Popularized by "mad men" marketing wonks in days gone by, "must be present to win" is the tag line you've heard a thousand times in contest rules. Face it, no one is going to hand you the keys to the pretty sports car in the window based on you scribbling your name on the equivalent of a cocktail napkin - you have to be there when the drawing is conducted with legitimate identification at the ready. With the evolution of online media, being "present" has taken on new meaning. With the a few screen flicks and a little typing anyone can be present on the glorious worldwide web. Cool! Uh, really though? I mean, you can have the prettiest web page or most well-written article but if no one sees it you are the equivalent of one hand clapping. And who wants to be that?! Not so helpful for your career....yes Virginia, you need to be present to be noticed!
Bill Gates Sr. writes about this in his current book "Showing Up for Life: Thoughts on the Gifts of a Lifetime." A quick read written by a gracious and intelligent man, the concept is beautiful in it's simplicity. Early in my recruiting career when internet technology was in it's nascent stage the tools I had as a recruiter to attract a diverse pool of talent were fewer than today. But I often thought it odd to be asked how my employer could attract, for example, more securities lawyers, when those we had in that role did not network among their colleagues who worked elsewhere. It seemed so basic to me. Looking across the desk my question back would always be "who do you talk to, and where do you go where you meet others like you?" The answer stems from the same basic premise: you must be present. Whether it is your career or your kids or your personal life, if you don't show up then you do not have any kind of presence and will lose out to whoever is there and whatever is going on in your absence. Call it what you will, the result is the equivalent of one hand clapping, everyone else moving forward while you stand still, acceptance in silence. Ouch.
Being present can take several forms. My list starts here:
Listen. Completely, thoroughly, attentively, listen. Multi-tasking while you are on the phone? I bet you are not getting, or giving, that conversation the full attention it deserves. While you tell yourself you are being efficient with your time, you may be easily missing out on important content of the call. Worse yet, whatever else you are doing at the same time isn't getting your full attention either! No need to wonder why laws are cropping up legislating that people just hang up and drive. Focus your attention on hearing every word and observing every expression in a conversation, and engage in it, fully.
Be in diverse communities. Does your organization have people who actively participate in activities where women and people of color are present? Good, because that is far more effective than the tag line on the bottom of your career page that says you welcome people from diverse backgrounds. Mean and do what you tell others is important to you and your company.
Interact in person. Oh I love the internet and email, you can reach so many people and quickly. Remember the days before email and VOIP when we were only on the phone during "normal" business hours and live conversation dominated? Trust me, I am happily an email power user these days, but in my line of business particularly there is still no substitute for the in-person interaction. Corporate cultures are not created telecommuting, and you will miss the total experience if you are not there to interact with others.
Observe and process. Act on the information and knowledge at your disposal. I don't mean to beat up on mobile phone technology, but did you see the online article about the teenager who fell into an open sewer because she was texting while walking down the street? Unpleasant to be sure and dangerous, to say nothing of the liability. Use your senses to observe what is going on in the world around you. Whether it is sidewalk construction in your path or world events, there is so much information available to us that we have no excuse for not paying attention. Scrutinize and absorb what you see and hear. Think about it critically, and act on it. So many people do not do this that you will be ahead of the game by this simple step alone.
Network. Interested in art? Go to art galleries or a guided gallery tour and I bet you will meet like-minded people. Curious about another industry or market segment? Your local business journal probably sponsors free breakfast-hour talks given by local business leaders. Updating your CLE credits at a seminar? Strike up a conversation with the human sitting next to you or make it a point to exchange business cards with one other person in attendance. Voila, you just expanded your professional network. Easy.
Be attentive to yourself. How you present yourself sends a message just as important as the words you use. Use spell check when you write. You don't have to spend a lot of money on clothes or grooming products, but be mindful of what your image says about you. Ask someone if you need help finding things that fit or look good. Think of it as part of being all you can be.
I will leave you with an example. I will never forget a candidate I interviewed once who I was recruiting for a lobbyist position. Being a Washington D.C. insider does not happen overnight, and requires a great deal of finesse and skill to penetrate and become a member of networks not easily joined by outsiders. It can be a bit of what comes first the chicken or the egg kind of proposition. I wanted to know how he did it, so I asked him what methods he used to subtly gather information and meet people. I won't give away all his secrets, but the one that perked my ears was his choice of cash machine. He made it a point to always use the one near the Senate building so he could increase his odds of bumping into a key staffer or member of Congress. The point was to go where he could increase his odds of being seen by people he wanted to see. He isn't a household name, but he is very successful. I can tell you that some years later when we had dinner together in D.C., our dining booth had more traffic than Grand Central Station. It seemed like EVERYBODY knew this guy. Impressive.
Like everything else in life, it is about striking a balance. Stop for minute and consider how much more you can get out of your career and your life by being present in every sense. Now close your email and get back to work!