Networks are groups of people who know you, not just people who know you exist. One of the best way to become a real person in the eyes of others is to talk about your experiences and ideas. Face to face conversation are the chance for you to add context and depth to your experiences in a way that a one page resume can not.
One tradition in the Navy is that of a ‘Sea Story”. Often times they take the form a of a parable, other times they may be purely technical. Either way, a good sea story serves a purpose. In a similar way the skill of delivering a good sea story can benefit us as we develop our network.
The following four recommendations will help ensure your sea story gets the most bang for its buck.
1. TIMING IS EVERYTHING. One of my favorite quotes from the guys at Manager Tools is: “Communication is what the listener does.” If a person isn’t ready for the message, don’t deliver it. Sometimes this has to do with time, or environment, but it also may have to do with the receivers state of mind. Networking early enables you to let people know that, while you will be transitioning out of the service soon, you’re not actually looking for a job right now. This is game changer for the other persons state of mind, particularly at networking events.
The minute you tell people that you are currently “looking for a job”, that changes the dynamics of a conversation. It puts pressure on the other person, even if you don’t intend it to. The vast majority of people will genuinely want to help, but will probably not have anything for you right away. Even if they do know about someone or something in their network that may be a good fit, they will likely be hesitant to risk their reputation by recommending someone they just met. Saying, “Hi I’m Bob and I just got out of the Navy and need a job”, is a conversation killer, not a conversation starter, especially at a social event.
I’ve found that once I tell people that I am still nine to twelve moths away from separation they tend to become a little more open. There is no longer any pressure for immediate action on their part which then allows the conversation to continue at a normal pace. The 900 pound elephant in the room is gone and they will usually begin to ask more questions about what it is that I do and how I do it. Now they are getting to know me as a person and as a professional, not as a charity case.
2. REFINE YOUR DELIVERY. One of the the things I learned in my years as an instructor/trainer is that it’s OK to repeat yourself. Each class was a new canvas and a new opportunity to refine the message. Whether I was describing a tension pneumothorax or telling a story about the time I had dinner at the home of a local Afghan village leader, the more often I told it, the better I got at delivering the message. Reaching into your network early provides the same opportunities to refine your delivery to target your audience. (Note: This is NOT the time to exaggerate or tell stories unrelated to your profession.)
When people ask about what you do, seek to deliver the response in a manner that they understand. That sets the groundwork for commonality. Instead of telling people that I’m a “Hospital Corpsman” or an “Officer Recruiter”, I say, “I find doctors for the Navy. ” If I’m dealing with other HR Professionals I might add the phrase, “Mostly through campus recruitment of undergraduates for medical school scholarships, but also through some lateral recruitment of practicing physicians, as well.” This allows me to let them know that I do both types of recruitment. The point is to target your response for effectiveness, and effectiveness is defined by quickly getting them to understand what you do.
3. LET THEM TALK. Don’t let your “sea story” or “elevator pitch” run on too long, however. The idea is to have a conversation, not to provide a lecture. After you tell them what you do and how you do it, be polite and ask them the same question. If you don’t immediately understand what they do, then ask more questions about it. This is a time to not only educate the civilians about what you do, but also to educate yourself about what they do.
Remember the search is for commonality not to remind them of how different you are. If you don’t learn about what it is they do, and how they do it, you may miss an opportunity to connect your experiences with theirs. Learning about their job, and more importantly, how they do it, also gives you insight into the civilian professional world. The more they talk, the more you learn the language of the industry. Once you get home, don’t be afraid to do some research about the people, products, companies, and industries that you learned about during these conversations. Closing the loop on one conversation will help you find commonality at the next opportunity.
4. OFFER YOUR SERVICES. Networking is about relationships, and relationships are a two way street. Should you meet someone with a strong connection to what it is that you do in the military, end the conversation with an offer to help in some way. I like to tell people that if they ever have any questions about the military or veterans issues, they should feel free to reach out to me. If you’re at a networking event in which you trade contact information, doing this the next business day via email or LinkedIn is encouraged. It sends the message that you are interested in maintaining a connection with that individual. Now you’re not just a person looking for a job, you’re a potential asset.
Following these four steps can help establish a deeper and more meaningful relationship, which is the key to a strong network. Over time, it may even blossom into one strong enough that could enable your connection to genuinely recommend you for positions in their industry or possibly even a direct offer for employment. At the very least, you will get the opportunity to continue to learn about what it takes to make yourself relevant in the civilian arena.