Want to learn? Spend time with A+ people

Hunter Walk, one of my favorite VC’s wrote a great post on spending time with A+ people in other industries. The post is geared for people who are early in their tech careers but can really be applied to anyone. I’ve long be a proponent for Hunter’s strategy and have gained a lot from my meetings with these people.

This week, I got the chance to meet an A+ person in Nikita. Nikita and I were introduced via a mutual friend (thanks Julio!) for an opportunity to write on my blog. While that never panned out, it was clear to me that from our brief conversation Nikita was an A+ individual, so after months of trying to coordinate through our busy personal/work schedules we finally got the chance to connect. It ended up being a fantastic conversation, and reinforced my belief in spending time with people who stretch your thinking. Here are some reasons why meeting with other A+ people is great:

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They Challenge You – Nikita and I are similar in a lot of ways. In addition to both starting our career in consulting and at the same firm, we also have a similar approach for how we engage with others. For instance, we started catching up on work, Nikita began asking me a series of questions that put me on the spot, and made me consider things I hadn’t really thought about. At some point, she apologized for the inquisition (my friends tell me I tend to do this to them..) but it challenged me to think on the spot about things I hadn’t quite thought through.

They empathize with you – MBA graduates, regardless of where they went to school share a lot from the common experience. I’d be experiencing some challenges post-MBA lately and I thought I was alone, only to find out Nikita shared some of my similar thoughts and frustrations. Call it piece of mind, but at least I know I’m not alone!

They stretch your mind – I think a lot about my own management style since I’m now managing people, but a lot of this is done internally. We both are in positions right now where we are directly/indirectly managing others. Comparing/contrasting our experiences managing people made me think differently about how I could alter, improve, or iterate on my own management techniques.

They give you motivation – Nikita’s working on some big things – you can read about them here. It takes courage and conviction to speak and pursue a big goal, and something that I’ve struggled with because I’m human. But seeing and hearing other people who are doing it motivates me to push aside any doubts or concerns and do the same for myself.

Last but not least, they give you ideas – such as this post 🙂

TLDR: Conversations with A+ people give you thoughts, ideas, and energy that can be helpful to other areas of your life. Go and find some A+ folks to chat with and let me know what you learn.

How to get someone to help you network

A number of really smart professionals have written about the idea behind the “double opt-in” introductory e-mail approach when asking to connect people within your network. I won’t rehash what they’ve already written, but at it’s core it revolves around reaching out to someone first before connecting them to one of your friends within your own network.  I’m a big fan of this strategy as it gives others a polite and easy way to handle the request, and makes you look like a professional. In addition to the double opt in e-mail, one other networking hack I’ve been using lately that has gotten success when asking for connections is going through the process of writing an email that your contact can use to reach out to someone you want to talk to within your network.  So, let’s say you want to talk to Jane Doe, who is a colleague of your friend John Doe. With the templated approach, you e-mail John Doe via the double opt-in intro, and ask for his help in connecting with Jane, but also mention that you can provide an email template he can use to reach out to Jane if he feels comfortable connecting you two.

When you are asking someone for a favor, it’s generally imposing on either their time or effort (or both) so my general rule of thumb is to try to be as gracious and thankful as I can. One way to do that is to respect their time. One way I’ve been doing this is by saving my friend a step by offering to write the introductory e-mail on their behalf so they don’t have to spend an extra 10-20 minutes thinking of what they need to say when they reach out to the contact you want to talk to.

Yes, 10-20 minutes is not a lot in the grand scheme of life, but it might be a nice chunk of time during any given workday. Furthermore, I’ve found when you can decrease the burden as much as possible people are more willing to respond. Sending the e-mail helps in many ways. First, it gives your friend the context they need, so they don’t have to think of it on their own. Second, it saves them time from actually writing the e-mail, and third, it allows you to convey your message in a way that is more consistent with what you want to say.

Lastly, some people are pretty comfortable with making good networking connections, so don’t constrict them to just using your words. Feel free to give them the autonomy they need to do what’s best.

Here’s an example of a note I recently wrote:

Hi (Name)

Hope all is well. How are things going over in NY?

I’m reaching out today for a  networking favor. I see that you are connected with (PERSON X) over at (Company Y) I think what (Company Y) is doing in this space is really interesting and I’d love to hear more about what (Person X) is doing to help drive the companies’ success in that space. I wanted to see if you were comfortable enough with helping me with an introduction to (Person X) I think a conversation around (Topic 1,2 and 3) will help me significantly. Would you be comfortable with reaching out to Person X to see if they’d be willing to chat?

I know you have a lot going on so I appreciate your time and consideration. Furthermore, if you’re willing to reach out, I can actually put together a few sentences you can use when you e-mail (Person X) . Obviously please use your words where you see fit, but hoping it can help provide the right context.

Thanks again, and hope to hear from you soon.

Paying it forward and opening new doors

9 years ago in the fall of 2007 I took Professor John Gallaugher’s Computer’s in Management Class. During the class, we learned about key concepts such as network effects, Moore’s Law, and supply chain integration, and covered innovative technologies being used by companies like Netflix, Zara, and Amazon. John was light years ahead of his time, and has since authored one of the best textbooks that covers’ disruptive and innovative technologies and case studies on companies that leverage them.

