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Relationships matter. This is one of the many lessons that I learned from 6 years working at LinkedIn, where they hold this idea as one of their six company values. In retrospect, it was more a case of “re-learning” the lesson: my career journey could be a case study for how much relationships matter and the reason why networking is so important.
In this article I’ll share the story of my 25+ year career journey to date to highlight how professional networks have helped me along the way. I’m hoping that, for those of you who might be earlier on in your working lives, this might give you some ideas about how to navigate to where you want to go.
I started out at BT as the technical support to sales. I had gone to University to study Electronic Systems Engineering, mainly because I didn’t have a good idea of what job I wanted to do and I liked the subject. One of the key things I learned during that 4 years was that I didn’t want to be an Electronic Systems Engineer, and so I jumped at the chance to do something more business-related in a sales role.
BT taught me the principles of sales and I enjoyed myself, but then one of my good friends, Richard, moved from BT to a competitor called WorldCom and got a big pay rise. People at BT would always say that the competitors were awful and that they wouldn’t be good places to work, but Richard told me how much fun he was having (and how much money he was earning) and I wanted in! He got me an interview with his boss and I was offered a job as a Sales Specialist dealing with their advanced products.
After about 18 months I was called by a headhunter about a role in a startup. A few of my friends had left WorldCom already, including Richard, and so I was open to looking at something else. I consulted with my friend Pete, as this new startup was in a field that both he and I were interested in. I made the move, and after a few months persuaded Pete to follow me over to Storm Telecom.
Unfortunately the move was poorly timed – it coincided with the dot com bust, when a load of internet companies suffered, prices fell through the floor and within 18 months of me arriving the business was about to go broke. I knew I needed to move, and quickly, so I called my friend Jennifer, who I had met at WorldCom and who had been promoted to a manager position – she had an open role and so I went back to be an Account Manager working for her.
By this time I had met Gill, and we got engaged in 2002. We decided that we wanted to do some travelling, so we both quit our jobs, got married, and went to Central and South America for 6 months. The idea was that we would “find ourselves” and come back to start a business; however, by the time we got back Gill was pregnant and I needed a job! I went straight to my network, and David (who I had met at WorldCom) had just moved to Cable & Wireless and was building a team.
I didn’t enjoy Cable & Wireless; I could do the work with my eyes closed and the business wasn’t in a good place, so they were making redundancies all the time, which meant that everyone was always on edge.I was eventually delighted to get a redundancy package which gave me a bit of breathing space to decide what to do next. I interviewed with lots more telecoms companies but none of them sounded interesting and I was getting a little downtrodden, until I got an email out of the blue from Simon. I had worked with him a little bit at C&W and we had got on – he had just moved to Microsoft as a manager and asked if I wanted to go and interview there. I jumped at the chance – it felt like exactly the change I wanted, and when I went to their offices for the first time I totally fell in love with the energy and culture.
It’s been a fairly varied journey so far, not particularly planned, and almost entirely driven by the connections I have made along the way.
I spent over 5 years at Microsoft – I was learning again and I loved it. It was still an individual contributor sales role, but it felt very new. I was having to sell in a totally different way and I was progressing to get more and more responsibility. I got to a point where I wanted to go into management, but then I got a call from Simon. He had left Microsoft to go to LinkedIn a year earlier – he was one of the first handful of people to work for them in Europe, and when he made the move I thought he was crazy. But by now their business was already growing fast and it looked like he had been very smart.
He offered me a role as an individual contributor, and I had to think long and hard about it because by this time I really wanted to move into management. In the end, the relationship with Simon clinched it for me and I made what was probably the best decision of my professional life to date. The time at LinkedIn opened up so many more opportunities for me. I progressed into a management role there pretty quickly and found that I was good at it, rapidly getting increased responsibility.
After six years it felt like I needed to make a move. I was itching to work in a startup environment, to help build a company from the ground up. The people at LinkedIn were very supportive of that and helped me think through what I wanted, and eventually I got in touch with Dave, an ex-LinkedIn colleague based in the US, who had gone to an exciting startup called Pymetrics. Dave needed someone to open up the European business for him, and that sounded like exactly the sort of challenge I was looking for.
I learned a lot at Pymetrics, and met some great people, but discovered that working at that early stage, remote from the HQ, was not for me. I went back to my network and was put in touch with Euan, who I had met at an event 6 months earlier and whose vision for building an alternative to university had really struck me.
Which brings me up to date. It’s been a fairly varied journey so far, not particularly planned, and almost entirely driven by the connections I have made along the way. I’ve made some mistakes, and learned a lot about what I do and don’t like, and what I’m good and not good at! Long may the journey (and the mistakes) continue, all the while helping, and being helped by, the friends I have made.
Take a look back through this piece and see how many different names Alex mentions. Now consider the fact that none of these connections were people he knew before he entered the world of work. People believe that relying on personal connections is only possible when you have a pre-existing network, or powerful family friends to rely on; that networking is not an activity open to everyone. But building your professional network starts the moment you walk into your first job. You never know where the colleagues you work with today are going to move onto next, especially given that millennials tend to job hop much more frequently than previous generations. Any one of the people you chat to round the coffee machine might be just the right person to help you into a new role two, five, ten years down the line. Take the time to get to know the people on your team; build relationships, give them a reason to trust and respect you; and they might help you into your dream job later in life.