Loyalty and Your Professional Network

I still want to talk about what “good” loyalty looks like, but we need to get the medicine part out of the way first. This post is the first in a three-part series about that medicine.

Emergency Action To Take Immediately If You Are Comfortable At Your Job

Perhaps complacent might be a better word here. I’m not going to talk about jobhunting or boundaries or even loyalty today–well, that’s not true. I’m going to touch on all of them a bit. And all of this will be advice to invest loyalty in your own self first, and to be honest, I think this will make you more valuable to your employer.

So let’s start by talking about you quitting your job.

Know Where The Emergency Exits Are

How on earth does talking about quitting make you more valuable to your employer?

There are two kinds of people who don’t worry about burning to death inside a movie theater: People who don’t believe theaters can burn, and people who know where the emergency exits are.

If you know where the emergency exit is for your current employment, you no longer have to worry about losing your job. You can focus on the task at hand and be productive, even if the company is facing tough times. Managers don’t like me much when they try to “sell the dream” because I don’t buy it. But on the day when the main investor pulls out or the biggest customer switches to a competitor and all the employees are milling about in a blind panic, managers love me. Why? Because I don’t buy the nightmare, either. I can smell smoke in a theater and remain calm, because I know where the exits are.

Important loyalty note: This is not the same thing as watching the exits. I’m not saying you should try to always have an alternate job offer waiting. I’m just saying you should know what you’re going to do if you lose your job.

And let me be a bit more specific: the thing you are going to do if you lose your job is this: draw on your professional network.

And yeah, that means you’re going to need to have one first.

Build Your Professional Network

I think this might be the single most important piece of career advice I can ever give anyone: Have a professional network. When Evans & Sutherland laid me off, I didn’t even know what a professional network was. But once I started building mine, my fear of ever being unemployed vanished. Why? Well, because being unemployed vanished. I think I spent about six weeks jobhunting once in 2005, but not counting that fluke, the longest I’ve ever been unemployed since 2001 is ten days. The shortest? Four hours. And that’s only counting the gigs I’ve left cold, without anything else already lined up. I mean I walked into work, found out I was unemployed, and by lunchtime I had a job offer to start the next day.

As a result, one of the weird things that loyalty means to me is that I never jobhunt when I’m working for a client, even when I know my contract is almost up. It’s just not worth the headache to me, and I have absolutely no fear of walking out of work with no idea where my next paycheck will come from. Because I know it is coming.

I credit this attitude entirely to my professional network.

What Exactly IS A Professional Network?

A professional network is simply this: a list of people who know you that you can call when your chips are down. To build it, you make friends with people outside your company. You help people. You tweet funny things. You join organizations. You take old coworkers to lunch. You contribute time and effort to your professional community. Then, when you need a safety net, you let those people know you’re available. Since they know who you are, and what jobs you’d be a good fit for, you suddenly have 50 or 100 or 1000 pairs of eyes looking for your next job for you. All you have to do is get the word out.

A professional network is NOT a linkedin profile. That can certainly be part of it, mind you; linkedin is pretty popular right now and I recommend keeping your profile current. Just make sure that whenever you’re using the site, that you’re not thinking about “your profile”, but instead about the people in it. They are your safety net. LinkedIn is just a tool to reach them.

Build It BEFORE You Need It (This Means RIGHT NOW)

You cannot tie a net and fish with it at the same time. Your network is a group of people who know you well enough that you can ask small favors of them. You earn the right to those favors by investing time in those people–by sharing time with them as mentioned above. If you meet a stranger and ask them if they know who’s hiring, you’re just a stranger who needs something. But if you’ve met them before or had lunch or contributed code to their project, you’re not a stranger anymore. You’re a member of their “loose acquantances” tribe. And people love helping each other out in that tribe.

I cannot stress this enough: If you are employed, you need to be investing time outside of work in other people.

The time to build your professional network is before you need it. There is only “right now” and “too late”.

But What If I Need It Now? (I’m Asking For A Friend…)

Okay, so… let’s say you didn’t take this advice or, like me in 2002, didn’t hear the advice until it was too late. First, you need to embrace the bad news: You cannot tie a net and fish with it at the same time. This will not stop being a thing that is true, no matter how bad you want it to. You have to embrace it. You’re going to have to fish without a net, which means jobhunting the old ways you’ve used before, without a professional network. But more importantly, it also means you have to spend time tying your nets while you’re starving.

Do lunches with people. Contribute to projects. Attend professional meetups. Make friends. Here are three rules of thumb I use, but they all boil down to the same thing: when you’re meeting people, decide whether you are fishing or tying nets, and do only that and not the other.

