How can building your network pay off in your career? In this episode of Career Relaunch, Aaron Fung, a former change management consultant turned Talent Brand Strategist for LinkedIn shares his thoughts on how your professional network can be an incredible resource for you in your career and why your job should be an extension of your authentic self. I also share some thoughts on how my professional network has unlocked some great opportunities for me in my own career.
Key Career Insights
- You can get feedback from people who are close to you, people in your peer group, and someone further along in their career who can provide more experienced perspectives on your situation. Tap into your strengths, but be aware of your vulnerabilities.
- Even weak connections can be incredibly fruitful and open up new opportunities. Take the time to expand your network because you never know who can open up the next door for you.
- To expand and maintain your professional network, you have to invest the time to keep your contacts “warm,” so try to build in some sort of a ritual to make reconnecting a habit.
Tweetables to Share
- Aaron mentioned the Hogan Assessment as a way of identifying your strengths & weaknesses.
- Aaron also mentioned that you can boost your LinkedIn profile by publishing posts. Here’s an overview on how you can do that. He also mentioned that you can let recruiters know you’re open to hearing about new opportunities and letting recruiters know about your career interests.
- If you would like to receive LinkedIn’s email notifications with updates from your network, you can control those settings in your LinkedIn email preferences.
- One way to build your network is through informational interviewing. Read more about how you can secure and run informational interviews.
During this episode’s Mental Fuel segment, I talked about the importance of creating a regular habit of keeping your network warm. Commit to one ritual you can easily manage that forces you to stay in regular contact with your network contacts so they don’t go cold! If you have a good tactic, I’d love to hear about it below in the comments.
Also, I always love connecting with listeners, so I’d welcome you following or connecting with me on LinkedIn.
About Aaron Fung, Talent Brand Strategist at LinkedIn
Aaron Fung spent thirteen years trying to figure out what he wanted to do. That journey took him from financial services to non-profit to consulting jobs and an MBA in Human and Organizational Performance from Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of management. He finally discovered his dream job at LinkedIn this year, where he helps companies develop and enhance their talent brand to recruit the best candidates in the world. In his spare time, he runs a blog called “Go See the World” which is dedicated to travel. If you want to connect with Aaron, be sure to check out his profile on LinkedIn.
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Episode Interview Transcript
Teaser (first ~15s): Don’t just stick with the people who you know the best. Expand your network because that’s where you’re going to bear the most fruit in learning about the mystery, figuring out if you’re a good fit, having someone not hesitate to tell you the unvarnished truth, because technically, they don’t know you that well.
Joseph: When we recently reconnected, Aaron, you mentioned to me that you went on a 13-year journey to figure out what you wanted to do. I want to touch on some of the major pivot points that you went through along the way, but can you just start by telling me what you’re focused on right now in your career and your life?
Aaron: About five months or so ago, I started working at LinkedIn. My job is I get to help companies figure out how to best tell their professional story. A lot of times, I just meet with heads of HR or heads of talent acquisition, and I try to figure out what kind of stories they are looking to tell about what it’s like to work in these companies. I really love my job because I get to talk to a lot of different people and a lot of different companies, and the stories are always incredibly different and occasionally very compelling.
Joseph: I want to come back to the work that you’re doing at LinkedIn toward the end, but I want to also go back in time a little bit here because I know you’ve got a very interesting career trajectory. Can you just take me back to the moment before you started your role there at LinkedIn? What was going on for you and what was happening for you at that time in your career?
Aaron: The four years prior to coming to LinkedIn, I’d spent in consulting roles. I got to see a lot of different types of projects and jobs. I was primarily focused in the organization transformation space. Each project kind of got me closer to what I inherently knew I enjoyed doing. There was something about change management that was interesting but I don’t think was ultimately my passion.
I happen to have a few very strong mentors and advisers in my life, several of whom had counseled me to consider looking at recruiting. I’d worked on a project for a very large technology company, working with their global talent acquisition team, and within the first two months of being there, I said, ‘This is the place I need to be, this kind of work.’
Finding exactly where that was and exactly what I was doing took me about another year after that, but I kind of knew that the subject of working with people, recruiting the best people into a company and helping people to do that more effectively was something I love to do.
Joseph: Was there a particular reason why you decided to not just stay at that consulting firm and continue doing that sort of work?
Aaron: In my line of work doing sort of talent projects, you don’t know when the project’s going to end and where the next one’s going to be because a lot of my friends in various companies had imparted some wisdom to me, which is that talent projects tend to be very few and far between. A lot of the time, people bring it in-house. They’ll have an internal talent strategy team to do this work. I do want to be doing this thing full-time and not have it be sort of coming and going, and I was very lucky to stumble upon the role of it now.
