Making Career Building Connections

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Katy Keane had not been in the logistics industry very long when she found herself knee deep in what she calls an "ERP remediation" at food manufacturer Borden Foods. The company had just gone live with a full Enterprise Resource Planning system and service levels were tanking.

"We couldn't ship products and customers were threatening to leave," says Keane, now vice president, transportation services for Big Lots, a broadline closeout retailer based in Columbus, Ohio. "We knew we had to act immediately to remedy the situation."

That action came in the form of hiring a consulting firm to help Borden Foods optimize its St. Louis warehouse and ship goods to customers more efficiently. The consulting firm also brought in someone to help Keane elevate service levels and improve logistics. That person was Joe Andraski, former vice president of Nabisco.

"We just clicked," says Keane. "He knew best practices and helped me diagnose our logistics problems for about six months." As a result of their close working relationship, Keane says she now counts Andraski as her number-one industry mentor.

In fact, when Keane was recently offered the position at Big Lots, Andraski was the first person she called to ask for advice. "He helped me make the decision to take this job," she says. "He knows me both personally and professionally, and is objective enough to help me make significant career decisions."

But the advice didn't stop there. "When I joined Big Lots, the company asked me to find ways of improving communication with our prepaid vendors," says Keane. "I asked Joe who I could speak to about best practice transportation communication with a large prepaid vendor shipping base."

Andraski put Keane in touch with people who had experience implementing this type of operation so she could solicit their feedback.

"Joe connects me with the best and brightest in the industry. That has been an incredible help," she says.

While not everyone may be lucky enough to have such an experienced and connected mentor, logistics professionals at all levels can cultivate contacts and rely on their peers for advice and education.

"Networking should be a high priority for every logistics professional," says Gary F. Petty, president and CEO of the National Private Truck Council. "It serves as a form of continuing education and as an essential ingredient in growing your own skills and knowledge."

There are two types of networking—professional networking and networking with your peers. Networking with professionals offers the opportunity to gain valuable advice and benefit from someone else's experiences. But relying on a network of friends can be equally as valuable.

"Some friends date back two or three decades," says George Yarusavage, manager, transportation procurement, Verizon Wireless. "They are your friends whether you have a job or not, and whether you have business for them or not."

When you are looking to change jobs, you can contact your friends. These are not cold calls because the relationships are ongoing.

Sharing in Private

While knowing the right people is a great way to help you get into a company you are interested in, networking is more than just getting a foot in the door when you are out of a job.

"I think of using networking as a way to do your job more effectively," says Keane.

"Many individuals have information to share," adds Petty. "But they are often willing to share it only one-on-one or in a small group environment because many companies have corporate policies against letting out collective information. It is safe to discuss these practices privately, however, when you are not offering them as testimony."

Particularly in the logistics and transportation industries, where daily operations are not the core purpose of the company, networking serves as a form of job validation and career enhancement. By interacting with individuals who can share new and updated information, logistics professionals can stay within the curve of change in the marketplace.

The Conference Connection

Talking to different people at industry conferences and meetings is a great way to discover new ideas to implement in your own company. Logistics and transportation professionals often meet at these venues to exchange ideas.

"Networking at industry conferences provides great benefits," says Keane. "You can hear about a new strategy or program and bring that information back to your company. As a result of the discussions I've had at conferences, and the relationships I've built over the years, I have been able to make a difference in my job and get promoted."

You never can judge the impact an introduction may have on your career down the road. Yarusavage recalls one particular meeting where he ran into two people he had known for many years. One was in the airfreight forwarding industry and mentioned to Yarusavage that his company was looking for an office manager. At the event's cocktail hour, Yarusavage spotted another old friend who happened to be searching for a job. He had a hunch his friend's skill set would fit the open position and introduced the two men.

"They spoke for about 20 minutes, then ate dinner together at the meeting," says Yarusavage. "My friend was hired shortly afterward and went on to work at the company for seven years."

A story like this is not uncommon, says John McCann, president and owner of The Bolt Supply Company, Calgary, Alberta. "When a manager puts a help-wanted ad in the paper, it is a last resort for finding a candidate to fill a position," he says. "To be successful, companies need to constantly look for potential candidates to hire."

These potential candidates often are recommended by current employees or people who have mutual contacts in the industry.

"The old adage, 'It's who you know,' doesn't apply anymore," says McCann. "It's who knows you. So put in some extra effort and get more involved in the industry. That is how you will become well known."

Keane suggests attending conferences sponsored by industry associations such as The Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, APICS-The Association for Operations Management, The Institute for Supply Management, and The American Society of Transportation and Logistics, as well as software user conferences. Ask people about best practices, as well as the technology they are implementing.

"Talk to people in the audience at the keynote presentation, at dinner receptions, and at cocktail hours about what they are doing and what might follow as the 'next great thing,'" says Keane. "Ask for e-mail introductions to people who might be able to give you more information on how they implemented a particular solution."

Fine-Tuning the Skill

While attending industry conferences can help increase your knowledge and provide access to a wealth of information and contacts, logistics professionals need to actively engage in discussions to get the greatest benefit from the event.

"Networking is a learned skill," says Petty. "Attending a meeting or conference and observing without participating is a waste of time. These are not events for people who are socially shy. You've got to take the initiative."

To be a good learner, you need to invest in relationship building. That means bringing information to the table if you can, rather than just taking it away. But don't feel intimidated if you are inexperienced, Petty says.

"Learning and interacting at meetings is a cumulative process," he notes. "No one arrives day one as an expert—you need to be committed to lifelong learning."

