Career growth depends on your network

Friday, January 6, 2017

By Bryan Delaney, Management Information Systems '03
(Article originally published in the Charlotte Business Journal as part of the #NextGenCLT Series)

At a certain point in your career, you develop your own philosophy and strategies for professional growth. Those who are lucky enough know the path they want to take right away, while others (the majority of us) are more likely to take longer to figure it out.

My own strategy for career growth began to solidify about five years into my career. I was 25 years old at the time and I had just co-founded our digital consulting firm, Skookum, with my partner. I was a few years out of college and had just left a great job with plenty of security at the Department of Defense. There was no guidebook; it was my own experiment.

People often remark: “I can’t believe that you started a company when you were that young.” But in many ways, it was the perfect time.

Why? The consequences of failure weren’t as high-risk or severe. I didn’t have as much to lose at the time in terms of finances, family or my own time. Getting started wasn’t easy, but my partner and I really dug in and committed to making it happen. And with that — Skookum was born.

Relationships matter

So how did we take our business idea forward to become one of Charlotte’s best places to work?

The most important factor enabling us to get out of the gate, secure those initial wins, establish credibility within the market and grow the organization, was relationships. More specifically, it was a solid network of personal and business connections that we’d cultivated over time. And the value that I place on my network, to this day, simply cannot be underestimated.

However, when I reflect back on my college and early career experience, I realize there were missed opportunities to build an even stronger network that most likely would have helped me personally grow, learn and even achieve business success sooner and with greater ease. I now know that I could have worked more proactively at building a network, and it’s something that I really wish I had started sooner.

As an alumnus, I want to share that message with current business students and folks who are still early in their career who might be considering starting their own business. Don’t wait. Build your network now. Do so proactively, with purpose and authenticity. This last point I stress because the foundation of any relationship is built on trust.

Some additional tips: Don’t take any relationship or help for granted. Say “thanks” a lot. Send thank-you notes, and conduct communications whenever possible face-to-face.

For those of you who may be more introverted — I can relate. However, as awkward as it may feel, it is important to get out of your comfort zone when establishing relationships. Plus, networking in person, and talking to people you don’t know, will help build your self-confidence and raise your visibility. This is an important competency as a business owner, and frankly your business growth is dependent on talking to people and forming connections. Lastly, prepare. Think about the questions you may have and what you hope to achieve.
Define your goals early

To recent graduates or, those about one to two years into their career, I would urge you to figure out what you want or are interested in now. Define your North Star and go for it. So many of your peers won’t be on that track until five to seven years later, so the earlier you start, the further ahead you will be.

I would also say that realizing your full potential or starting a business venture means overcoming fear of failure. If you are thinking, no, this isn’t the right time to start a business or make that career move, leverage your network for advice and wisdom that will help guide you in making that important decision. With any new business, there will be moments of questioning, risk and even failure.

You will need to determine if and how you will handle that. Are you really, truly ready? Being an entrepreneur is a very challenging yet empowering experience because you alone are responsible for the success and/or failure of your business.

Build your network

There is no time like the present to get going on building your network. We all get caught up in our busy lives and activities. But the more you meet people in person and add to your network, the more your career will grow. A few simple questions to ask yourself to gain some clarity about what you want in your career:

    What opportunities excite me the most?
    What am I good at?
    What (skills) do I need want to get really good at?
    How do I envision the end of my career and how do I plan to achieve that?

Then you can use your answers from those questions to purposefully network. As you look for people that can help, ask yourself:

    Who do I need to talk to?
    What do I need from that person?
    How can I provide value to that person?

Charlotte is an incredibly friendly city, and many people will take a call or an invitation for coffee, especially if you have a mutual connection. But you want to network with a purpose.

With the last question, it’s important to do your homework before you reach out. Do some online research and find out that person’s interests, whatever they might be. Do you have any common interests and connection points? Have a good idea of what you can help them with. Then set up a time to talk with that person.

Be bold. Be focused. Be gracious.

Bryan Delaney is the executive vice president of sales and co-founder for Skookum, a digital transformation company that develops software solutions for the web, mobile, and the Internet of Things.  He received his bachelor’s degree from the Belk College of Business in 2003, majoring in Management Information Systems. He co-founded Skookum in 2005 with his college roommate from UNC Charlotte, James Hartsell. Both were recognized with Belk College of Business Distinguished Young Alumni Awards in 2016. Bryan was one of the first panelists of #NextGenCLT in summer 2016 and has received the Charlotte Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Award. He is currently a board member of the Entrepreneurs Organization and the UNC Charlotte Foundation Board.

The Belk College of Business at UNC Charlotte is the academic partner of #NextGenCLT