Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Winging it for your friends

This week's guest post comes from Christine Gertz, Library and Information Specialist at CAPS.

In each paper edition of Bloomberg Businessweek, the final section, Etc., is devoted to curiosities of business - ideas that appeal to a niche or a fad that might bloom into a trend. In the June 10, 2013 edition, Christine Hauer's Job: Networking for You, by Your Side focuses on a young woman in New York who runs a PR firm and also hires herself out as a ‘wingman’ for networking events.

According to Wikipedia a wingman “is a role that a person may take when a friend needs support with approaching potential partners.” Hauer’s job is not to be confused with unsavoury pickups or CSI: Miami criminality. For $250, Hauer will prep her clients for an event with tips on how to handle conversations, smile winningly and escape from conversations when the topic has expired. She will then accompany them to an event, assist with introductions, help them meet the people they want to cultivate as connections, bolster their courage and free them from uncomfortable interactions politely. After the event, she will help clients follow up with the people they met so they can build meaningful business connections. Hauer encourages her clients to attend at least two business events a month. Both a previous client and the article’s author who used Hauer’s services attest that Hauer taught them how to network effectively.

I’m not suggesting that gregarious and extroverted people found their own business as networking wingmen, but that people who are generally outgoing may want to pay it forward to their less outgoing friends. In other words, I want to encourage the savvy networkers to help their more reserved friends, for free, by accompanying them to networking events as a wingman.

I could suggest that there is a personal gain to be had by attending networking events with your friends, even if they are not in the same industry. For example, a phys ed student attends a networking event with his reserved cousin who is in forestry. During the course of the event, the phys ed student breaks the ice with several potential employers for his quieter cousin, while expanding his own personal training business. That could happen--it is a dramatization of the weak ties theory, which appears to explain the success of networking outside of your immediate family and friends. (If you are interested in this theory and how it relates to work, you can read Mark Granovetter’s essay on the Strength of Weak Ties, or the popular examination provided in Six Degree of Lois Weisberg by Malcolm Gladwell.) It is also a dramatization of ‘planned happenstance’ (see Luck is no accident: Making the most of happenstance in your life and career by J.D. Krumboltz and A.S. Levin).

However, I’m suggesting you do it because you are generous and love your friends. If you are a gregarious extrovert, you would never turn down a party. The best networking events have a convivial atmosphere--after all, the majority of the attendees are people just like your friend who want their professional knowledge validated by others and to share a meal while doing it. You can attend so your friend will meet these regular, interesting people, while making business connections and feeling secure that you have their back.

Since you are doing it out of generosity, the pressure is off of you to sell yourself, while making the best effort on the part of your friend. Keep in mind that everything you do will reflect on your friend’s judgment, since they thought it was a good idea to bring you along, trusting you not to wreck the night for everyone else and ruin their business reputation.

As a networking wingman, you should follow these rules:

· Find out what the event is about. If the event is outside of your industry, you might want to spend some time chatting with your friend, looking at the organizer’s website and maybe doing some light Wikipedia research. This should take about an hour and can be managed over lunch when you ask your friend who they want to meet. This is part of your basic preparation. You will be able to get away with, This isn’t my area… but you don’t want to seem like you could care less, thus rudely insulting their enthusiasm for their industry. If you don’t prepare at all, your ignorance may reflect badly on your friend.

· Make a good impression. This seems obvious, but what it means is that you will dress as if you were trying make connections for yourself. No excessive alcohol consumption or overeating--and pulling your friend back if they appear to be drinking or eating too much. Be gracious, courteous and friendly. Just because these people are outside of your industry doesn’t mean they don’t know someone in your industry, so you want to make a good impression. Your behaviour will also reflect on your friend’s judgment.

· Come up with a valid reason to attend. The reasons, my friend is socially awkward or I had nothing better to do are dismissive of your friend and the event. Other reasons, such as I appreciate the chance to improve my knowledge of X or we use a similar method of research in my field and I am interested in its applications are better. You can spend a brief time talking about how this event may relate to your areas of interest, but try to keep the focus on the ‘lead plane’ - your friend - since you are there as support not the star.

· Break the ice, but know when to stop talking. You have attended the event to help your friend, but your friend has to be prepared to carry the conversation. If they can’t explain what they do or are interested in, they can practice explaining this to you. You can also practice conversational hand offs, such as I’ll let her explain since this is her area or This sounds like something my friend was talking about on the ride over, so I think he should tell you about it. Let your friend get a word in edgewise after you have warmed up the contact.

· You can talk to your friend anytime, but now is not that time. Your friend may cling to you as the only familiar face in the room. You can chat about player trades or that movie you just saw some other time. You are here for another purpose, so keep your friend on task. Don’t let them weasel out of meeting people just because they’re nervous.

· Offer an escape route. You are going to have to leave your friend alone to talk to people, as many people as possible. If it looks like they are stuck, you may have to motivate the conversation. Or you may have to rescue your friend and use Hauer’s strategy of suggesting that you need to get something to drink or some air and politely remove your friend from the conversation by asking them to accompany you.