Another way to get in contact with those in the know is by accessing the web sites of national organizations and finding out where the group's local chapter meets. By attending local meetings and roundtables, you gain valuable information and meet people based in your area.

"You are more likely to meet people with similar interests at seminars, professional meetings, or educational courses," says Yarusavage. "Joining a chapter or roundtable is just the beginning. That's your entry into a 'network of networks,' as each person you meet has his or her own individual network. From these contacts you can select who will become part of your expanding network."

Learning should not end with the knowledge you possess when you walk into a job, says Yarusavage. He suggests pursuing a professional certification in a specific industry area to keep current on the latest trends.

"Going back to school, taking online courses, or joining study groups are all forms of networking as well," notes Yarusavage. "You make contacts with others who are new to the discipline or are seeking to upgrade their skills and form friendships. These friendships are often the ones that carry you through your careers."

Reading industry publications and keeping abreast of the latest news are also good ways to increase your education. If you read an article in a journal or on the web about something you want to know more about, try to find the author's e-mail address. Ask any questions you might have pertaining to the article.

"The minute you reach out, most people are more than happy to respond, and answer a question or two about their particular area of expertise," says Keane. "And if they cannot answer your question, most likely they can refer you to someone else who can advise you further."

Who Does the Boss Know?

Don't neglect the importance of your coworkers or superiors in helping steer you toward specific groups or connect you with industry people.

"If you are struggling with a specific challenge, ask your boss for contacts who might be able to assist you," says Keane. "This is a great way to leverage your superior's network."

Use the experience of your boss and coworkers to guide you. Ask them for advice on what groups to join when you first start out in the profession and what certifications to pursue to increase your industry knowledge.

"Networking is not in your job description when you get hired," says Petty, "but you need to put it there. If you don't form relationships and make connections with people in the industry you will underperform at your job and you won't serve your company well. You need other professionals to help you do your job better."

9 Things to Know For a Well-Networked Show

You've registered for this year's annual conference, received your program schedule, and booked your flight. But are you sufficiently prepared to reap the highest return on investment from the event? Here are nine ways to ensure you return from the meeting with valuable industry contacts and information.

1 Have a game plan. Look at the schedule before you arrive. Know what meetings you must attend, who the speakers are, and who you need to talk to. Think about what you want to get out of the meeting. Focus on specific sessions and have questions in mind that you need answered. Ask your questions during the session, or meet with presenters and panelists after the presentation. They will likely be happy to speak with you about their area of expertise.

2 Attend all informal gatherings. Networking is often at its best during scheduled downtime such as cocktail hours, receptions, and dinners. These events are where people have the most time to talk. Move around and be social; don't get caught up chatting with only a few people.

3 Open the lines of communication. Be willing to contribute to the discussion, however modest your contribution may be. Try to bring something to the table when addressing colleagues and peers.

4 Don't try to cover too much in one time period. Hone in on the aspects of the event that are most important to you. Don't spread yourself too thin. The material at these meetings can be substantive, so make sure you give yourself enough time to digest it.

5 Be a politician. Work the room. Introduce yourself to a group of people and see where the conversation goes. You may find you have certain things in common with people, and these similarities may develop into relationships.

6 Bring business cards. Hand out business cards to people you meet—and make sure you get one in return. If you are not working, hand out something with your contact information on it. You can even print your own cards from a home computer or at an office supply store.

7 Follow up. This is just as important as the initial meeting. Within a day or two of the event, e-mail the people you met and tell them you enjoyed speaking with them. Then ask for their thoughts on any other groups you should join or ways to increase your professional development.

8 Know the basics. If you are new to the industry or lack experience in your field, accelerate your learning curve by getting some basic information about the industry and your particular field before attending an event. This could mean enrolling in a training course or reading industry publications. Once you attend a conference there is an assumption that you have some basic knowledge about transportation and logistics. You will be interacting with an experienced crowd, so know something about what you are talking about before striking up a conversation.

9 Speak up during the sessions. Presenters welcome questions and are happy to answer. By volunteering to share your own experiences or asking a relevant question, you establish yourself as an active participant and leave the door open for further discussions with panelists or audience members once the session is over.

Networking No-No's

While networking should be high on the priority list of every logistics professional, it is important to note that making an aggressive effort to meet people simply to advance your own career is never looked upon favorably. Here are some behaviors to avoid when attempting to establish relationships and build your network.

1 Don't be a resume pusher. As obvious as it may seem, coming to a meeting or conference with resume in hand, openly looking for a job, is never a good idea. Instead, keep a few copies of your resume with you and wait to see if conversations lead to the topic of your job search. Then, if the person you are speaking with asks for a copy of your resume, you will have one to give out.

2 Don't be a salesperson. Never start a conversation by trying to sell your products and services. Instead, discuss current trends rather than pitch your company. Talk about best practices or technical problems rather than products and services.

3 Don't lose touch. Don't wait until you are out of a job to communicate with contacts in your network. Keep relationships current by keeping people informed with both the good and the bad news. This will help you grow your network throughout your career so that when you really need help or advice, those contacts are there for you.

4 Don't be a leech. When starting a professional relationship, be willing to offer your own experience and friendship as well as your own contacts. The relationship should be mutually beneficial to both parties, and both people should feel comfortable asking the other for industry advice or references.

5 Don't stick together. When attending an industry conference or trade show, many people tend to stay with the same group of people they came with. Rather than sticking with your coworkers or friends at the event, try to circulate and meet new people. Instead of attending three sessions together as a group, try splitting up and having each person attend three different tracks. You will be more likely to meet new people when you are out of your comfort zone and can meet up with your group later to share the different information you each learned at the sessions.

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