  • In a professional social setting, I tie nets. I focus on contributing rather than jobhunting. It’s actually relaxing and more fun to stop worrying about the jobhunt for a little while, which in turn makes me more fun to be around. So if I’m in a user group, I’ll speak up if I can help someone. Sometimes I know a clever answer, but people appreciate it even more when I offer to pitch in on their project and help. In a 1-on-1 lunch, I ask about the other person and what they’re working on. Even if I don’t have great insights into their situation, just listening to another human being is a great way to connect with them–and letting them talk it out often provides them with their own answer. If someone has come to lunch with me, and they’re worried about a tricky problem at work, and I blather on about myself and how I need a job for an hour, at best I may give them a distraction but at worst I will annoy them with my problems when they have their own. If I want to tie nets, I have to tie nets. I cannot try to fish.
  • The exception: when you’re tying nets with someone, you should mention that you know how to fish! I DO tell people whenever I’m looking for work, but I try to be casual about it. In a big meetup I’ll introduce myself to the group and mention that I’m available, and that’s it. In a first-time 1-on-1 lunch, I don’t worry about it, because one of the first questions we’re going to ask each other is “So, where do you work?” No need to bring it up special. When I tell them I’m between clients, they’ll often ask followup questions about what I’m good at, and I’m happy to talk about that, but I try not to let it turn into an interview. Even if they say “Oh? We’re hiring, you should apply!” I will respond with “Really? Cool! What’s your company like? What are you working on? What do you like about it?” and turn the conversation back to finding ways to be helpful to them. I have to remind myself: “I am not fishing, I am tying nets”. Oh, don’t worry–I won’t let them leave without asking them who I should talk to at their company for more information! But I always try to remember that my goal for the lunch is not to get a job. My goal is to have this person want to have lunch with me again sometime. I am not fishing. I am tying nets.
  • Lastly, if you are fishing, fish! Don’t do this instead of jobhunting. Building your network will pay off huge in the long run, but there’s no guarantee of any payoff in the short term. When you’re unemployed, your full-time job is to get a job. And just like you should continue to build your network by doing things outside of work when you’re working, you should build your network by doing things outside of jobhunting when you’re unemployed. Time spent building your professional network doesn’t count towards the time you need to spend jobhunting.

I have spent a decade building and maintaining a professional network that I feel very comfortable with, so now my jobhunting looks a LOT like networking. But it’s fishing, not tying nets. I call people and say “Hey, my contract just ran out, wanna grab lunch?” They know I’m gonna chat and be friendly and ask about their kids, but they also know I’m gonna hit them with fishing questions, asking them about who’s managing who and what teams are working on what. But they’re okay with that, because we’re friends, and they want to see me get back on my feet.

How To Use Your Network

A lot of people talk about building a professional network, but I very rarely hear people talk about how to USE that network when you need it. Probably because it’s rare to find a jobhunter that HAS a network to begin with, but I think it’s also true that once you know a bunch of people, you stop thinking of them as “your network” like it’s some foreign thing. Once you figure that out, you realize that you don’t “use” them. You don’t need an instruction manual to know how to talk to your acquaintances.

Actually, wait. There is a mistake I made early on that made it harder on myself than it needed to be. I would call or email people and ask them if their company was hiring. The tech recession was hitting Utah in the early 00’s, so the answer was always no, and that was the end of the conversation. I had to learn the hard way to stop asking yes-or-no questions. But then I made another mistake: I would ask them who was hiring, and they would always say they didn’t know anyone.

I had to learn to ask questions that would get people talking.

Here’s my secret weapon: I just ask people who they know that’s working with a technology that interests me. “Who do you know that’s working with HIPPA?” “Who do you know that’s doing credit card payments?” “Who do you know that programs in ruby?”

That may seem silly and a bit stupid, but I kid you not: I literally turned an exit interview into a job referral with that last question. I was subcontracting for a software-for-hire shop, and the client I was assigned to pulled the plug unexpectedly. It was a tight economy, and the shop didn’t have anything else for me to work on, so they had to cut me loose. My manager was a good man, and he felt bad that he had to let me go with no advance warning. At the end of the conversation, he glumly said, “I know there’s probably nothing I can do to make this easier, but I have to ask, is there anything I can do to help?”

“Actually, yes,” I said immediately. “Who do you know in town that’s programming in ruby?”

He thought for a moment, and then started listing names of companies. I already had a pen in hand, and I started writing. After each one I’d ask “what do they do?” and “who do you know there?” I never asked if they were hiring. I would occasionally ask “do you think I could talk with that person about who else in town is working in ruby?” He listed maybe a dozen companies. But even better, halfway through the list he said “You know, I’m friends with the CTO at that company. I’ll introduce you.”

The introduction included a heartfelt recommendation, which got me a lunch meeting with the CTO, which got me an interview with the team, which got me a place to report for work the following Monday. Even though they weren’t hiring.

The trick to drawing on your network is don’t haul on it. You’ve made friends with these people. Just be human, and get them talking. (And it doesn’t hurt to work for good managers who try to look out for their people.)

That’s It, Really

No, seriously. I’ve got two more posts to talk about “the medicine”, but if you only read one, this is it.

Go tie some nets. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Loyalty and Your Professional Network

  1. T's Memoirs

    Very nice article. Networking can be difficult especially if you have never done this before, shy, or if you dont know what you want from the person. It is more that just saying “I need a job, give up your contacts”. Can’t wait to read more on this topic. Thanks for the advice.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: Loyalty and Trust | Heart, Mind and Code

  3. JaimeLynSchatz (@EduPunkN00b)

    Hey there! I heard about this post during your episode on the Ruby Rogues show.

    Thank you for posting this! Yes, networking is an ugly, scary, over-used word. Thinking about building professional relationships like tying a net is a great image that I’m going to use. (“Networking” feels unctuous to me; therefore, I never do it.)

    I can’t wait to read more on your site!

    Reply

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