Leveraging your network for that next great opportunity

What a sales pitch for a title!

In all seriousness, building up a network of folks who you respect (and in return, respect you) is not only good for you personally but a must-have for your professional career. At YNPN Triangle NC (and across the broader YNPN movement), providing opportunities to network is a core aspect of our work.

It’s not always what you know – it’s who you know.

The question is: after you’ve met incredible people, collected their businesses cards, and found them on LinkedIn: what’s next? How are you nurturing and maintaining those relationships? And when an opportunity presents itself to active your network, how are you communicating with those folks to provide insight or even to drop a good word in for you?

I’m going to be upfront: right now, in our nonprofit sector, we are not doing as good as a job with our networks as we need to. Far too often, the people in our networks look like us. White folks make up the majority of the nonprofit space. One study estimates that whites make up 80% of board members (90% as board chairs) and 89% of executive leadership. There will be many more focused posts on equity in our sector coming up, but I felt it important to raise this point as we think about our personal and professional connections. Since we recognize that who we know matters, if we don’t open up our networks to leaders who don’t look like us or have shared experiences, then it will be more difficult to transition leaders into nonprofits. [see chart below from Community Wealth Partners].

diversity_blog_cycle_chart1

But, returning to the questions at end for today’s post.

Number one: how are you nurturing your network? It would be a nearly impossible feat to stay on top of all connections, so the first step is to prioritize. I like to think about what skill or knowledge deficits still exist in me. Then, I look to my network to find those individuals who can help fill in those gaps.

For example, my current role requires me to engage in online fundraising, an activity that I had zero experience. So, I hopped on phone calls and had coffee with folks that were doing online fundraising to ask them about their processes, evaluation tools, challenges, and successes. Even after more than two years on the job, I still do this. I know that I can always learn more from my peers or those a few years ahead of me in the professional trajectory. I sign up to receive communications from other nonprofits. If a particular appeal strikes me, I’ll reach out to ask: how did this appeal do in terms of achieving your goal(s)?

14067508_1151662291542857_5219411369995159038_nI am guilty of overlooking the on-going maintenance of my network. Our networks get larger and larger. Our work responsibilities pile on, and it can feel comprising to our to-do lists to make time for a meeting. But, it’s so important. It gives us a dedicated space to interact with another human being (an obvious statement but think about how much your work day is spent not interacting with an actual human being.) It provides us opportunity to learn about ourselves; to learn from someone else; and to also develop a better sense of what’s happening in our sector and/or community. Reconnecting with your network helps to eradicate those silos. Those silos exist between sectors (nonprofit/for-profit/public) and within sectors themselves (organization focus/geographical).

Recently, I had lunch with a colleague who works in providing grants and financing opportunities to help stimulate growth in rural economies, particularly for agriculture. I knew zero about this topic, but after our meal, I can better speak on what the NC Rural Center does if the opportunity arises to share it with others. I can now be a liaison between someone interested in pursuing farming to an actual resource.  Win-win!

13055092_1070433859665701_8618031969423345895_oNurturing your network doesn’t have to be anything formal. I do think it is important to ensure you are meeting face-to-face when possible in order to have a deeper level of engagement. A quick email now and then is fine; but we all know that our conversations will stick with us after those in-person meetings much more so than another item in our Inbox.

Second question: how are you communicating with folks from your network to provide insight or even to drop a good word in for you? Over the last year, I have provided more than a dozen references and/or recommendations for folks from my networks. Some have approached their requests to me in more helpful ways than others. From my experience, here are some suggestions I have for taking this type of initiative:

  • If possible, ask your connections before applying for that position. If you find a job at an organization where you have a connection or know someone who does, reach out as soon as possible to ask your questions. It’s ok if you have already applied to the position. But, doing your homework on the front end may save you time if you learn that you may not be a good for the organization or there’s something concerning about the culture that you don’t want to be a part of.
  • Ask your references if they are comfortable being your reference. It is awkward to receive a phone call from an organization and/or recruiter about a candidate that listed you that you wouldn’t actually recommend. Don’t assume your references want to be your references. It’s important to know if they have any concerns about recommending you. If they do, find out what those concerns are [yes, we are not all perfect. It’s ok.]
  • Provide references with context for specific positions. Once you have shored up your references, give them an overview of the position and its responsibilities. Are there particular experiences or skills you would like them to highlight about you? Were there specific projects you worked on that could be cited as examples? Don’t also assume your references remember every great thing you have done. Spend a few minutes talking through some particulars with them.
  • Even if you are asking someone to put a good word in for you more informally, still follow the steps above. When I send a note on someone’s behalf vouching for their awesomeness, I am putting my reputation on the line. So, I want to make sure that I believe the candidate is a good fit, not only for that organization but for that particular position. It’s also easier when you give me advanced notice. giving advanced notice (i.e. I know that Katie Todd is going to be applying for this position, and here are five reasons why she deserves an interview) versus (I believe Katie Todd applied for those position a week ago and I hope you haven’t already cast her application aside). We want to plant those nuggets into the minds of others.
  • Say thank you. As with anything in life, please take the time to drop a note, make a call, send a text, and share appreciation with the person who provided a reference and/or recommendation for you. Personally, I’m all about the hand-written thank you note. Yes, it’s old school but it’s power cannot – cannot – be underscored. Receiving a handwritten thank you note can be. I’m more likely to want to go for bat for those who did follow-up with me to say thanks than those that didn’t.