Anyone who knows my background knows I wasn’t the best student. While I loved to learn and took school seriously, I was deeply immersed in my various extracurricular pursuits, such as student government, service trips, and athletics. However, I was fortunate enough to sit in Computers in Management for long enough to realize that technology was going to play an important role in business in the future and that it was something I should pay attention to. As a result, I started studying concepts like social networks and digital technology and stumbled across Twitter in 2007 and LinkedIn shortly thereafter. Seeing the power of these social networks (as well as just being a college student with a Facebook account) showed me that these things had the potential to forever change society and business, but if it weren’t for Professor Gallaugher’s enthusiasm and excitement behind his teaching I probably wouldn’t have looked twice.

 

Eventually, I decided that my interest in solving problems, working on teams, and gaining diverse experiences was perfect for consulting but it was John’s class that pushed me towards a career in technology. I was fortunate that there happened to be a company (Deloitte) on campus recruiting for technology consultants, and after successfully navigating the recruiting process I would land an offer.

I was fortunate at the time to have multiple job offers, so before accepting my job at Deloitte I remember going to Professor Gallaugher’s office and asking him for advice on which job to choose. Regardless of the jobs I chose one of the biggest concerns I had was taking a job where I wouldn’t exactly know what to do. I remember John laughing at my question and telling me that I had what it took to figure it out, and in due time I absolutely would figure it out. He then went on to tell me a story about during one of his first jobs, he went out to a business dinner only to realize he had no idea how to order wine. Embarrassed, he went home and learned what to order so the next time he knew what to select.

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It’s a silly story but his message at the time which I still think about to this day is that it’s not about being an expert or knowing everything but being open to learning and being comfortable with not always having the answer but confident enough to go and find it. As a consultant, I like to say that part of my job is to be a professional learner. As someone who is still fairly junior in his career, my clients and my firm don’t pay me because I have every single answer to every single business problem, but rather, because I have the knowledge, resources and insights on how to learn what I can to solve anything that comes my way. Yes – there are still plenty of times at work when something is thrown my way that makes me a little uncomfortable, mostly due to the fact that it’s new, or not in my wheelhouse. But in those moments, I try to think back to the lesson Professor Gallaugher told me about ordering wine and focus on my confidence in my abilities to learn on the fly, be resourceful and use my brain to figure out what I need to get things done. Five years into this and I haven’t gotten throw out so I think it’s going OK!

 

Last week, I had the privilege to host Professor Gallaugher’s TechTrek class. Each Spring Break, he takes 24 students to tour some of the top tech companies on the west coast so students can learn about exciting developments in the technology industry and what a career at a company might be like. Instead of learning about how technology was impacting business as a student, I was at the front teaching students about this same concept from my own experience advising clients on this same topic, and to really come full-circle, delivering the lecture was almost the exact same way I learned from John 9 years ago. It was a very fulfilling and gratifying moment to know how far I had come, but also to have the opportunity to pass along my experience and thoughts to a group of incredibly intelligent, hard-working and motivated students who will one day start their own careers in tech. I’d like to think I was just as smart, intelligent and motivated as these students were, but I’m smart enough to know that is wishful thinking J

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Towards the end of the presentation, myself and my colleague Julio, a fellow Boston College graduate, had the chance to share some  advice to the students about things that would help them achieve their career goals. You can read about some of the lessons I talked about here, but one of the ones I thought was most important was about “Learning how to learn.” If you can learn how to learn, that skill will be valuable to the rest of your career and your life. For example, learning how to enjoy the process of learning, and learning how to adopt a growth mindset so you can continuously learn new concepts, skills, and ideas will open up opportunities that you may not envision for yourself.

It’s also a microcosm with some of the underpinnings of the advances of technology and innovation today. In today’s day and age, new innovation comes quicker and faster and with more impact. There are so many more tools and resources which make it almost impossible to know everything, and by the time you learn something it seems like there’s another product out that’s one version better. The people and organizations that thrive in this environment will be the companies who learn how to continuously learn, adapt and evolve over time. Or, to be consistent with the theme here, the ones who go from not knowing how to order off a wine to the ones who know how to pair a wine with a steak dinner.

One of the last but perhaps other most important lessons I talked about was keeping the door open and making it your mission to open new doors for others. When I graduated in 2010, there were only a handful of people who I graduated with from BC who went to work in tech. Now, Information Systems is one of the most popular concentrations in the Business School and companies ranging from startups to Google regularly take BC students. In fact, the top employer last year at BC was a software company. Long before today, John, and the other Professors at BC and a handful of alums were championing technology and doing whatever they could to help students launch careers in tech. Their efforts and tireless energy are the driving force for helping launch hundreds of BC students’ careers in tech – The doors they opened are why people like me have careers today, and knowing that makes me incredibly grateful for where I am, and motivates me to do whatever I can to open doors for others. Whether it’s a presentation to a group of students, a coffee chat, returned e-mail or networking request, I’m humbled and proud to open doors, because there have been so many that have been opened for me.