Networking Online: How and Why You Should Make the Most of It

At the suggestion of reader and fellow technical communication consultant Larry Kunz, I thought I’d elaborate a bit on the use of networking to find full-time employment or customers.

In addition to spending a lot of time on the job, a lot of American office workers–and others!–spend a lot of time online. For instance, the average internet user spends nearly 2 hours a day interacting in online social networks. Multiply that out and it’s ~628 hours or 26 days a year swapping jokes, sharing blogs, or posting pictures of cats.

That’s a heck of a lot of time. Are you doing anything productive with it? If not, you should.

On the Positive Side…

Professional online networks–from LinkedIn forums to topical blogs and industry news sites–are places where you can contribute to the public conversations regarding your profession or industry. Do you have good ideas or a unique perspective that can cause one side or another to reconsider their position? You can, over the course of multiple conversations, be considered a respected “voice of authority” on a particular topic or range of topics. And if you don’t have any deep thoughts, you can always ask smart questions. You might even find yourself motivated enough to write a blog.

This process of putting your bright thoughts out there helps to build your “brand,” a.k.a. what people think of you when they hear your name. Odds are, if someone is considering hiring you, they’re going to do a little searching online to see what they’ll find. Wouldn’t you like that to be something brilliant?

On the Negative Side…

It’s entirely possible that you don’t spend your free time visiting blogs that relate to your day job. Perfectly understandable, you might be burned out after a long day of banking, human resources, or whatever. But even if you don’t “hang out” where your potential customers or employers do, a lot of your comments are still online, and they can get a good feel for how you behave based on what they see. Do you use a lot of profanity? Do you post a lot of pictures from your latest wild trip to Vegas? Do you complain about your bosses or coworkers?

The bottom line is that current and potential employers and customers surf the web, too. And if you’re posting online, nothing is private. The only way to avoid people seeing anything is to avoid the internet altogether, and even then other people will still post words and pictures over which you have no control. Good luck with that.

You might not be able to do anything about what other people post about you (though you can do things like untag yourself from photos your friends posted on Facebook). You can do something about the sorts of things you post. That goes a long way toward helping with your “first impression” in the game of online networking.

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Networking > Resumes

In a month or two, I’ll be giving a local talk about resume writing and editing (it was going to be this week, but will likely be punted to a little closer to summer). I’m probably shooting myself in the foot with my approach on this, but I’ll be inverting the thinking here and suggesting that a resume is one of the last pieces of paper you hand over to a potential employer.

Why?

Because it’s been my experience–and learning through reading–that more jobs are acquired through your network than your cold-called resume.

I won’t lie to you: in my twenties, I resented the notion of networking. I think part of it was how networking was presented to me: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” That made it sound like the only way you get ahead in life is by making friends with people who have power and influence, and that the only way to make those powerful, influential friends is to suck up to rich people or managers.

Okay, sure, I suppose that’s one way to go about it.

But really, networking is about a lot more than that. When you’re searching for a job, your network equals pretty much everyone you know–preferably those you know well and who think well of you–and everyone who might know somebody who wants to hire someone with your particular set of skills. When you’re trying to find the next job, you need to communicate with the people you know and who know you. You need to be talking about what specific type of work you’re seeking.

Updated 4/23/15, 9:15 a.m.

Just occurred to me that I didn’t explain why the resume is the last document you present. It goes something like this…

In a networking situation, someone you know–anyone from a subordinate to a senior leader–identifies an opportunity for you and provides an introduction to a hiring manager. They open the door for you, having said nice things about you (they do have nice things to say about you, right? Meaning you’re a good worker and/or a pleasant person?). You start the conversation with the employer. They like you and decide to hire you. The resume then becomes a reminder to them should they need to conduct further interviews or just a piece of paper for the HR files. If you’ve handled everything well up to that point, the resume is almost beside the point.

The rest–from interviewing to actual job performance–is up to you.

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Brand Building

I had talks with a couple of good friends this past week about helping me build the “Bart Leahy brand,” however I choose to define it. One thing I (and you, loyal readers) can do to improve your brand is to share content online that demonstrates your expertise in a particular field. For the last four years, I’ve focused on demonstrating my competence as a technical writer. That’s groovy, but it doesn’t necessarily help me demonstrate my worth to my preferred target customers.

