Efficiency and Effectiveness

When it comes to how I think about projects, the two words that I have always used to define my approach are efficiency and effectiveness. These ideas have been a major focus of my style for over a decade and were born of the idea of how can we do this better

To make sure we are all on the same page, I have provided a brief summary of how I define both concepts.

  • Efficiency: The reduction of wasted work/effort to the greatest degree possible.
  • Effectiveness:  Ensuring that the desired result is achieved to the greatest degree possible.

I recently had to describe my approach and it made me think to actually write it out for a blog post. My goal was to clearly define the process for myself, but also create a framework for others to use if they find it useful. It should be noted that I am writing this as if I was coming into a project already in place, but the process also holds true when creating something from the ground up.

  • Workflow: To fully understand how something is being done, I like to start by putting together a workflow diagram to visualize the process. In order to put together an accurate workflow, I try to interview anyone who impacts the process being undertaken. My goal is to cover two key ideas – the current state and ideal state. The current state provides an understanding of what they do now and the ideal state allows them to provide suggestions for doing it better. Getting ideal state information from those who do the work is – to me – the lowest hanging fruit you can get for ideas to improve a process. Once all of this is compiled, a clear workflow diagram can be put together. If not, that means I need to either interview more people or a real problem has been identified. With a workflow diagram in hand, it is helpful to then observe the actual work going on to make sure the map is accurate. If it is not, amend as needed, but also note why there were any discrepancies.
  • Hierarchy and Reporting Structure: In addition to the workflow, understanding the organization’s hierarchy and reporting structure also plays a key role in efficiency and effectiveness. The two are not always the same and do not necessarily need to be – it can vary greatly depending on the circumstances and organizational structure. However, it is important they are logically laid out in an organized format for the benefit of that organization. The movie Office Space perfectly highlights the issue of when this is not the case.
  • Process Improvement: Once these items have been mapped out – based on the current state questions – I look to see if there are any obvious improvements to be made. I have worked with a lot of groups that do not look at this regularly, so old and new processes get merged over time, and inefficiencies can get overlooked. I then start looking at the ideal state information and examples of how those actually involved in the process think it can be improved. I also bring my own experience to bear to find other areas for improvement.
  • People: People are a huge factor when it comes to increasing efficiency and effectiveness. The right people have to be on the team and motivation needs to be kept high. This allows for the two factors to be kept consistent and at a high level. The wrong people – and by wrong people I mean those with the wrong attitude – can quickly derail the situation.
  • Innovative (Spirit of Innovation): Going along with people, a general spirit of innovation must be present. This means having the policies and procedures in place, as well as a culture, where people know they can voice ideas or concerns, and that they will be heard and their comments appreciated. To me, that is the most basic element of innovation. Higher-order levels of innovation can certainly be put in place though, such as everyone spending 10% of their time on their own projects and/or working to improve an area of operation – but that is a different story. All of these require intentional decisions by an organization’s leadership.
  • Bringing It All Together: Finally, there is making sure everything comes together well – an organization’s secret sauce. There are a lot of articles written about excellent companies, but it is difficult to copy their success. Case and point, the book Built to Last by Jim Collins – a book that made a big impact on me early in my career – is not a checklist of items to form a successful company. There has to be something else. Each group must find its own secret sauce to make their organization work efficiently and effectively. However, when everything does sync up, it can be very special.

As I regularly mention, I am a process guy, so it helps me to have this all laid out. However, I want to emphasize the point that this process changes slightly every time I do it because of the unique nature of each project. When looking to do this on your own, always be ready to adapt and adjust to your unique situation.

What are the things your organization does to keep efficiency and effectiveness at a high level?

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Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

I just finished the book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp and I am struggling to clearly define my feelings on the Design Sprint process. First and foremost, I cannot disagree that wonderful ideas and products have come out of teams using the Sprint process. The idea that I am struggling with is if it is truly a design process or, rather, a reactive process to better focus/refine work that is already being done. Early on in the book, it is noted that the author draws from both Lean and Agile practices, which it clearly does, but I feel both of these practices are about starting from the beginning. The examples used in the book felt like they were all ideas or products already in the works, like the hotel robot and fitness app, but had not found the right next step – like specific functionality or a target market. I also felt like there were some contradictions, like stating a prototype is better than an MVP, but then they gave examples of building a website using simple presentation software – essentially an MVP.

