Networking in the Age of Social Media

What do you do when a horrendous economy makes it almost impossible to find a job, even if you’re an experienced CFO? For U.S.-based Mark Richards, the answer is to intensify your networking – and to do so in many various ways.

He has more than 790 connections (and counting) at business-oriented social networking site LinkedIn, where he is an active member of the 9,308-strong SuperCFO discussion group. He is the creator of the Candidates Chair website, a practical guide to job search and networking based on his own experiences and those of the site’s readers. Richards is also a member of the Financial Executives Networking Group and is a moderator of ExecuNet’s Finance Roundtable.
Formerly senior vice president at wealth management company RBC Dain Rauscher in Minneapolis and senior director for international finance at Carson Wagonlit Travel, Richards is now CFO of Maximum Communications, a telecoms start-up that aims to serve rural areas in Minnesota.
“The reason I got connected to my job at Maximum was because of the Candidates Chair,” he says. “Somebody had shared the site with someone else and he sent me a note and I just happened to be looking for a new CFO job. He emailed me back and said hey, we need a CFO, you want to meet tomorrow? And sure enough, two weeks later . . .”
He continues to network. “People think about networking when they’re out looking for a job, but the reality is, you ought to network before you need to,” he says. Richards spoke to CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani about networking and job-hunting in the U.S. and the lessons learned that could apply as well to finance professionals in Asia.
Would you say that networking in the U.S. is different from, say, networking in Asia?
Networking in the U.S. is like networking anywhere else. I used to work for Carlson Wagonlit Travel where I had an international finance role. I spent eight years working with my international colleagues and so a lot of my networking skills were developed there.
The first thing you [learn] in an executive role is that you can’t accomplish all the tasks on your own. You have to network with your peers, in particular, to make it happen. At Carlson, I wasn’t living in France or living in Germany or Brazil, so I needed the help of the local teams [in those countries], but to get them to help you, you've really got to know them. Whether you’re networking to do your job or networking to find a job, it’s really all the same. It’s all about getting connected and finding the way that you can help people and they can help you.
As a CFO, how do you go about doing really quality networking?
LinkedIn helps you find people you want to connect to, but then you have to go and actually do the connection. You need to meet somebody face-to-face, have coffee or cocktails or whatever. Until you get to know them a little bit better, it’s hard to really understand 1) how you can help them and 2) how they can help you.
When you build your network, you want to make sure that there is some mutual benefit. There are people I have met that, in the end, I realise I can’t really help them very much, nor can they help me. You want to make sure that you’re in sync with your networkee. Otherwise you just pass them on to somebody else and it doesn’t really help you build your network at all. And you also want to make sure you pass on good referrals as well.
So you treat networking as a two-way relationship, not ‘I want to get something from you’ but ‘I can give you something, and hopefully you’ll give me something in return as well.’
What I adopted several years ago is what I call the ‘80% rule’ – that is, 80% of networking should be focused on the other person. That’s not to say you shouldn’t tell them what you’d like to get out of a networking meeting. But I think if you are the one that takes the lead, make sure that you’re focused on the other person.
Two things can happen. One is that you get to know someone that people should network with, which is good, because you want to get introduced to a lot of people that maybe you wouldn’t have. Second, that reputation [of being helpful] extends well beyond your own reach and you’ll start seeing things that you wouldn’t have seen on your own.
Often when you network, it’s not that way. Someone networks with you, and they are looking for something specific. If someone does that with me, they don’t stand out as much as the person that I met with that really went out of their way to help me do something. If you try and network and create a niche for yourself by being the person that practices that 80% rule, then I think that you will set yourself apart from everybody else that’s out there networking.
How do you manage all of these networks? How do you make sure that all of these contacts remember you?
If I look at some contacts that I have a much stronger relationship with, I have a higher frequency of connecting with them. What I do is I keep a running list of when the last time I talked to someone. For someone that’s a connection, say someone I connected in a different industry, I’ll drop them an email once every six months, just to see how it’s going. If there’s something happening and if there’s a reason for us to have a call, we’ll schedule a call. That’s where my Candidates Chair site comes into play and my groups on LinkedIn, which I use to connect with people, keep up the latest on what I’m doing.
The key thing is that you periodically get in touch with everyone on your network.
Honestly, what I end up doing is I don’t try to write an individualised note to everyone. I start with the same structure for everybody, then I’d just alter it a little bit. Otherwise, from an administrative standpoint, it becomes very hard, it’s going to take forever. That’s my shortcut. I start with a kind of standard note and then alter it based on what I know that person is interested in.
You have extensive experience as CFO and you’ve gone to university and business school. Have you kept those contacts in your past jobs and from your school days?
Typically, yes, your school, like my university [St. John’s University and University of St. Thomas School of Business], where I have a lot of contacts. It’s not so much the people I went to school with, but the people that went to the same university, here’s where I have a lot of contacts. And the reason why is because you have an immediate connection to one another, which makes it easier for you to start a relationship. I find that if you are working with somebody and [it turns out they went] to the same school, it just makes it easier to start networking with them.
What I try and do is meet [colleagues] from each of my jobs. In my networking I track how and where I know people. It’s not just a name that I know; it’s somebody I worked with when I was at Carlson or the Royal Bank or wherever I worked.
So you maintain a database where you put all this information.
It’s a combination of Excel and Outlook. It’s not a very elegant system. But LinkedIn helps. If you can get your contacts into LinkedIn, it’s great because you can search for them or search by company and so on. It gives you a lot of capability.
The beauty of LinkedIn is that it helps you find people who used to work in the same company as you did. As you get older and you work with so many people, you won’t always remember everybody, even if you had a good enough relationship with them.
And your contacts update their own information themselves. People change jobs all the time and they get married and change their names and move around, and you know all of that because they do the updating themselves.
Right. But you know, the first question that you should ask yourself is, ‘What are you trying to accomplish with your networking?’ For me as a CFO, I have networking that I do strictly to help me improve and be a better CFO. I’m the moderator for ExecuNet’s Finance Roundtable and once a week I pose a question to the group. The purpose of that networking for me is strictly to help me become a better CFO. That’s one.
I work and live in the Minneapolis area. There’s a group of contacts that I have strictly to help me understand who’s doing what in our local area so I’m connected in the business community. Then there is a group of contacts that I use for my Candidates Chair site, that are job search work experts that I connect with strictly so I can make my site more useful for people who are looking for work.
I think you have to start with what do you want to get out of your networking and then that will help drive who you should try and network with. You have to understand what you want. So when you look at every network meeting that you have, you have to ask yourself what’s the commitment that you’re looking for from this person? Are you looking to have them provide you with a connection if you’re looking for a job? Many times people don’t do this and it limits their ability to network effectively.