My preferred target customers are space people.

So this weekend I started a blog about the business of human space exploration. Why didn’t I do this earlier? I’ll be honest–when I first started this notion of “demonstrating competence” in the blogosphere, the space business wasn’t that fun. The Constellation Program had been canceled, and there was a lot of acrimony in the space business. After spending all day with the unpleasant facts of my predicament (my department was closed out and my fellow coworkers and I were scattered across Marshall Space Flight Center), I wasn’t really interested in talking about space off duty.

But now I’ve had some time to recover, and I’ve been exposed to more of the non-NASA parts of human spaceflight, which has given me some hope for the future and a broader perspective. So I’ll give this another shot.

The point of all this, of course, is to establish my credentials as someone who “speaks space.” If you have a particular field of expertise, you might want to consider a blog about your industry as well. The point isn’t to share proprietary secrets or show that you’re the smartest person in the room–after nine years in the space business, I know I am not–but to show that you have knowledge worth sharing.

Let the internet work for you!

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Finding Your Niche

I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer in some capacity. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s or so that I started realizing how many people had no idea what they wanted to do with their careers. My thoughts are below.

State of the Labor Market

The only way people make money–which is, after all, how we afford the necessities of life–is by trading their useful skills, knowledge, or products for cash. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (see below), the eligible civilian labor force is ~156 million people. Of those individuals, 37.3% of those people–58 million people–are not looking for work. As for the 62.7% who are participating, I can’t guarantee that all of them are blissfully happy pursuing the careers of their dreams. In fact, it’s a good bet that many or most of them are not.

Labor Force Level

Labor Participation Rate

While some folks push for a guaranteed basic income and others promise that the age of peace and abundance will soon be upon us, until those actually arrive, most of us will have to work. And given that prices and material demands keep increasing, odds are that we’ll continue to spend a lot of time working. Wouldn’t it be great if we actually enjoyed what we were doing?

This sort of talk drives labor economists and corporate executives nuts because there are still some “dirty jobs” that theoretically no one wants, like garbage collector or bus boy (had that job for two months–yikes). Fair enough. Eventually we’ll get to the point where robots or trained squirrels will be rented out to handle the jobs we really hate, leaving us free to stuff we like. But what if you don’t know what you like?

Start with what you can do

Sometimes it helps to make a list of your skills (things you can do) and knowledge (things you know). I don’t just mean the things you do on your current or past jobs. Include things you can do at home and out in the world beyond the workplace. Make it comprehensive: everything from actual technical skills to more domestic skills like cooking or faucet repair. Are you seeing any patterns–particularly in the areas where you do well? Which of those skills could help you pay bills?

What do you like to do?

Okay, so you’ve listed everything you can do (writing, editing, formatting, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, etc.). You might even want to get into the weeds about the specific variations of your skills (report writing, marketing copy writing, brochure writing). It’s important that you list as many as possible because you want options.

Now, of the options you can do, what do you like to do?

This might require you to add more things to your list. For instance, you might know how to run events and you might know a lot about accounting, but you might not enjoy either of them. Fair enough. As Christian Slater said in the movie Heathers, “Everybody’s life has got static. Is your life perfect?”

Fusing Mind, Body, and Spirit

You should be able to identify things you enjoy doing and learning. So now–if you haven’t already–start throwing onto your list of skills and knowledge the things that constitute hobbies for you. The trick is to find things that you’re passionate about.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a big fan of “judo advice.” That is, I try to identify what direction someone wants to go and throw them in that direction. If you have a passion, it’s probably because you did or learned something you enjoyed and continued doing more than once. Having done it more than once, are you good at it? Can you make real money at it?

Admittedly, it’s easier to combine some abilities and interests than others. You might be good at plumbing but passionate about clog dancing. There might not be a huge demand for clog-dancing plumbers. But you could find a clog-dancing troupe with a leaky pipe. Perhaps they can refer others so you can go out on your own? Sometimes it’s a matter of finding creative ways to meld your interests and abilities in creative, fulfilling ways, even if the final effect isn’t quite what you originally had in mind.

Anyhow, just to repeat: I’m a big fan of finding out what you’re good at, finding what you’re passionate about, and then finding some way of mind-melding the two. And hey, if you get that clog-dancing plumber thing working, let me know.