Again, I love the idea of a Design Sprint. I am a process guy and really like how it is clearly laid out with well-defined objectives for each day. To me, it is the clearly defined process that is the Design Sprint’s greatest strength. To help me lay out my thoughts and maybe figure out how I would use a sprint, I have written out the pros and cons – as I see them – below:

Pros – Things that I really liked about the process:

  • As I said above, I think the level of detail provided for the five-day process is a massive benefit to help drive success. This helps make it easier for non-process people to simply follow the instructions. It also acts as an accountability measure as facilitators can easily point back to the process to stave off folks who are pushing against the process and/or an idea.
  • Making sure that all the key stakeholders are in the room is fantastic. Functional managers, decision-makers, etc. By having all of the relevant voices in the room, especially decision-makers, it helps to reduce the chances of hitting a roadblock down the line.
  • Sprints allow for quick repetitions to continue the learnings from the previous week. If the prototype completely fails with the five interviewees, the team will have at least learned why, and then be able to adapt and refine those items for the following week. Spending a week, two weeks, or even a month is likely far less time than some organizations are currently burning up on developing/refining new ideas.
  • The Design Sprint process pulls some of the best elements from the Lean and Agile processes to quickly find solutions that will lead to a satisfied customer and are therefore more likely to find scalable success.
  • An element that was addressed really well was dealing with potential conflict areas, possible groupthink, and avoiding bias. It really came through that these best practices were learned through trial and error – with the process continuously being improved with each iteration.

Cons – Things that stood out as not ideal:

  • The first thing that really stood out to me is that the book clearly draws from Lean principles, but does not address the most important idea of starting with customer discovery – identifying a customer’s hair on fire problem before developing a solution. Sprints seem like a reactive process to not finding initial success, and needing to find a small pivot, rather than a proactive approach.
  • Key assumptions are made from Monday to Thursday. That time is wasted if you only learn that on Friday – even if the interviews yield information for a small pivot.
  • Only five interviews make me feel nervous if there is not a clear next step to verify the information with additional potential customers.
  • Finally, I believe each example given in the book depended on a large amount of work having already been done before the Sprint came into the picture. None of the examples seemed to really be pure design. It seems more fine-tuning to get the right fit before launching.

As I look back at my notes, I feel the main issue I keep coming back to is the idea that a Sprint is meant for an idea that has already been started. It is not a design process that starts with a truly blank slate. There are a number of assumptions made on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and this would be the case whether it was the very start of an idea or with a team that has already started building.

So, I started thinking about what I would do to address my concerns before conducting my own Sprint. Right now, the process is laid out like this:

As a firm believer in Lean principles, I think more preliminary analysis, understanding, and customer discovery in needed to increase the chances for success – faster. Below is the addition of an initial week to add in more customer discovery, but following the same timeline and processes set in place for the standard Sprint: (click to enlarge)

As I write this, I fully understand no one can control certain factors about getting interviews and even the interviews a team would get on those two days would not be able to fully validate anything. However, it would at least present a firmer foundation to launch the Sprint and could potentially involve fewer resources (people) throughout the week to reduce the impact. It should also be noted that if the first five interviews on the standard Sprint fail an extra week is going to be added anyway.

At the end of the day, I do really like the Design Sprint idea and approach. It has clearly been very successful for many different companies. I just look at it and think there are ways to make it an even more powerful tool for an organization to use.

What do you think? Are there other ideas for improving the Sprint approach?

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Crisis or Opportunity?

doors-1587329_1920I always try to look for the opportunity in tough situations. We are certainly in a tough situation right now, but I have tried to look at it as an opportunity to improve upon current practices. Many are having to make a swift transition to remote or virtual programming, but that does not mean there is any real innovation or process improvement. That is what I would like to talk about here.

The first time I dealt with the idea of having to rapidly create change was in 2008/2009 as a result of the Great Recession. My organization had a massive budget reduction, so I was asked to review my department’s entire portfolio and then provide recommendations to cut costs. The way I looked at the challenge was how to maintain or even improve upon current practices while reducing or eliminating costs – a search for innovative solutions. By operating with that mindset, it forced me to look at process improvement and understand what current funds were actually ‘buying’ – what value was actually being received for spending that money. The result of that process was an exciting set of improvements that stayed with the department long after our budget returned to normal levels. That exercise made a lasting impression on me and the lessons learned in the process still influence my current approach to innovation and process improvement.

