Every Veterans’ Day, I think about the day I got out of the Navy and became one, in early August 1987.
It seems like a hundred years ago—and yet only moments ago.
Every Veterans’ Day I remember all the wonderful people I met, all the consummate professionals I worked with…and what it felt like to become a veteran, as I returned to civilian life.
It’s hard to imagine the shift you have to make after spending any amount of time in the military to actually become a veteran. If you’ve known anyone who’s left for boot camp—or even Officer Candidate School—you know when they finish their training they’re different than they were. Although they’re the same great person, something inside of them has had to change. That change ranges from subtle to radical.
So when we become veterans and try to return to our former way of being, everything has changed. Not only are all those things you learned to do and be as a service member no longer a part of your world, there are a number of things that you never had to worry about that now require your attention and skill. You started out as a civilian, yet once you’ve served in the military, you can never go back to just being one again. When you leave the military, you are now a veteran.
So on Veterans’ Day, I remember my experience of becoming one, tackling the change after spending almost 12 years developing those behaviors that increased my “military bearing.” I thought it would be easier.
Although being in the Navy led me directly to my calling in life, starting with being a Navy Substance Abuse Counselor, when it became clear that I would not be able to stay in the service and continue this work, I had a choice to make. With over 10 years service, that calling was so strong that there was no question in my mind; so I decided to extend my enlistment for a year and prepare myself to make the transition to the civilian world, with the skills, contacts and strategies I knew I would need to be successful.
It seemed very straightforward—continue pursuing my 4-year degree, do the work to achieve civilian certifications for Substance Abuse Counseling and Employee Assistance and get a job at a Psychiatric Hospital that specialized in Addiction.
No problem…until I had to network.
Looking back on it now, I can see that networking had always been a part of my military existence: as a transient every place I went, I had to develop the skill to make new friends the moment I landed at a new duty station. I had to find a friend in the Personnel Office, in Disbursing (where we got paid), at the Mess Hall, and at Sick Bay. I had to quickly fit myself into the everyday world of whatever station I’d been assigned to, and be willing to be a resource for the newcomers that followed me. It was all part of my Navy world. As much as I expected to do it, it was expected of me.
Networking as a civilian was a completely different experience. All the structures that were in place for me to fit in no longer existed—I was on my own. And I was on my own in a place where people came and stayed, so they weren’t waiting for me or expecting me. I had to make my way in with a completely different mindset.
So my early networking experiences left me feeling awful—and, after all my Navy success, uncommonly awkward.
Fast forward to Veterans’ Day 2013. Now I can smile at my experience, because it fueled my passion to not only decrease my own suffering at networking, but to teach other people how to decrease theirs so they could enjoy the process as much as I’ve learned to do.
After spending a few years hating the idea of networking and struggling to feel confident doing it, I finally created a strategy for myself that transformed my experience. Something else that helped me very much was Susan RoAne’s book, How to Work a Room, where I found a few sentences that inspired me to take focused action.
Ms. RoAne was speaking directly to me when she wrote, “Find someone in the room who looks as miserable as you feel, and approach them. Start a conversation and you will be their hero.”
A little practice at using the skills I had honed with every Navy transfer and voila! This sailor mastered networking.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been sharing my networking strategies with chambers of commerce and business audiences. These strategies are the antidote to the overabundance of cards in your face and 30-second elevator speeches that leave so many otherwise skilled professionals with the feeling that they’d rather have a root canal than network.
Here are three of those strategies you can use right away:
- Make a decision: decide which events will best allow you to meet the people you most want to do business with. All networking events are not created equal! Pick the time of the day you’re freshest at; pick the events you have the best chance of enjoying. Then arrive early and greet people as they arrive. This is a great way to get very comfortable, very quickly.
- Focus your Attention: Now that you’ve decided where your best networking opportunities are and what time of day best suits you, once you arrive, focus your attention on meeting 3-5 people you don’t know and having a conversation with them. Paying any attention to yourself is a waste of your time and will diminish your success significantly. So will hanging out with all the people you already know, even if it feels more comfortable in the moment.
- Ask a question—and listen to the answer: this is the number one secret of the most successful networkers. When you focus your attention on the other person, ask a question and really listen, you will distinguish yourself as exceptional. Most people won’t remember what you say at these events—which is why you save the real conversation for the coffee or lunch you’ll schedule for your next meeting—yet they always remember how they felt in your presence. You can make it a memorable experience when you really listen.
Veterans’ Day gives me a reason to be thankful—for a variety of reasons. And if you’re a veteran reading this, let me thank you for your service. I hope you will remember all the networking practice you got with every transfer to a new base… and trust those skills here in the civilian world.
Let me know what you think about using these strategies—I’d love to hear from you.