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Multitasking: Is it Effective and How Much Can You Really Do?

Multitasking has two flavors. There’s what I’m going to call strategic (workload) and tactical (hyperactivity) multitasking.

Strategic multitasking is your backlog–how many projects you have going at any one time. They might not all need attention at the same time, but they are all on your to-do list. Tactical multitasking is what you’re doing right now, which can include your actual projects as well as your other distractions–voice, text, email, instant message, and (almost forgot) someone actually in the room talking with you.

Strategically or tactically, it’s easy to get distracted.

Since I am not a clinical psychologist or workplace efficiency expert, allow me a brief cop-out and say that appropriate task levels are different for each person. However, for the sake of discussion, I’ll throw out a few suggestions and guidelines to help you maintain your mental health in a busy, dynamic work environment.

Know Your Limits

Whatever your workload is, it’s important that you and your leader(s) know what your limits are–how much is too much? For instance, before I started freelancing, my “sweet spot” for work tasks was three to five concurrent activities–it’s way more than that now, but that’s a story for another day. Below three tasks, my mind wanders. More than five, and my level of heck rises, my blood pressure spikes, and my Irish color turns my face crimson. Maybe you’re happier with no backlog. Maybe you like a long list of things to do as a form of motivation. Regardless, the more tasks and deadlines multiply, the more likely you are to get distracted and feel stress.

Set Boundaries

If you knowHeckometer your limits–how much you can do within a given amount of time–that’s an important metric to share with your managers, peers, or customers. In fact, I modified a Homeland Security alert sign into a “Heckometer,” letting people know how stressed I was and whether it was safe to visit my cubicle.

Some folks have a mental block about telling people “No.” If I’m on a hot deadline for an important project, I am likely to say it–especially if someone has a lower-priority request. However, if you’re in a “can do!” environment, that response might be seen as problematic, unhelpful, rude, or even job-threatening. That’s why I don’t say it very often. A more polite way of saying it is “Yes, if…” Meaning, “Yes, I can do that for you, if you can move your deadline or change your requirements so it gets done the way you want it.” Again, that can be perceived as rude or unhelpful, so please substitute more diplomatic language, as necessary.

Another thing about boundaries…it’s usually good to set some personal rules about who and what you will respond to and by which medium. A phone call from a family member’s doctor takes priority over an email or text offering a coupon for Barnes & Noble. A text from your boss can trump a verbal conversation with your significant other about dinner plans (or perhaps not–is it your anniversary?). The important thing is to have some boundaries and let others know what they are.

However, if you find yourself too distracted by emails and other electronic messaging systems, you might choose to go “dark” on some programs during specific time frames or when you’re very busy. Instant Messenger (IM) systems often have a “busy” signal so people won’t bug you (I have a simpler solution for IM–I try not to use it). Sometimes it’s best to turn off the machines. And sometimes you need to leave one or two channels open so important messages get through.

Set Priorities

The easiest way to avoid raising your level of heck is to figure out–on your own or in cooperation with your customers–a standard for setting priorities. If all of the work you do has the same level of effort and priority, with no emergencies, then doing things in deadline order–most imminent deadline first–makes the most sense.

If you face a lot of “emergencies” or last-minute requests, then you might have to put things in order by situation or customer. (I’ll save the discussion about “urgent vs. important” for another day.) Are you working on a report for a mid-level manager when a high-level executive’s request comes through the door? The answer there is pretty simple, though you might want to let that mid-level executive know about the delay.

Another way to get through your to-do list is by task size. I’m in favor of doing the one-page, quick-hit items first so I can free up the rest of my time to work on longer or more involved documents. Others prefer the opposite approach–going after the “big rocks” first, then clearing out the short one-off tasks at the end of the day. Sorting by task size can be a useful approach when the priority and deadline levels are approximately equal.

All this said, “emergencies” and sudden priority changes can happen–when they do, you need to be polite, responsive, and flexible. These things happen.