In today’s crisis, as a result of the novel coronavirus, many businesses are not just quickly, but immediately, having to change how they operate. My own organization is having to make the transition, so I have been faced with a similar set of challenges as I did 11/12 years ago.

Below are the steps I take when needing to improve and change my current practices:

  • Start from the beginning: Write out your process in as much detail as possible – using a workflow diagram can be very helpful. Think about how and why everything is done. What are the aspects that could be improved? Play devil’s advocate and come up with alternatives that would provide the same or better results.
  • Follow the money: Where in the process is money (or time) being spent – either directly or indirectly? What value is being received from that expenditure? Is it worth it? Are there other ways to receive the same results, but with less money (or time)?
  • Ask the people: Who are the key stakeholders involved along the entire process? How do they influence the process? Take the time to interview all of the key stakeholders to get their understanding of the process, recommendations they have, and connect what they state to the time and money put into the process. End-users can be particularly important as their value expectation should weigh most heavily.
  • What else is out there: Are there other groups inside or outside of your organization doing something similar? Try to look at their process and learn if some of that process would benefit what you do.
  • Putting it all together to innovate: Armed with all of this new information, lay out what you think the new process could look like – even listing some different alternatives for each step along the way. Again, a workflow diagram will be helpful with this. Then get some feedback from relevant stakeholders to find out what they think. Where are the gaps? What did you miss? Then insert the new feedback and create a final first draft.
  • Test it out: Where possible, test something in a small way to verify it works as desired and then adjust as needed. Once ready, implement the process with less time and money being spent.

This is the process that I use and try to keep to it as much as possible when analyzing a process. With so many people now working remotely, shifting to virtual platforms, cutting out travel, and canceling programs, there is tremendous opportunity to reevaluate, overhaul, innovate, and improve current practices and processes to – hopefully – be more effective and more efficient.

What are the ways you or your organization are innovating?

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Put Down the Remote: Being Productive While Quarantined

We are in a unique time and life today seems a lot different than it did just a few short weeks or months ago. One of those changes is that the entire country – almost overnight – made a push for folks to work from home.

While I normally work from home throughout the week, also having my wife at home was a glimpse into what many are going through right now – trying to work from home for the first time. This can be a difficult transition and it is not made easier when people may also have to take care of kids or other factors that take up their time.

However, this ‘new normal’ will likely be here to stay throughout the rest of March, April, and likely May – at least. Since we all have to figure out how to make it work, I thought about what we can do to make the most of our time. There are alternatives to solely focusing on watching every video on the internet…

  • Education: There are a number of free resources for taking classes online – even more within the last week. This is a great opportunity to learn something new. Anyone want to go to Harvard?
  • Certifications: This could also be a way to look into something that will give you the edge. It could be a great opportunity to find the right certification for you.
  • Resume: Even if you are not currently looking for a job or think you will be in the near future, there is no downside to having an up-to-date resume. The same goes for making sure your LinkedIn profile is in top-notch shape.
  • Fitness: Take care of yourself! I will try not to get on a soapbox here, but nothing is stopping (most) anyone from taking a walk or run outside. Can’t get to the gym? You Are Your Own Gym is the way to go.
  • Spirituality: This will mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. However you view spirituality, take a moment to get centered, be thankful for what you have, and focus on what is most important.
  • Friends: We can all take the time to email, text, call, video call, FaceTime, group chat, online hangout, or whatever your flavor may be. This will be just as fulfilling to you as the person or people you connect with.

It is time to put down the remote and get some work done…

What are some ways you have tried to be productive during the quarantine?

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Strategy – Your Plan of Action

strategy-791197_1920Strategy has been a major topic for me over the past few weeks. I am working to finalize my company’s midyear strategy update and also facilitated a career strategy session for a group of military spouses. Working on both projects at once helped me to look at strategy from different perspectives.

I look at strategy as the plan of action that gets me from where I am now to my ultimate goal(s). It is a fluid process that can – and will – change on a regular basis, but a well laid out plan helps to keep me prepared for when those changes happen.

