Want to Grow Your Personal Brand? Start Telling Your Story
I am not a natural networker. To be honest, I was very much an introvert until I met my wife, who happens to be in sales. She taught me that everything I do professionally is selling. If I'm talking to a manager about a project, I'm not discussing an outcome. I'm selling my vision because that's what gets things done. If I'm having coffee with a colleague from another company, we're not just chatting—I'm selling myself. You never can predict the future of any company's direction. One minute they are hot, the next minute they can downsize or be bought out by a competitor.
Some might argue that my approach is overly aggressive and that the best way to get ahead is to put my nose to the grindstone and do excellent work. They're only partially right. You may be the most qualified person in the world, but where can that lead if no one knows who you are?
Overcoming My Shyness
When I started in IT, I read self-help books to learn how to engage others in conversation. Despite my shyness, one of my first gigs was as a Microsoft trainer and—once I had pushed past my resistance and started teaching—I learned that I enjoyed mentoring others.
Now, when I find myself talking to fellow professionals—be they recent graduates or industry veterans—I tell them to get over their fear of networking. I urge them to overcome their discomfort for the sake of their careers. I try to explain that their résumé might land on a potential employer’s doorstep, but that a person they know will walk them through the entrance.
There may be another 10–50 of you with the same expertise on a piece of paper, so ask yourself what makes you stand out? Who or what do you know out there to get that edge?
In 2017, I accepted a job at Banc of California in Irvine. I took a little pay cut, walked away from a nice bonus just shy of a month from vesting, and gave up a comfortable position with a hot company in Santa Monica, which had all the hot perks of a Silicon Valley company up north. All this because I was looking to lead a major project to become the IT architect I had always dreamed about.
Banc of California's CTO came to me with an irresistible IT challenge: The company's storage network was ancient and kept going down. On top of this, the new hardware they had purchased to update their infrastructure was woefully inadequate. Could I architect a better solution?
I looked at the options and recommended hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), which ruffled a few feathers. The CTO was all about traditional network hardware, so I had to plead my case. I explained that HPE SimpliVity was the HCI platform that offered the best bang for the buck and was easy to manage without the need for additional hires. On top of this, I could also meet their backup needs and set up an off-site DR data center using HPE SimpliVity. It was a single-vendor solution for all of Banc of California’s needs.
Accepting an Invitation to Become a Thought Leader
I was so impressed with HPE SimpliVity that I agreed to serve as a reference for them. As is often the case during RFPs, vendors will introduce potential clients to existing ones like myself, so we can vouch for their products, but that's not what happened here.
Instead, the folks at HPE SimpliVity asked if I'd like to take part in an Upshot story. Would I be willing to share my HPE SimpliVity experience and my expertise in a first-person blog post without having to write it myself?
I have to admit that they had me at "hello." I'd wanted to try blogging for years, but had never found the time. I saw it as a great way to give back to the community and to increase my profile by establishing myself as a thought leader. The invitation to be part of an Upshot story struck me as a win-win situation.
There was, however, a tiny wrinkle. Banc of California didn't want me to use the company name due to legal and internal changes that they were going through. But the people at Upshot assured me that I was the focus of the story. Instead of mentioning my employer, they would say that I worked in financial services. It would have been more ideal to mention my company, but that didn’t need to stop me. This story was all about me speaking directly to my fellow IT professionals and sharing my knowledge in my own words.
Seeing My Words Brought to Life
The process was smooth and straightforward, and it all began with a 45-minute interview over the phone. The tone was friendly and conversational. The Upshot interviewer put me at ease right away, and we bantered back and forth, talking about my personal experience and technical expertise for the duration of the call.
A few days later, I got the first draft, and I was amazed. Upshot's writer captured my voice and also delivered on the IT terminology. I was proud to put my name on this piece. It was precisely the blog post I would have written myself if I had the time—which I didn’t. I asked for some minor revisions and sent it back to Upshot's editors and proofreaders. Between the interview and editing, it maybe took an hour of my time. The experience up to that point was great, but I wasn't prepared for what happened next.
When the story went live, I shared it on my LinkedIn page, and it soon started trending. Co-workers came to me and said I was at the top of their feeds. Then the folks at HPE SimpliVity shared it, and people started calling me directly for customer references. It just snowballed from there.
Cementing My Expert Status
“So, this is what thought leadership looks like,” I said to myself. People who read the Upshot story saw that I was doing cutting-edge work, and wanted in on the action. They asked if Banc of California was hiring, and I was more than happy to forward their résumé to HR.
Then a former manager read the piece and asked if I was looking for any new challenges myself. That’s how I ended up becoming the senior infrastructure architect at loanDepot. It was a step up from being a senior systems engineer, and it was also gratifying from a skills upgrade point of view.
As you might have already guessed, I’m more excited by great opportunities than I am by money. I want to tackle a problem and build the perfect solution. I believe that the best way to find one golden opportunity after another is active networking.
When others see you as a thought leader, they'll ask to connect, and—once you've established a relationship—you become top of mind when they're looking for someone to fill a position. Sometimes, they'll even create a new one for you.
Getting Ahead Through Active Networking
If you make networking an active part of your career strategy, your dream job will come to you. There are many ways to put yourself out there. You can write blog posts that establish you as a thought leader. You can volunteer at your local chamber of commerce, for an industry association, or at a conference. You can attend professional development seminars, get new certifications, or go back to school. All of these activities provide golden networking opportunities.
Keep learning and trying new things, but most importantly, don't be afraid to fail. There's always tomorrow. If you go to a meetup and don't make any exciting contacts, try another one, or come back to the same one next month. If you enroll in a course in network security but end up not liking it, try learning about HCI. At the very least, sign up for the next lunch and learn at your office. There are no guarantees, and you will encounter setbacks, but as long as you keep learning and networking, you'll always have forward momentum on your side.
After my stint at loanDepot, I moved on to Ceridian. I applied for the position online, and then connected with their hiring manager by replying to one of his posts on LinkedIn. He looked up my profile, liked what he saw, and I got the job. If I hadn’t reached out, the gig might have gone to somebody else. That’s the power of networking. I had two other higher paying offers than Ceridian, but that hiring manager called me during the final negotiation to say one key thing: “We may not be able to match the highest pay, but we will appreciate your skills and expertise that you can bring to this company." That was all I needed to hear.
Building My Network and My Career Prospects
Upshot helped supercharge my networking efforts. I was already doing my best to get my name out there, but their editorial team put me on the map as a thought leader. I still have my Upshot story at the top of my LinkedIn profile, and it continues to generate interest. When people see my profile, they know that I can clearly convey my thoughts and that I’m involved in the industry.
Thanks to Upshot, and my ongoing commitment to networking, I am more than the lines on my résumé. I am a skilled professional with wisdom and stories to share, and all of this has sparked life-changing conversations that have altered the course of my career.
I have come a long way from those early days of reading self-help books and trying to get up the courage to talk to others. These days, I don't jump at every offer, and I don't just follow the money. I pick positions that challenge me to update and upgrade my skills instead of looking at the salary.
I recently turned down a lucrative potential executive job offer at a financial company because the timing wasn’t right and it wasn't sufficiently challenging. I have the luxury of choice because I know when I'm ready to move on, I can reach out to my network, and the right opportunity will present itself. But this all started because I was willing to put myself out there. I networked, connected, and shared my thought leadership. This didn’t come naturally or easily, but it’s given me career freedom.
Don't wait another minute. Start building your network today.