Put Things In Perspective

I have yet to encounter an actual life-or-death emergency that depended on me writing a paragraph to save the day. Maybe if you’re in Occupational Safety or Crisis Communications, this can happen to you. However, one thing that helps reduce your level of heck is to keep a sense of proportion and balance in your work. I’m convinced that some individuals use the word “emergency” just to get a rise out of people or to activate others’ stress responses. There are I’m-trying-to-look-good-for-my-boss “emergencies” and there are shooter-in-the-building emergencies. Recognize the difference and don’t let yourself get sucked into someone else’s drama.

The best thing you can do when someone whose hair is (figuratively) on fire and vocal output is on fast-forward is to pause, let them speak, and then calmly ask them to slow down and repeat themselves so you get all the facts and understand what they’re requesting.

I recall being told at one point that I “didn’t take things seriously” because the individual felt I was not giving an “emergency” request the appropriate level of concern. On the contrary. I’m quite serious about my work. I simply won’t match my mood to fit someone else’s hysteria.

Forward Thinking

In the end, there’s no getting past the fact that we are getting “busier,” whether it’s due to actual workloads, changing priorities, too many people using different communication channels to reach us, or a combination of all of these. The trick for the technical communicator is knowing your priorities and doing your best to ensure that you’re meeting them.

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Grant Research

A couple of the jobs I’ve taken to pay the bills have been grant-writing gigs. Through the good graces of the Space Frontier Foundation, I was able to take a grant-writing class through The Grantsmanship Center, so I’ve been putting that education to work for them and one or two others.

One of those others is a local entrepreneur who’s been running a boxing gym for single-parent kids in Apopka, Florida. In addition to teaching boxing, he tries to impart lessons in determination, hard work, and mental toughness–traits that the owner (Jimmy Rivera) found valuable in his own youth. He’s trying to obtain funds to move his operation out of his one-car garage and into a facility that can support a full-size ring, punching bags, workout space, and other equipment necessary for the manly art of pugilism (note: he does have a couple of girl students as well–that just seems to be the way one phrases the sport of boxing). My client was also interested in obtaining sponsorships, which are common in the sporting world.

Often the first thing that has to be done is finding potential grant sources. That will be the subject of this entry–I’m still working on helping my customer–that can be a subject for another day.

Grants vs. Sponsorships

A grant, of course, is a donation of money for a particular cause or project. It differs from a business loan in that the recipient isn’t expected to pay the money back. However, the grant giver does expect the recipient to achieve some specified result.

Sponsorships are mutual-benefit relationships between an organization and a recipient, where the sponsoring organization provides funding, in-kind (material) support, or both. In return, the recipient is expected to publicly recognize the sponsor by prominently displaying their logo, mentioning them at events, and providing the sponsor with special access or consideration during an event (e.g., better seats at a sporting event, special receptions for sponsor personnel, and so forth).

Grants

The primary research source for the ultimate grant-giver (the federal government) is Grants.gov, which is the central clearing house for the U.S. Government’s various grant-giving activities. Sometimes grant seekers apply directly to the grant-giving agency, sometimes they can go through Grants.gov, and sometimes the agency specifies one or the other.

You can search Grants.gov by category or keyword. Categories include:

» Agriculture (48)
» Arts (see “Cultural Affairs” in CFDA) (6)
» Business and Commerce (15)
» Community Development (23)
» Consumer Protection (12)
» Disaster Prevention and Relief (9)
» Education (473)
» Employment, Labor and Training (30)
» Energy (41)
» Environment (189)
» Food and Nutrition (152)
» Health (1163)
» Housing (9)
» Humanities (see “Cultural Affairs” in CFDA) (21)
» Income Security and Social Services (225)
» Information and Statistics (12)
» Law, Justice and Legal Services (56)
» Natural Resources (155)
» Other (see text field entitled “Explanation of Other Category of Funding Activity” for clarification) (95)
» Recovery Act (5)
» Regional Development (13)
» Science and Technology and other Research and Development (437)
» Transportation (15)

For a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization like the BANG Boxing Gym–an after-school gym supporting at-risk youth–grant searchers need to use the magic of keywords to focus their grant research:

athletics
after school program
boxing
martial arts
drug prevention

In addition to the federal government, there are national-level organizations (foundations) that provide grants for education and other related topics…
http://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/reference-material/top-u-s-education-foundations-that-give-education-grants/

At the state level, Florida has grants in the following categories. I’ve bolded the topics BANG Boxing Gym might find most effective.

