Thursday, May 27, 2010

Building Your Professional Network: lessons from a workshop with Donna Messer

This blog post is written by Carleton students Catherine Campbell (Master of Design – Industrial Design) and Salia Mirbaha (Master of Applied Science – Electrical Engineering, CU-WISE Financial Executive).

On Thursday we gave ourselves a treat. Taking a day off from collaborative design thesis writing and optoelectronic sensor research, we attended a FREE networking workshop offered by MITACS to graduate students. This half-day workshop was hosted at Carleton University in Ottawa and attended by students in a wide variety of disciplines from universities in Ottawa and surrounding areas. We came from two different perspectives to networking: one, feeling they had no great problem conversing with people… when the opportunity presented itself, having the tendency to take a passive approach to the activity; the other, acknowledging networking as a personal challenge; finding it quite hard to initiate a conversation in networking situations. Perhaps both of us were defaulting to the basics of Canadian social behaviour: being polite and not ‘bothering’ anyone. In previous networking situations, unless a deeper connection was made in the first few minutes of conversation (and a business card is voluntarily passed) a possible networking opportunity could and would easily turn into two boats passing in the night. Based on the lessons learned in Donna Messer’s fast paced, hands on, networking workshop, our approach is forever changed. The easy chatting between participants that quickly ensued after the workshop is evidence that many others felt the same.

There were many important lessons learned in this half-day workshop that will change the way we network, but three stood out as important mental shifts that needed to be made (and fast). The remainder of this article focuses on our lessons learned as a way of providing insight into the skills developed by participants in Donna’s networking workshop.


1. “It’s not about me, it is about we”

Why bother networking? Because in our society, getting a job is “not about what you know, but who you know”. So how do you get employed? The first step is to stop thinking about who you are and what you need (i.e. a job) and start thinking about who you know and how you can work together. Obviously when you first meet someone, they need to know a little bit about you and your interests (name, education, industry you are working in), but no one loves anything more than talking about themselves…so ask! And then think if you know anyone who might be a useful connection to them. Why? Because this way you have an opportunity to make a connection. Give first, …and you will receive sooner or later. Consider it an investment.


2. Finding something in common

In the workshop, Donna gave each person a playing card. Then she asked participants what relation they could find between their card and that of the person sitting beside them. What does the nine of spades have in common with the queen of diamonds? …pointy shaped suits? Sure, why not! Once we opened up our minds, it was amazing how everyone could relate their cards together. How about the four of hearts and the five of diamonds? …Same color! It sounded hard in the beginning, but then it started to feel like finding something in common should not be as hard as we thought. Finding something in common allows you to make a connection with the other person. When you connect with that person, you also have an opportunity to access their network and get introduced to people who might help you with your goals. Donna explained the importance of using professional networking tools including LinkedIn, personal websites and blogs. She helped us feel more comfortable asking for information and getting connected, using these tools to build our own networks. Now, both of us have the playing card in our purse and it reminds us of Donna’s workshop and the tools we have to make connections.


3. Building your professional network.

How do you explain what you do in simple terms? It’s easy to use a professional title, say “engineer” but today that could mean almost anything. Terms like ‘human factors’ and ‘design research’ or ‘optical networks’ are generally met with ‘what is that’? It is important to offer easy to understand and practical applications of your work and interests. What that relates to in your mind, and what it relates to in the mind of the person you are speaking with, may be quite different. It is important to keep an open mind. When someone offers a contact they think might be of common interest – never say no – even if you don’t immediately see a connection. Say thank you, take the time to investigate, and you are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

This is just a sample of the useful lessons we learned during Donna Messer’s networking workshop. If you attend one of her workshops, you are guaranteed to learn many more, develop the confidence to actively peruse networking opportunities in the future, and build your own personal network before the day is done. Donna is professional, energetic, and very knowledgeable, providing practical illustrations from personal experience. Overall, we found the workshop extremely valuable and recommend it to all graduate students.

Thank you Donna!

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