so it is what I’m going to write about 🙂

The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time – Tony Schwartz – Harvard Business Review.

This article talks about how multi-tasking uses up our energy reserves faster and takes us, on average, 25% longer to complete tasks (and the quality is probably much lower than if you focused exclusively on the task).  This is exactly how I’ve felt the past few weeks.  I’ve been double-booked and in meetings from 7am-4pm a lot of days so I’ve been trying to keep up on email, get performance reviews written, and move my tasks along while I’m on conference calls so I don’t fall (further) behind.

At the end of the day, I’ve been so exhausted I can barely form an intelligent thought, yet I still haven’t felt like I made progress on the important things at work.  I struggle with this in my personal life too, where I am on my phone while watching tv so I’m not fully enjoying my downtime or my mind drifts to what I need to get done at home when I’m having a conversation so I’m not fully present.

My solution?  Lately, I’ve been making more conscious decisions to keep my phone in the other room when I’m at home or leave my laptop in my office when I head to meetings at work.  It is something I will need to work on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis, but I think it will make me a much more engaged and productive worker and a better friend… while also making sure I leave the office with a little more energy.

Women in Corporate Leadership lunch

The host of this event was Dale Kurschner, Editor-in-Chief of Twin Cities Business.  The format was a presentation of the recent study on women in leadership and board positions and then a panel discussion.  It was interesting to see the facts behind women in leadership:

  • Women represent 40% of the workforce
  • 51% of middle management roles are held by women (which was surprising since that is a higher percentage than the general population of women in business)
  • The average percent of women on boards is 14.2%
  • Less than 3% of Fortune 1000 companies have a female CEO

In all honesty, I don’t really like the whole “women need equal representation” talk.  It implies that women are promoted because they are women, not because they are qualified.  I’ve worked too hard in my career to have my qualifications be dismissed as a gender thing.  I think that is the attitude of the typical Milennial or Gen X female.  I also think that attitude is proof that Baby Boomer women were successful in forging the way for women to be seen as equals in the workplace.  I don’t feel like I have to prove myself as a woman, I feel like I have to prove myself as an employee.  The Baby Boomers shattered the ceiling, changed the perception, and gave me the confidence to have that attitude.

Now, I will step off my soapbox.  Obviously, women are under-represented in top-level corporate roles.  The largest factor is probably that most people who lead Fortune 1000 companies are typically in the generation where women have been under-represented.   When women were in leadership roles, it was often in HR or Communications; whereas, a CEO usually has a strong financial, operations or sales background.  I am not defending the low percent, but I think it is a stretch to say it means we don’t have equal opportunity.  What I think it means is there was once an imbalance, which led to a very small pipeline of women leaders with the right experience to become CEO.  It takes a long time to build a pipeline of good leaders.  As the current generation of CEO’s retire, it will make way for the next generation that has a strong pipeline of women leaders to take over.  I will be very surprised if we don’t see the number of female CEO’s drastically increase over the next 5-10 years.

I found the data to be interesting (and not surprising) and the panel to just be “meh”.  They weren’t very energetic and the topics were the same you’d hear at any other luncheon.  The gist of it was:

  • The Milennials want more flexibility in their work – how, where and what they work on.  All of these companies recognized that they will need to provide this flexibility if they want to retain talent.
  • You can have it all, but usually not at the same time.  At some point, you need to make trade-offs.  The group that came up a lot in this discussion was young mothers and fathers.  The law firm Fredrikson & Byron lets their Associates work part-time so they can stay on track to reach partner and spend more time with their kids.  (obviously the partner track is longer in this case)
  • Having a diverse board and Executive team leads to more diversity in thought, which leads to better decision-making.
  • Be yourself.  People can connect better with people who are genuine.  This is something I’ve found to be the most helpful in my career.  I am honest and straightforward, so I can usually build up trust pretty quickly that I’m here to work hard and make the right decisions.

It’s interesting to re-read this now that I’ve moved it over to my new blog.  I’ve been pretty entrenched in work (and wedding planning) the past six months.  One thing that resonates with my experience over the past few months is that you can have it all, but not all at once.  It was very stressful and draining to have a very demanding challenge at work while we were trying to plan for a big life event!