Joseph: What ultimately made you decide to make the shift from working in consulting into your current role as a talent brand strategist at LinkedIn?
Aaron: Over the years as I’ve talked to people in various company, I knew pretty quickly whether it was going to be a good fit for me or not. I have never had one reason to doubt that LinkedIn was going to be a good fit because at its core, it’s about getting people connected to jobs, to economic opportunity. The people I’ve met kind of backed that up. As I learned more about what the team was doing, I said, ‘This is what I want to be doing.’ It was almost as if it was effortless. I didn’t really need to explain why. It just seemed like it was a good fit, and everything clicked.
The analogy I draw is when you meet someone for the first time, and you know you’re going to be friends, or you know that this person is destined to be your spouse or partner. It’s almost inexplicable, but it was just an immediate match.
Joseph: As I’m hearing you talk about this, Aaron, one of the things that’s running through my head is this seems like such a great match for your interest and what you’re looking to do, and yet, I know when we spoke before, it took you a little time to get here to this point. Can you go back in time a little further than and maybe explain to me what you were doing before this point? I’m thinking of even going all the way back to your time in the financial services before business school.
Aaron: I graduated from college in 2004. I majored in business. Because I’d taken a few classes in finance, I thought I was destined to be an investment manager or a financial analyst, and I spent the first four and a half years of my career working in wealth management sales because I happened to enjoy the job, I enjoyed what I was studying, I enjoyed the research that I was doing, but it was kind of a misguided effort. It was kind of like the first person you’ve become friends with, you think that’s who all your future friends have to be.
It was my second or third year out of school. I had a chance to do some work in the training and development space. I loved it, and I knew I loved working with people as well as teaching them something I knew about, which in this case was wealth management analytics. It started me down this path of thinking like, are there other applications beyond just being a salesman or managing assets?
I went to work for a nonprofit that did leadership development programs for Asian professionals in Corporate America, and it was completely different than any of my work in financial services because it was a nonprofit. This was just the start of 2009. The financial crisis was kind of coming to ahead, and I started thinking a lot about what are the activities that I really enjoyed doing or that I do well or ideally where the two of those cross.
I decided to go back to business school because I knew I had this interest in organizational behavioral. I knew HR could be one application, but I didn’t know exactly how. That’s what led me to study human and organizational performance at Vanderbilt. The funny thing is, despite all my goals of not going back to a job in finance, I took an internship, and I took a full-time job in financial services again, for which my friends gave me a lot of help.
Joseph: Let’s just pause right there, because I think that was really interesting when I was reading back over your career history. It’s like you go to business school, and I work with a lot of business schools. I know a lot of times, people go to business school because they want to make a career change, and yet in your case, it sounds like you fell back into the thing that you were trying to leave behind. Can you just explain what your mentality was and why you think that happened?
Aaron: I think on paper, my background was a really good fit for financial services, and I happen to meet a managing director at Credit Suisse, who wound up becoming a good mentor of mine and really coached me and coasted me towards that role.
I didn’t have, I think, the courage to say no to an internship that I knew fairly well or was familiar with, and so instead of holding out for something that would’ve pushed me or forced me to a different path, I decided to go down the path of least resistance. I had a great experience, I did really well in the internship enough to get a full-time offer, which I then took, but as I explain to people now, I basically followed the money.
In the long term, it was not the right decision because I got to the job, was there for about maybe six months or so and then suddenly realized that I had taken the job that I didn’t necessarily need to go back to school to go into. I basically had not taken advantage of the fact that I’d been to this fantastic school and could’ve gone down all these different other paths that I was considering, like I had an internship interview at a casino. I could’ve gone to work for General Electric or in a marketing role for a technology company or something else outside of my wheelhouse. I basically ignored all of those to follow something that was, for lack of a better word, comfortable.
That was probably the biggest humbling, learning moment of my life – that six months after I graduated.
Joseph: I know you eventually moved on from that banking role. What allowed you to ultimately get over the idea that, ‘There’s good money in this industry. It fits very neatly into the career trajectory I had’? How did you ultimately end up being able to walk away from that?
Aaron: I think it was two things. I think it was this nagging feeling that I was just not a good fit for the financial services world, at least for selling wealth management products. It just never felt like a place where I was either immediately successful or just that I was a natural fit. I think that, coupled with the conversations I was having with some of my classmates, peers who worked in the organizational effectiveness or transformational world, kind of led me to think that that was the path I should’ve gone down in the first place.