My process has come together through years of practice – with trial and error helping to make refinements. Before getting started, it is important that you understand where you want to go – your goal. Without knowing this, developing a strategy is not the best use of your time.

The Process:

  • To get started in developing a strategy, I like to know as much information as possible. This means doing a lot of research and asking a lot of questions. Below are examples of the types of questions I ask myself.
    • Is what I want to do feasible? This is an important question because if the circumstances will not allow you to find success, it is best to know early and move on.
    • Understand the why of the goal. What is the background of the project? Why is this the specific goal? What is the purpose?
    • What are the specific items I need to research?
    • What are the hurdles that I will likely face?
    • What are the resources I will need?
    • Who are the people I should speak to in order to learn more or receive help?
    • What are others doing?
    • What are the built-in milestones?
  • Once I have completed the initial research, I revisit the question of whether the goal is feasible.
  • After moving on from the research phase, I create my checklist of action items. This also includes adding in the built-in milestones. I try to make this as detailed as possible to prevent missing a step. For me, multiple steps also help with motivation as checking items off a list keeps pushing me forward.
  • With my checklist in hand, I begin putting due dates in that keep me on target. Without deadlines, it is harder to prioritize all of the projects on my plate. It is also the motivation to do a little extra work each day.
  • Another important aspect of the timeline is making sure that I do not get stuck in the “now” mentality. This means avoiding the feeling of having to do everything at once. I try to separate items into three categories:
    • Things that have to be done immediately (today, tomorrow, this week)
    • What needs to be done once the initial elements are completed
    • The last items to be completed
  • Throughout the creation and implementation process, I prepare myself to be flexible and adapt as things change. A single change will affect the entire plan, but having the plan is what helps me review, revise and then move forward.

Once I put all of the elements together, I like to review and game out the entire scenario. That helps me to tweak things, research anything new that has come up, and fully understand what needs to be done. Then it is time to get to work!

What are elements of the strategy process that help you put together your plan? Please list them in a comment below.

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The Idea Process: Steps to Help Creativity

be-creativeOne of my most recent projects has been to come up with a potential business strategy action plan for 2017. I was challenged to come up with new ideas and potential avenues to pursue this year with a focus on major initiatives. The idea was to think of anything and everything that could be implemented to grow the business. I jumped in and was pretty happy with the listing that I was able to compile. Once it was done, I tried to think about my process and if there was any way to become more efficient. Below is a breakdown of my process:

  1. Idea Waterfall: This is where I generally start. I don’t have a plan, I just start thinking of ideas and writing them down. There is no method, just madness. I think of all kinds of outlandish ideas across all areas of the business. The motto during this phase is why not? It doesn’t matter if the idea doesn’t necessarily fit within the context of this specific strategy session because those ideas can always be used later. Plus, those ideas may spark something from someone else on the team. It is just important to get all the ideas down.
  2. Focus: Once all of the ideas are written down, I go back to the beginning and look specifically at the short-term goals of the company. The idea here is to start setting parameters.
  3. Deep Dive: Once the short-term goals have been defined, go back and start thinking of more focused ideas that fit within that basic framework.
  4. Long Game: Next, I start looking through a long-term lens. It is important to make sure short-term gains don’t come at the expense of the company’s future. This means separating out short-term actions that likely create long-term problems. It also includes listing ideas that would take a long time to come to fruition.
  5. Talk it out: I like to walk around and present my ideas back to myself. In doing so, I am able to see the holes that need to be filled, any potential flaws and become better at conveying the idea.
  6. Organize: With everything listed out, it is time to start organizing everything into a format that is easy to convey to others.
  7. Feedback: Present your ideas and solicit feedback. Make sure everything is recorded and review it later to add to the list, refine ideas, remove any potential issues and begin creating a final draft.

All of this comes down to thinking about big ideas and I believe that often comes from the smallest of beginnings. I am fascinated with the creative process and it excites me when I am challenged to deliver. I believe creativity and problem-solving are some of my greatest strengths, so I enjoy the opportunities when I get to put them into practice.

What are ways you approach having to come up with new ideas? Please share in a comment below.