You want your behaviour to enhance your friend’s reputation and to gather as many business contacts as possible. Helping them find people to talk to, enter conversations, gather contact information and manage conversations to a polite close makes you the perfect networking wingman…or woman!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Embracing Chance Encounters at the University of Alberta

This week’s guest post comes from Emerson Csorba. Emerson is a fourth-year University of Alberta student in Sciences Politiques. He served as Students' Union VP Academic in 2011-2012. At the moment, he is the Editor-in-Chief of The Wanderer Online, one of Edmonton's highest-read daily online magazines. He also contributes to The Globe and Mail, Maclean's On Campus and University Affairs.

In my four years at the University of Alberta, the most memorable and meaningful moments of my university experience took place when I least expected them. Looking back, the vast majority of these moments were not related to my program of study; instead, they were the result of stepping into uncomfortable territory, where I meet new people and learned about topics far outside of my field of study (Sciences Politiques).

As a staff member of CAPS, I've particularly enjoyed the emphasis placed on the impact of happenstance in one’s career. Often times, some of the most important determinants of life paths arise through the most trivial of circumstances. This idea is seen throughout Stanford psychologist Alberta Bandura's seminal paper "The Psychology of Chance Encounters and Life Paths," where he shares a personal story about accidentally meeting his future wife during a relaxing round of golf.

Too much of the time, I think university students are told they should "focus on their studies" and generally refrain from doing things that put themselves out of their comfort zones. Perhaps this is why few undergraduate students go to conferences or spend their evenings at patio parties and networking events. These places, however, are where chance encounters take place, and where people's life paths can literally change in a split-second.

With this in mind, I have three recommendations for students looking to branch out into new social networks and acquire experiences that they never previously imagined.

1. Embrace the influence of chance encounters: Every so often, take the time to reflect on your own life path and think about how your life path has been altered by a plethora of small events. In many cases, I find that dragging myself to an early-morning conference or an evening networking event led to relationships that have since influenced the course of my life. I find that chance encounters are part of what makes a university a university. As a university student, you spend a considerable amount of time in the heart of an ideas network, where people consistently encounter new ideas and colleagues. So why not take advantage of this?

2. When you feel butterflies, step back and take in the moment: One of my role-models, a University of Alberta graduate named Randy Boissonnault, writes about butterflies (stomach knots) on his personal blog. Boissonnault, a former Students' Union President and Rhodes Scholar, believes that the butterfly moments - where we feel a deep sense of nervousness - are the ones that should absolutely be taken in. This anticipation creeps up whenever I meet new people in unfamiliar situations, but it is one that usually becomes a sense of satisfaction.

3. Take a plunge into the unknown: Once you feel the butterflies, jump straight into the unfamiliar environment. Do so with full commitment, and try to maintain a smile on your face while doing so. My guess is that you will surprise yourself with the people that you meet and the connections that guide you to interesting and valuable opportunities.
So I urge you to put yourself out there. Attend a conference that scares you. Stand up and speak in a crowd of unknown people. Approach that business CEO that may eventually become one of your closest friends. You can never predict chance encounters, but you can certainly increase their likelihood by putting yourself out there.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Unpaid internships: Are they worth it?

I read an article recently on the CBC website about two former interns with Bell Mobility who have filed complaints with the federal government against the telecom giant. Why? They allege the company broke labour laws by not paying them for the work they did. Both signed up for Bell’s voluntary training program but said their experience did not match their expectations which were based on how the program was advertised. Rather than being part of a training program, one of the interns said she felt like “an employee, doing regular work” and therefore should have been paid.

When someone asks me what the difference is between a regular job and an internship (or other work experience, such as a practicum or co-op), I respond that you learn in almost any job but with an internship the learning is intentional. That is, there is a commitment on the part of both the intern and the employer that the intern will develop certain skills, gain certain understandings about the profession and industry they are working in, etc. The question is should this learning opportunity be paid or unpaid?

It is a timely question because it appears that an increasing number of employers in the public, private and non-profit sectors are offering unpaid internships and an increasing number of students, new graduates and people in career transition are doing unpaid internships as a way to overcome the ‘no experience, no job’ dilemma. According to another CBC article, between 100,000 and 300,000 Canadians work for no pay.

One of the criticisms of unpaid internships is that they put lower income people at a disadvantage. Some people simply cannot afford to work for free unless they work multiple jobs or use credit in order to subsidize their internship, which can put them at an even further disadvantage. Another criticism is that unpaid internships displace paid workers, which negatively affects the workers being displaced and the economy as a whole. Proponents of unpaid internships posit that unpaid interns are getting something in return for their work; namely, experience that will give them a leg up on the competition for paid jobs. Further, they argue that if employers who offer unpaid internships are required to pay interns for their work, those valuable learning opportunities would disappear. Hmmm, I’m not convinced of that.

In my opinion, the majority of internships and like work experiences should be paid. There are some circumstances where I would support unpaid internships; for example, student internships with a not-for-profit organization for which the student receives course credit. I also strongly believe that there must be a firm commitment to learning on the part of the employer and the intern (this can be facilitated through a learning contract) and that the work an intern does is meaningful in terms of providing her or him with career-related experience.

What are your views on this issue?