I get asked that a lot. “Steve, what’s the deal with the red sneaker?” It’s a story — not a long one, but it is a story.
When I first found myself out in the job market, my wife and I took advantage of not having to go to work on weekdays to go up to the outlet mall in Pleasant Prairie, WI where, after first stopping at Culver’s for a burger, rings, and shake, we spent a few hours shopping. There was a sale at the Converse store and I bought a pair of red Chuck Taylor’s.
Fast forward to a meeting of the Executive Network Group. I felt the need to dress like a grown-up, so I put on a sport coat, but I also felt the need to act out a bit, so I wore my Chucks. I did the networking thing. At the next meeting, I wore them again and someone came up to me, telling me he had been referred by someone else in the group. He said something like “Bob didn’t remember your name, but said you’d be wearing red sneakers.” And with that, I realized that I had developed a brand!
I made a point of wearing those Chucks to every networking event, despite the fact that they’re just as uncomfortable as they were when I wore them for gym 50 years ago. People remembered me (in a good way, I think), and that’s one of the big points of networking. As I developed my website, it made sense to carry that brand onto the web, business cards, etc.
OK, you’re going to start a blog. The first post is easy. It’s the post where you lay out your reasons for starting a blog. The second one sort of writes itself, too, because it’s been perking around in your mind for weeks. Where do you go from there?
Your daily life provides the material. It’s not so much the details of your life, but your thoughts about them.
What did you read today? What did it mean to you?
What outraged you today? What filled you with confidence?
What did you do today?
Who did you see today?
What advice do you have?
What lessons could be learned from what you saw or did today?
Transitioning from one job to another can be an existential threat. If I define myself by the job I had, then I’m undefined when it’s gone and only redefined by the next one.
A long time ago, Leonard Nimoy published an autobiography titled I Am Not Spock. After he thought about that for a few more years, he wrote another book called I Am Spock. I’ve been thinking about that in the context of my own search to figure out what it is I really want to do. What does the tagline “strategic information technology management” really mean?
Lately, I’ve been paying attention to what makes me happy work-wise. Being a trained behaviorist, I operationalize that to be the times when I’m “in the zone”. When I’m in the zone, I “see” problems, paths, tools, and strategies the way I assume a musician “sees” music. The zone is all-absorbing. When I float back to the surface, I have a strong sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
What do I want to do? I want to play my “music”, for an appreciative audience, and make things a little better than I found them. What do I want to be when I grow up? Sometime, when I wasn’t looking, I grew up and started being it. Am I my job or is my job me? That’s a false choice.
I need to rework my elevator speech. “I bring strategic thinking, problem analysis, and hands-on skills to small organizations to make information technology a strategic and value-creating business function. And it will make both you and me happy.”
In his book that defines the job search methodology, most commonly used among those with whom I network, Orville Pierson recommends defining a) a target market and b) a list of companies to target in that market. The market is defined by your qualifications, experience, passions and desires, preferred work ecosystem, and geography. At each networking meeting, the participants pass around handbills with a list of their target companies.
Pierson has it right. You have to have some idea of where to focus your search or you’ll just find yourself trusting to luck and the kindness of strangers. Each of us, with his or her list of target companies, uses the list to focus our search and tell those in our networks how they can help us just as they are telling us how we can help them.
I go to a fair number of networking events and something about this has been bothering me. The reason for this posting is to try to think this through.
I’m not sure what to name the problem. Maybe it’s regression to the mean, the power of brands, or the comfort of the herd. The result is that target lists are strikingly the same, from person to person. I collected 8 handbills with target lists at a networking meeting yesterday. A supermajoritiy of them listed Allstate, McDonalds, Walgreens, Sears, Abbott, JP Morgan Chase, and Boeing. This is consistent with the handbills and discussions at other networking events. Whatever the principal operating here, these obvious targets eclipse many other opportunities.
I read that small businesses lead the economy and will create the workforce expansion to end the current employment crisis. If so, that’s the market to target. The problem is that it’s a hard place to research. The companies aren’t going to be Crain’s Book of Lists and won’t be in the databases of public companies. We’ve probably never heard of most of them.
How do we find them? It’s time to change our networking strategy. The current strategy can be summed up in the outline of a typical network speed dating interaction: This is who I am, these are my target companies, who can give me some contacts? Let’s put that strategy aside for a while and replace it with this interaction: This is who I am, this is my value to a small company, who knows any companies that might appreciate that value and where can I find places where such companies gather?
At this point, finding contacts has to be secondary to developing a list of targets that will be viable in the economy of 2010 and 2011. Each company you find that you never heard of before is a victory, and a stepping stone to finding other companies like it. Put less value on the list of the big, well known targets that receive hundreds of resumes for every open position. Find the small companies. You’ll have less competition, aren’t facing automated resume screening, and have hiring managers directly invloved in the hiring process.
What is your value proposition for a small company? If you were a project manager in the PMO for the electro-widget division of a multinational corporation, you’re not going to find another job just like the last job in a 30-50 person company. When the music stopped, there were a lot fewer chairs at those big organizations. If you accept that there are fewer jobs just like the last one and too many competitors for them, you need an answer to this question.
Don’t network for contacts at the usual suspects, network for new worlds to explore.
Every networking list I’m on and every networking seminar I attend tells me that I need to establish a personal brand for myself. I’ve got my tag line ready — Strategic Information Technology Management. What’s yours?
How do you get your brand out there? If you’re reading this, you know. You need to be on the web. A website like this is absolutely free and you can set it up for yourself. Visit my guide at http://sstern.wordpress.com. You’ll have your site up and running, for free, on one of the best web platforms in the world, within 20 minutes. Really.
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