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Tenacity

stairs-918735_1920There is often a narrow range in which success can be achieved. One element I have found that helps to get into that bandwidth is tenacity. Tenacity is, for me, one of the most important qualities when it comes to getting a job done. In the context of business, tenacity is about being creative and finding unique paths to solutions and success; all while maintaining professional ethics. I have always felt tenacity was one of my strong attributes, and it regularly pays off in my work. When I started to think about it, there are several aspects of tenacity I feel encompass putting the idea into practice.

  • Understanding Tenacity: Tenacity is about using creativity to find new ways to get the job done or achieve your goal, no matter the obstacles that have been put in front of you; all while upholding the truest ideals of professionalism. This is where it is important to understand the difference between tenacity being persistent. Seth Godin has a great blog about the difference with persistence meaning doing the same thing over and over.
  • Prepare Yourself: In order for me to be tenacious within the world of business development, it means being organized. I am constantly doing research and reaching out to people across multiple industries to gather the data I need. To accomplish this, I have a system that works for me – an Excel file that tracks who I have contacted and when, a Word document that catalogues phone call notes, and digital calendar alerts to remind me to follow-up with those who I haven’t heard back from. Even if one element falls short, a review of the others shows where I have missed something.
  • Thinking It Through: Being tenacious and not persistent, as I stated above, means doing things differently. So it is important to think about how you would want something to happen. As an example, I will always send a follow-up email because when I receive a personalized email that basically says I am trying you for the second time because you haven’t responded to my first attempt, it makes me feel like I have let someone down or did not take the time to follow-up. This one practice often results in a greater response than the original message. That really makes a huge different when trying to get information from someone. Thinking it through in advance helps get to the end result.

Being tenacious is an art form that requires skills on multiple levels. The most important part is the mindset that success is a matter of time and effort, and not letting longer periods of failure deter you from remaining motivated.

My challenge is for you to think about the last item you let go at work and spend a few minutes developing ideas that could move it forward in a successful direction. Please let me know if you were able to turn it around!

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Finding the Right Job After Graduate School

tie-690084_1280As soon as I began the UNR MBA Program in 2014, I always had an eye towards what I wanted to get out of my studies and my first job following graduation. There was a very different feeling looking at a new job knowing that I would have a master’s degree than when I was completing my studies as an undergraduate. There are several key elements that I felt I needed to emphasize. The first is that I had over eight years of business and organizational development experience, and the second was that I was not looking for an entry-level position. Because of my experience, I also felt that it gave me a good footing for negotiating. Below are three things I think soon-to-be graduates should consider when looking for post-graduate school employment.

  • Value: What value do you bring to the table? How are you going to improve the organization? What value in compensation do you expect in return? What long-term compensation items are most important to you, and is there potential for compensation growth? I feel these are important questions to have answered when considering a position. While compensation discussions should wait until an offer is made, the research on industry norms should be done early. Most importantly, you should know your strengths and what they could mean for a potential employer.
  • Future: What are the possibilities for growth within the organization? Will you be forced to move to another company to reach a higher position? Is there someone in the company who will help guide you in career planning? What is the culture related to growing people internally, as opposed to hiring from the outside? In looking at a new position, it is important to also look where it could lead down the line. Especially following graduate school, a career focus is more important than just getting another job.
  • Structure: What is the structure of the organization? What is the culture? Do both fit in with how you best operate? If not, do you feel the company culture will help you improve your skills and abilities? Do you feel you will be productive and find success within their framework? Is there potential for you to have your own working style within that company? How you work is extremely important and being able to maximize your productivity through focusing on your strengths is crucial. I have found it better to work for a company with a matching culture and structure that can allow you to shine than picking a better job on paper in a company where you do not fit in well.

There are several key facets when looking for a job after completing a graduate program. This period has far greater career implications with the job you take, more than almost ever before. Everyone should make sure a new position sets them on a path towards future growth and successful advancement of their skills, compensation and goals. I believe it is better to sometimes wait for the right opportunity than settling for the wrong one.

What do you believe is the most important aspect of a job after receiving a graduate degree? Please post you thoughts in a comment below.

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Putting It All Together

jigsaw-puzzle-1315356_1920Having just graduated from my MBA program, I have done a lot of reflecting about what I took from the program and how much of it I will be able to apply to my new job. A few of my classmates held a presentation on a joint independent study project that really helped to showcase the knowledge and skills we gained. All three work for the same company and took on a different area of operations to review and provide recommended changes to improve operations. Throughout the presentation I thought to myself the methods and ideas they used were taken straight out of the material covered in the classroom. It could not have been a better-timed experience.