In the coming week, I challenge you to schedule at least one in-person meeting with someone from your network that you would like to learn from, whether it’s about a potential career shift or acquiring insight into a skill. My final advice for today is this: remember that when you are networking, approach the opportunity not from the frame of what can they provide me but from the space of what can I bring to them. Listen without worrying about what you are going to say next. The number of doors that will fly open when you approach networking in this manner will astound you.

 

 

 

Why I’m here?

We live in a time where so much is done without true purpose: from “liking” a Facebook post to scrolling mindlessly as endorphins flood our brain (see “captology“), we expend a massive amount of time not doing a whole lot.

I’ve been thinking about this concept in connection to our nonprofit sector. How often do we sit in meetings without a clear understanding of what we hope to accomplish? Why do we allow distractions from our email, social media accounts, or inner voice to derail our best laid plans? And if we don’t take action now, what is going to happen to our ability to accomplish our critical missions?

I’ve wanted to be a writer for most of my life. And, I thought starting a blog would allow me the space to grow my skills, reach new audiences, and fine-tune the voice I wanted to establish. But, since starting this blog two years ago, I have yet to approach it from the other side: what do people want to read about? What is going to help add value to our social discourse?

Certainly, I have enjoyed sharing vegan recipes and travel adventures; various running endeavors and moments of zen. But, I am ready to make a change, as I see an opportunity to contribute to a broader dialogue through this blog. As a young leader, I often seek out the advice of others when it comes to navigating sticky situations or answering questions I may not be able to ask of my peers. I’m looking for resources; for ‘a-ha’ moments; and for solidarity.

Moving forward with this blog, I want to give back for the next generation of leaders, particularly those working for social good. Does that automatically mean the nonprofit space? Absolutely not. If our communities want to thrive, we have to pool all of our talents, brains, and resources together. The nonprofit sector cannot do it alone, nor should it. But, the nonprofit sector does need to do a better job of educating its funders and partners on how they can engage in a more equitable and fair way.

Thanks to the inspiring and incredible Alexa Sykes over at Black Professional Magic, I’ve taken the steps to establish a content calendar moving forward, to keep me accountable and to also ensure I don’t waste your time.

Cause ain’t nobody got time for that.

Living off the to-do lists of others

I think about writing in my blog often. Sparks of ideas, commentary, thoughts I feel the need to share publicly crop up throughout my days. But, I cave to that unrelenting, never-ending to-do list, most often spurred on by the emails on others.

Over the weekend, I read a tip on how to achieve greater productivity at work. It cited that clearing out one’s Inbox was not actually a demonstration of productivity. Emails have become the evidence that we are busy! Look at this Inbox full of messages awaiting my response. I must address them immediately!

This is so far from the truth. Emails are noise – distracting us from being fully engaged in the present, from being able to concentrate, to be creative, and to give ourselves over to projects fully.

I’m an email hawk. So is my partner. So is my boss. It creates this firestorm of rapid response, driving up non-necessary tasks to top of mind, crowding out space in the brain where truly more important work should be holding prime real estate.

Similarly, I have seen this unfold within my mind as I attempt to meditate. There are days when I find it immensely difficult to concentrate solely on my breath. To acknowledge when thoughts seep in but gently push them to the side. The constant barrage of pinging leaves me anxious, on edge. I don’t want to feel like that – live like that. I want to be in a space of calm. I want to be in an environment where I allow myself the time to immerse myself into a project, a problem, an opportunity without interruption.

First things first: I need to keep that Inbox tab closed.

Let’s see how today goes. As with most things in this life, it’s about developing healthy habits. 30 days feels like a long time.

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to co-present with my friend and fellow YNPN’er Ivan Canada  on the topic of board developing. We named our workshop “Building a Strong Team” and laid out nine different areas for consideration when establishing a nonprofit or community organization’s leadership hub. One area that we pressed collectively centered around the importance of board culture. As Ivan so brilliantly stated during our presentation: “Whether you know what it is or not, your board has a culture.”

What’s the culture of your organization? As the chair of a nonprofit Board of Directors and as a junior staff in an established organization, i think about culture daily. Partly because creating a welcoming, inclusive, team-orientated environment is important to me. That’s the type of culture I want. Navigating how and when to take action to shape the culture is more challenging.

As a young leader, I think that my fellow Millennials have not only the willpower but the voice to redefine the culture of the nonprofit space. We talk a lot about this on our YNPN Triangle NC board. Even as an organization driven by young leaders, we still stumble in establishing the right procedures and mechanisms to foster the culture we seek. Fortunately, we don’t merely shrug off our missteps or hide them under the rug. We have open, honest, and transparent conversations into how we can do better. This is rare in the nonprofit space. It’s so much easier and less painful to simply say “let’s continue with how things are because that has worked.”

Rocking the boat can make folks a little sea sick or stumble around on their unsure footing. But you know what: that’s a good thing. We’ve become far too comfortable in maintaining the status quo. At YNPN Triangle NC’s #NonprofitSTRONG summit earlier this year, Atrayus Goode, the keynote and executive director of Movement of Youth, asked the 200 nonprofit professionals in the room: what social ills have our sector actually solved? He cited the billions of dollars raised and re-invested in communities to address issues ranging from food insecurity to public education to health care.

What have we solved?

What happens if we don’t solve these issues?

What will our communities look like in 50 years?

Will there be blog posts asking these same questions?

My hope, for the final question, is no.