At the end of the day, it was really just the sponsorship of one senior mentor of mine who would become a director and Deloitte, and she was my advocate, my sponsor. She was the one who put my resume near the top of the pile to be considered just even for an interview. That’s ultimately how I was able to leave.
Joseph: What do you think was surprising about that transition for you?
Aaron: I think that my relationship with her at the time was good, but I didn’t quite realize the strength of her commitment to me and her willingness to stick her neck out for my candidacy. I think that’s probably the biggest lesson I’ve learned over the last five years: what you perceive to be a weak connection or what could really be a weak connection could actually be the most powerful, in that you’re asking help, and people in amazing roles or places has seemingly been willing to help me in every step of my career. That’s something I’ve been very fortunate to have received.
Joseph: That’s interesting because I think the perception or the presumption is that you’re going to get some promising lead from someone that you know really well, but it sounds like what you’re saying is that even these weaker connections can be incredibly fruitful. I know I make this mistake and sometimes don’t put enough weight into those peripheral relationships.
Aaron: That’s absolutely right. I think that, in fact, if your listeners are trying to think about career change, my advice is don’t just stick with the people who you know the best or who have the strongest relationships with you. Expand your network because I think that’s where you’re going to bear the most fruit in learning about an industry, figuring out if you’re a good fit, having someone not hesitate to tell you the unvarnished truth, because technically, they don’t know you that well, so they’re not afraid to tell you what they’re thinking.
Joseph: In your role, I know that you must probably see a lot of different people who are navigating career change. What do you think is the hardest part about making a career change, having been through a couple yourself?
Aaron: It’s a couple of things. One, loyalty to your existing company or your existing job because you don’t want to do wrong by anyone or you don’t want to leave anyone else in a lurch, which I completely agree with. I think it’s also partly just a fear of what leaving stability looks like.
I was just talking to a friend of mine last week about this, and her greatest concern was not having something stable or not being able to do the thing that she wants to do. I asked her, ‘What’s your alternative?’ Her alternative is sticking with something that you know fundamentally is not going to work for you, whether it’s in the short term or long term.
Her concerns were exactly what I felt for the several years when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, which is you shouldn’t have to explain why it’s a good fit. It should just be a fantastic fit. I mean that on a few levels. I mean the work you do, the people you’re working with, the company you work for, it should all be a very natural extension of your authentic self. If you’re having rationalize or explain why you’re doing something, and it’s causing that sort of unnatural feeling, it’s probably not a good fit for you. That’s something I’ve experienced in numerous ways over the course of my 15, 14 years of work experience.
Joseph: How did you manage to remain persistent during those years when you weren’t in the right place? I guess that was one of the things that really impressed me about your story. You talked about this 13-year journey to figure out what you wanted to do. I know what happens is a lot of times, people will give up, and they’ll just settle. How did you keep that fervor and that interest in trying to find something that wasn’t just good enough but was really great for you?
Aaron: I think this is one of those times where being a little stubborn or persistent can certainly work to your advantage instead of your detriment. I think that for me, I knew there were these times in my life where everything was flowing. It’s that whole ‘you’re in the zone’ kind of feeling. There were moments throughout my career which I could directly point to.
I had worked with an executive coach on two separate occasions, and they both helped me to think through what these experience had in common. I was teaching people. I was working to introduce people to one another or to knowledge. I was solving problems or I was trying to take something complex and simplify it for a large group of people.
Starting to recognize that, I knew there was something out there that would be a better fit. Maybe not in every dimension, whether it was commute or people I work with or the type of product or service we were selling, but I kind of knew that at some point, I’d find a better fit, not sort of the ideal or dream job concept. It was just sort of this blind faith that there was going to be a better opportunity that kept me in the game, and I tried to take it in pieces.
As I worked in consulting, and I knew I wanted to be more in the HR talent acquisition world, I would go to events. I would meet people. I would pick brains and invite people out for coffee and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to learn more about how you do university recruiting,’ or, ‘how you do executive search,’ or, ‘how this applicant tracking system is implemented.’ Each interaction that I set up would get me closer to understanding, ‘Oh, I like this,’ or, ‘Maybe I don’t want to deal with HR information systems or compensation and benefits.’ Just having those conversations, again, helped me to refine those moments where I felt like I was in the groove or if I needed to back away and just not even touch.
Joseph: It sounds like one of the themes that’s coming up from the day is that your connections worked really well for you, either uncovering opportunities or helping to enlighten you or inform you about something that you didn’t know about. I’ve met you before, and I think you’re a very personable guy, and I would describe you as someone who is definitely a connector.
For people out there who maybe aren’t as comfortable with networking or they haven’t bought into the idea of networking, is there something that you’ve learned through that process of doing quite a bit of connecting with other people that you think would be useful?