After thinking about the presentation, there are a few things that came to mind about important takeaways from my MBA program. This list is not everything I took away, but the larger concepts that I feel allow for the other important elements and ideas to come together.

  • Strategy: Strategy and its various elements have been a major subject of focus for me over the last ten years, but the level of detail that was covered in one of my courses really help to get into the fine details of not only creating a strategic plan and operating plan, but the “why” and importance of each as well. The importance of what I learned is in taking the highest level vision and creating the architecture infrastructure that will make it happen.
  • Business Process: Another major idea that was covered is looking at the actual design of how the various processes of a business are put together. By mapping out how things are being done and what needs to happen at each decision point, it is much easier to identify where improvements can be made.
  • Change: This topic is one of, if not, the most important of my entire MBA program. While all of the other information is highly important, being a successful change agent can make or break an attempt to introduce positive improvements in an organization. The books we read and discussions in class really hit home the point of how to approach and initiate change in both a personal and professional landscape.

By chance, these three topics were the main focus of each of my final three courses. This helped to bring everything in the program together for me at the perfect time. Ultimately, the best thing I took away from my MBA program was acquiring available tools and understanding the right questions to ask to find a path towards success. I found the time spent to be extremely valuable and am actively working to implement as much as possible into my professional career.

Check out the website for my new company, EnBio Industries.

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Adventures in Networking

world-1264062_1920As a young professional, I believe networking is one of the most important aspects of looking towards the future regarding my career. I will be graduating in about  a month, so relationships and connections are ever-present on my mind. The important idea to remember is that networking is a two-way street, and giving more will often get you more in return. The topic of networking has come up several times for me in the last few weeks, including facilitating a discussion on the topic for a group of undergraduates, so I decided to put my thoughts down here to help prepare.

  • Networking: To me, networking is about sharing information, contacts and ideas with people you are connected with based on past experiences, affiliations and other individuals.
  • LinkedIn: This is an amazing tool for networking, especially when looking for a job. It is used by so many that I feel it has become your online resume; your profile often comes up as a top hit when Googling an individual. Keeping it updated can be extremely important because you never know who is looking at it. LinkedIn can be used to find connections you would have never known about, as it shows all the links and connections for you; based on the information you provide, your affiliations, groups you join and people/organizations you are connected. There are many resources on how to put together a great LinkedIn profile, so I will not get into that here. I suggest that you add everyone you are connected with as you never know how they may be able to offer you in the future. This includes friends, family, coworkers, clients, etc. However, I would only add people you know and only add those you feel appropriate.
  • Volunteering: I feel volunteering is one of the most rewarding personal experiences and a great way to give back to the community. Volunteering can be an excellent networking tool because you will likely be connected to others who have the same general outlook on life regarding giving back. By putting yourself out there and meeting others who are volunteering, you open up an entire new network of people. As you volunteer more and more, and move up into being on a board, this network just continues to grow.
  • Professional groups: Professional groups are another great way to meet people and expand your network. I recommend only joining groups you have an interest in and not waste your time on something because it is the thing to do.
  • Business Cards: Business cards are a simple way to provide all of your relevant contact information in once place. Even if you don’t have business cards for work, you can still make personal business cards for almost no cost. I feel that people should wait to be asked for a business card before giving them out. Some may disagree, but I feel it can come off as pushy when people just sling out their business cards.
  • Staying connected: Once you have made a contact, make sure that you keep up with them. Depending on the circumstances, some individuals don’t need much in terms of relationship management. I have reached out to people who I haven’t spoken to for years because of the way the relationship was built. However, not all relationships are like that and I follow-up much more regularly with many in my network.
  • Giving and Getting: Now when it comes to actually using your network, I feel there are best practices to consider. I have found that giving to your network is a great way to build credibility; not asking for a favor for yourself, but someone else. That is most of what I have done over the past few years. When it actually comes time to ask for a favor from someone in your network, be honest and upfront.

I have been very fortunate with how large my network is, but it has only developed through the work I have put in to make sure it continues to grow.

If you would like to introduce yourself and find out ways we can network, contact me here.

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