Lastly, grant seekers can look around for sources at the county/city/local level.

For example, Orange County’s government has Neighborhood Grants.

The Edyth Bush Foundation provides grants for the arts and health and human services programs.

My dad also suggested the Catholic Youth Organization: http://www.cyfusa.org/grants/grantsapply.htm

I will probably be helping BANG with some of these sources.

Sponsorships

We’ve already pursued (or are pursuing) sponsorships through Under Armour, Dicks’s Sporting Goods, and a few others. We’ll see how those go. Meanwhile, the internet keywords are similar to what you use for Grants.gov.

sponsorship
gym
athletics
after school
boxing
martial arts
drug prevention
education

I wouldn’t use ALL of these at once. Or, if you do, start with one or two of them and then narrow your search by adding words. In addition to direct research, Jimmy (my client) has identified potential sources by watching who sponsors boxers or boxing organizations–not being someone who watches boxing much, this is a research source that leverages his own experience. Less work for me since he already knows where to go.

The challenge with sponsorships is that they generally pay off better for the sponsor if the sponsored organization is prominent enough for them to see some public relations benefit. That’s not to say it can’t happen–it’s just a consideration.

Final Thoughts

The primary point of research is to whittle down the vast range of potential funding sources to a list of organizations that are genuinely interested in your particular cause or project. Grant research is all about relevance.

Future entries will address actually writing and winning grants. That is something I’m still in the process of learning.

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Are You a Leader, Follower, or Other?

For ten years, my father and I bickered back and forth about why I wasn’t going into management. The arguments seemed rational—better pay, better benefits, more chance for advancement—but they didn’t move me. Maybe it’s an introvert thing, maybe it’s just that I prefer being responsible only for my own actions. Whatever it is about being “in charge,” it’s not a passion for me.

My interest is in writing, preferably for someone else, with minimal supervision. I prefer to be a teammate or an “independent contributor,” responsible only for bossing around myself. I have any number of reasons, but the bottom line was that I don’t enjoy being in charge of other people.

However, our economic system most often pays those who supervise (or lead, which is not always the same skill) more than those who are supervised.

Leaders, Managers, & Supervisors

Regardless of what you call the role, a person in a leadership position is charged with directing the performance of others. This requires the ability to make requests and ensure that they get done. Leadership requires organization abilities, including the ability to make and follow a schedule, assign tasks, and ensure that resources are on hand to perform the work. People in leadership positions need to be willing and able to provide feedback on performance and discipline subordinates and to answer to higher levels of management or to customers in the event of non-performance. Leaders also have to be creative enough to develop and articulate new goals to improve the capabilities, outputs, and income of an organization. Senior leaders are concerned with the performance of the overall organization.

Middle Managers

If you’re in “middle management,” you can be both a leader and a follower, which again is another set of skills. It requires the ability to interpret directions from “on high” and convert them into action plans for others in the organization. It also requires the ability to communicate feedback “up the ladder” if directions are creating performance, resource, or morale problems. The middle manager’s primary concern is with the collective performance of the individuals under his/her area of responsibility.

Followers, Employees, & Subordinates

Again, call a “follower” what you will, but individuals in this role are working as an employee and are reporting to someone else, usually with no one reporting to you. Often you are on the “front line” of an organization, creating the product or service outputs that make a company profitable. You could be high- or low-skilled, but are primarily taking direction from others. Your level of input, autonomy, or creativity in the role would vary by industry or role, but the primary social skills expected are the ability to take directions and accurately execute them. The subordinate’s primary concern is with his or individual performance of a task.

Independent Contributors

This is a specialized—and increasingly common—role in American industry. Individual contributors can be classified as subject matter experts, consultants, contractors, or “talent.” They are brought into an organization to contribute to specific projects or outcomes. They might work as a peer with any or all levels of a hierarchy, acting in both leadership and subordinate roles, both listening to inputs and offering advice. Technical skills could range from engineering and medicine to teaching and the performing arts, while social skills include independence, diplomacy, a “service-minded” orientation, and positive attitude. The primary concerns of an independent contributor are the performance of his/her individual tasks as well as the contributions or value-added they can provide to the customer, which is the organization.

So where do you see yourself?

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