Aaron: Actually, my wife is a classic introvert, and I’m a classic extrovert. We talked about this at length about how she can get connected to people. I think you have to work with what you’re strongest at. If you’re not comfortable going to group networking events, but let’s say you have a friend who loves to connect people, maybe ask that person one-on-on and say, ‘Hey, would you mind coming with me to this event? Would you mind introducing me?’ or keep it very much targeted and say, ‘Hey, would you mind introducing me to this one person so I can have a one-on-one conversation?’
What I’ve learned is that if you ask someone for help, more often than not, they will say yes. If you just ask them for their story or something that’s uniquely theirs, I think people are very willing to share that with people because they’ve all been in the situation before where they’re trying to make a transition happen or they’re trying to learn about how to get to the next opportunity.
Figure out what you’re comfortable with and work on that, and then figure out, is there a path that someone had else can help you with? Even the right introduction, even again, just telling their story. I would meet with people who worked across all these different parts of the HR world, and every time I meet with someone, I say, ‘Can you just tell me how you got here?’ Keep some of the questions consistent. Learn about what the differences and similarities are, and it kind of helps you build your own narrative for you to follow.
It’s hard to ask for help, but if you’re willing to sort of put your ego on hold for a conversation, I think it will bear a tremendous relationship and create a really good opportunity for you.
Joseph: The other thing that I’m curious about is, having been through this career change, what’s one thing that you’ve learned along the way?
Aaron: The most important thing for a career change is you have to be particularly self-aware about who you are, what you do well, and realistically where you can spend your time. I’ve had a lot of coaches or guidance counselors or people in the past say you can’t always take a weakness and turn it into a strength, and I really believe that. I think that you have to focus, again, on the things that make you you, and you can’t really break certain things that you’ve learned over the course of your life.
For me, that was just, I’m going to keep being a connector. I’m going to keep leaning on some of my strengths, but at the same time, I try to figure out, what are my vulnerabilities? What are the things that I’m not aware of that are blind spots? I got that through my executive coaching.
When I first started the business school, we did something called the Hogan assessments, which is a very comprehensive analysis of some of your strengths and values and blind spots and risks. I also did a 360 assessment feedback survey, and these all kind of fed into this perspective of how I was being perceived by friends or customers or bosses. There were a lot of those moments where I got a real kick in the head with someone saying, ‘Hey, I think you’re actually pretty weak at something.’
One example, it was how I thought I was being perceived as a contributor on the team. I thought I was pretty strong, and the feedback was, ‘You’re actually weak/middle of the pack.’ Feedback I think can be the best thing in the world if you’re willing to take it, because if you’re willing to take it, you can figure out, ‘How do I improve? How do I change if I need to?’ Being receptive to feedback I think is the only thing that’s allowed me to make the transitions that I’ve made over the last five years.
Joseph: How have you gone about finding people to give you that kind of feedback? Because I definitely agree. I think getting some candid feedback can be really, really educational. One of the questions I get asked a lot is, how can you find a mentor or how do you find the right person to give you this kind of feedback on who you are and what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at?
Aaron: I look at three kind of distinct sources of feedback. One is the people who are closest to you who can be honest and direct with you, and you’ll take their feedback because you trust them and you have an established relationship.
The second group would be people not necessarily in your friends circle but who would be doing the job that you’re looking to do. For me, that was some of my peers who went to business school who are in the jobs at Deloitte Consulting where I was looking to apply. I would ask the very candid feedback with, ‘If you look at my resume and my experience, do you think I’d be a good fit?’
The last group would be a more senior leadership kind of perspective. In this case, it was that director of Deloitte who could see what career progression had been like for her and for others and knew a little bit my background to say, ‘Yeah, I think you would be a good fit because of X, Y, and Z.
All of those different sources of feedback allowed me to figure out what things I needed to improve upon and how I go about doing it. Again, because each of these three sources are so different, you’re going to get very different responses.
Joseph: That is a great segue way into the last thing I want to talk about before we wrap up, which I can’t let you get away without talking a little bit about LinkedIn and the power of LinkedIn and how LinkedIn can serve as a tool that allows you to reach out to some of these people you’re talking about in your professional network, whether it’s peers or people who are more senior. I was just wondering if you might be willing to share one or two tips on maybe some less obvious ways that people can leverage the power of LinkedIn.
Aaron: I work a lot with companies on their talent brand, which leads me to think a lot about how individuals should present their own talent brand. They’re the basics. There’s your photo. There’s your summary. There’s your education and experience and your skills, which I think is pretty important, but it doesn’t always set you apart from everyone else.