Do you tend to network more closely only with other CFOs?
That’s part of becoming a better CFO. I belong to some finance professional groups and those are great ways for [professional] development and developing your skill set. But I also like to meet people that work with CFOs, presidents and CEOs of companies, or someone who runs the marketing division or something like that, just to understand [what they think] their finance team can do better, or what’s missing [in their relationship with finance].
And those CEOs can also help your career because when they are looking for a CFO, they might think of you.
Right, exactly. My philosophy around looking for work is that I believe that we’re all candidates for a new job. It’s just a question of when. People think about networking when they’re out looking for a job, but the reality is, you ought to network before you need to. The best time to network is before you really need it.
When you go out to network because you’re looking for work, your mental attitude changes. You’re trying to sell yourself into another job and so it changes your approach. You feel like you’re asking for something from someone. And if you’re starting your network from scratch in a job search, it will take you three good months, especially at CFO level, to really get your network up and running. Whereas if you already have a network up and running, at least to some degree, it makes a big difference in getting your job search done.
How important is social media in networking? There’s still a circuit of CFO conferences where CFOs meet everyone else. But it seems to me now with the social media, with the internet, with email, it’s just much easier to be in touch. But at the same time, it’s also difficult because there’s just this flood of information.
To me, social media is just an evolution of the networking toolbox. They are tools in the toolbox. In the end, it still has to get you to a point where you sit across the table from somebody or you get on the phone with them and you have to understand what they want and what you want and then how you two help each other out.
Once you get beyond a hundred people, it’s tough to have a relationship, so you have to obviously choose. But the point is, you’re still trying to develop that relationship to a degree and so if you can use social media or whatever to help you stay active, know what’s going on, that’s great. But sooner or later if you really want to build that relationship, it comes down to one-on-one time.
How much time do you spend in nurturing your networks?
I probably spend an hour a day. You have to decide as a person how much time you want to do on your networking. The key is to make the right selection and to network with a purpose. If you are just networking to network, you’ll lose. It won’t really do much for you. But if you really understand why you want to network, you have a plan, then I think networking works much better.

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