I think there’s a couple of things that can make LinkedIn a really helpful tool for anyone just trying to make a career switch. The first of which is posts. For example, if you look back at my posting history, I started posting articles about some of the dynamics between applicants and hiring managers and other topics that I was really passionate about. To be honest, it didn’t get a lot of traction or a lot of engagement, but I was trying to put out there that I was deeply passionate about these topics, and people can see that my interest goes back several years.
On top of that, as you’re trying to figure out who you’re connecting with and why you connect with them, I tell people, don’t go straight after the hiring manager. I think if you begin to build your network with people within an organization, it can be different functions, it can be on the team you’re looking at. It allows you to create this portrait of what it’s like to work in a company.
I think that that’s the best thing that LinkedIn can be used for – just to help you build that perspective. Use network. See who you know there. Ask them for advice. Ask them for half an hour to do coffee. Never ask them for a job because that’s really not fair to put the kind of onus or responsibility onto someone you barely know or even your friends. If you just build up your knowledge of a company’s culture, I think that will help set you apart when you’re finally ready to pull the trigger on making a career shift.
Joseph: Is there a particular function in LinkedIn that you think you just consistently see people overlooking, or maybe it’s like an untapped resource within the platform of LinkedIn?
Aaron: One of the features that came out last year or really this year was open candidates. You can essentially indicate to recruiters that you’re open to a conversation. For some people, that could be preach on the choir because they’ve already done it. They’ve already started that search process. For those who haven’t, I think it’s a great way to just say, ‘Hey, I’m open to a conversation.’ If you’ve done that, if you’ve started making your outreach to people who are outside your direct network of connections, then I think it’s only a matter of time before you find the right contact, find the right company, and then ultimately get that career switch that you’ve been anchoring for.
Joseph: That’s a helpful tip because I can tell you, I wasn’t aware of that function until recently myself. We’ll try to include a link to the instructions on how you let recruiters know that you’re open to opportunities in the show notes.
I’d love to wrap up, Aaron, by talking about something that goes beyond the boundaries of work that I know you’re really passionate about, which is travel. I know this is a really important part of your passions. I was wondering if you could just tell me a little bit more about your blog, Go to See the World, and what inspired you to invest time in creating this blog.
Aaron: I’m the son and grandson of travel agents. My grandmother founded her travel agency in San Francisco’s China Town over 50 years ago. My mother took it on. The hardest thing for me was I get to travel the world by virtue of work or because of play, and my mom, the travel agent, couldn’t travel because she was a paraplegic. It’s kind of one of life’s cruel little twists that the travel agent couldn’t travel herself.
I started this blog about two and a half years ago so that she could come on my journeys with me and experience all the different countries that I was trying to visit. Unfortunately, I lost my mom last year to cancer, and so the project’s just kind of taken on a very special meaning to me because I know that if she had been able to travel, that she and I would’ve gone to a lot of these places together.
I just turned 35 a few months ago, and I met 36 countries. I’ve set a goal of myself of getting to 100 countries by the time I’m 45. Apparently, I got my work cut out for me, but it’s something that I just love to travel, I live to travel, and in fact, I’m even doing this interview from a hotel in Dallas. That’s probably a sign of how much I love to travel.
Joseph: That’s great. What are the sort of things you like writing about in the blog?
Aaron: Whenever I go places, I love three things. I love food.
Joseph: Me too.
Aaron: I love meeting new people, and I love seeing the sites and being able to tell people about what to do next. This is probably a sign that I’m in a travel family, but every time friends are going to a different country or a different city, there’s usually a ping saying, ‘Hey, what should I do there?’ I always keep a running list of where do you eat, where do you grab a cocktail, where should you stay, what kind of museum should you see. It comes very naturally to me. If I didn’t have to work, I would absolutely be traveling just all the time.
Joseph: That’s very cool. I also think it’s just a really wonderful way to honor the memory of your mother. I think it’s great that you’re doing that. If people want to check out your blog or if they want to learn more about you or get in touch with you, where can they go?
Aaron: If they want to go to the travel blog, it’s www.AaronFung.me. You can always find me on LinkedIn. If people have questions about travel or career changes, I’m happy to help wherever I can.
Joseph: Thanks so much, Aaron, for talking with me today. I know it’s been a few years since we’ve seen each other in person, so it’s been really cool to reconnect. I just really found it useful to hear about your thoughts on the power of candid feedback and why nurturing relationships, even the weaker ones is so important, a few tips on LinkedIn. It’s also very interesting to hear about your travel blog. You’ll definitely have to let me know when you come out to London, and we’ll try to meet up and find me a couple of places to eat.
Aaron: That sounds perfect, Joseph.