Networking – The Pilot Superpower
When I got sent to Hurlburt Field, FL, in late 2007, I bought a house. Then the housing bubble popped and our house was worth far less than we owed on it. That house spent many years as a rental property after we moved away because we couldn’t afford to sell it. A couple years ago, I was busy working as an airline pilot and Reservist for the Air Force Academy when a hurricane popped up in the Gulf of Mexico and threatened to slam into the city of Navarre, FL.
Our renter couldn’t figure out how to put the plywood shutters over the windows and our useless property management company refused to do it…even for a fee. I would have run up there myself, but was dealing with our own hurricane prep and working.
At a loss, I put out a request to some of my old U-28 buddies to ask if anyone was still in the area. People came out of the woodwork with offers to help, and my house’s windows were boarded up within hours. Nobody asked for any compensation whatsoever (though they’ll drink for free if we ever run into each other!)
One of the people who’d responded was actually an old UPT student of mine, whom we lovingly called The Warlord. He was at Cannon AFB, NM, but had just PCS’d a bunch of friends out to Hurlburt. I’d never met the people he would have sent to my house, but they wouldn’t have hesitated to help me out.
A week later, the hurricane a distant memory, my friend J-Lo happened to be down at Hurlburt flying Georgia Army National Guard UH-60s. He texted to say he was in my old stomping grounds and wished I was there to give him a tour of my old aircraft. I wrote the Warlord, and within an hour, he’d set up a tour for J-Lo and his crew.
Everyone involved benefitted. A bunch of Army dudes got to do something more interesting than sit around the Temporary Living Facility (TLF) while on the road. They and the U-28 pilots both got to show off their aircraft and potentially learn something new from their Joint/Total Force partners. J-Lo finally got enough perspective about my old airplane to understand all my war stories.
I didn’t know the people who boarded up my windows. J-Lo didn’t know the people who gave him that tour. However, these things all happened quickly, easily, and for free thanks to each of us having a network.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to the Warlord since he graduated from UPT. However, he’d been a great student and I’d worked hard to take care of him and his class as Flight Commander. I’d spent lots of time mentoring him and his compadres before their track select and drop night. I’d spent some time talking specifically about the U-28 and other Special Operations options aircraft with him and a couple of his classmates. I did all that because I cared about my students and their success. I never expected one of them to help me out in the future. And that’s part of why networking is so awesome.
I’m not joking when I say that networking is a pilot superpower. For a pilot seeking employment, networking can be a way to verify his or her flying skill and judgement. For a pilot who needs help with something else in life, networking can be a fast and effective way to get trusted expertise that would otherwise be out of reach. We’re going to break down some key points about networking today, in hopes of helping you use it correctly and effectively in your life.
Table of Contents
What is Networking?
At the most basic level, networking is forming and maintaining relationships with other people.
Our modern definition of this idea has also expanded to include the idea that through networking we can get access to opportunities we may not have had otherwise. However, we have to be very careful how we approach that idea or else we run the risk of becoming huge tools.
If you look up “Networking” on Urban Dictionary, you’ll quickly see that these ideals get misused a lot…and that people get (rightfully) angry about it. Let’s be clear: true networking is not about sneaking unqualified people into opportunities at the expense of other, more qualified candidates.
I hope I’ve made it abundantly clear that I take a dim view on the idea of patronage. I’ve seen patronage sold as networking place the wrong people in jobs both in the Air Force and the Airlines, and I hate it. If you try to use networking this way, you will suffer unending disdain from me and your future coworkers. Don’t do it.
We’ll discuss some specific ways to use networking in the next section, but first we need to address another part of this idea.
Although people tend to focus on the “I want a job” side of networking, there’s a lot more to it. If you do networking correctly, it’s not about you at all.
The point of forming a relationship with another person is that you share some kind of common interest or goal. One reason to start and maintain that relationship is to help the other person with his or her own efforts. (Yes, mentoring is a type of networking.)
You might be a subject matter expert, or have experience working with people who are experts in a specific field. When you meet someone who needs that type of expertise, you’ll be able to either provide it yourself or refer this person to your colleagues. It’s likely that you won’t receive any type of direct compensation from your actions, and that’s fine!
True networking is making sure that people trying to do great things in our world can get access to the resources they need. You want to make that happen because you want our world to benefit from their efforts.
Now, let’s be honest. If I’m the one who connects some people who go on to achieve greatness, they’ll probably remember the very small role I played. There may be some point in my future when I need something they can provide. If I’ve maintained a relationship with those people, I can probably ask for help and get an enthusiastic response. Again, they won’t help because they owe me, per se. They’ll help because I did something that allowed them to achieve greatness and they recognize similar potential in me.
The bad kind of networking twists this reality into a meaningless, transactional relationship. “I helped Joe, so now he owes me one. I can’t wait to cash that chip in!” This isn’t at all what we’re talking about. If you keep a ledger of favors you’ve done, and constantly spend time calculating the favors you’ll ask for in exchange, you’re missing the point. If you’re just doing favors in hopes of landing some great deal of a job in the future, you’re not networking…you’re being a predator.
Networking is forming real relationships with others and helping them for the sake of helping them. Yes, access to help in return is implied, but this is not something we count on or expect. As long as you can approach networking with the mindset of helping others, you’ll be doing it right, and it will become a superpower.
Aviation really is a small world. I’m fascinated that as an airline Captain now flying with all-civilian pilots how many people we find we know in common. And yet, as small as our industry may be, it’s still impossible to know everyone.
Let’s say you’re in charge of hiring a pilot for a flight operation. This could be an airline, a corporate flight department, a selective-assessed military community like the U-2, the 89th Airlift Wing, the Thunderbirds or Blue Angels, or the 160th SOAR(A), or a Guard or Reserve unit that gets to pick who it hires like the 153rd Airlift Wing.
You’ll get a bunch of resumes from pilots who seem qualified. You’ll interview a bunch of them, you might even go fly with them, and they’ll all seem okay. They’ll be wearing fancy, well-laundered clothes and they’ll be on their best behavior. Unfortunately, this means you have to base a long-term hiring decision on a piece of paper and a few hours spent in an extremely artificial social environment. Yuck.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you’d worked with all of the applicants before? You would know about their actual flying skills, and you’d have seen them exercise judgement (for better or for worse) in real-world flying situations. You’d have spent time on the road with them and know whether they’re the kind of people who get cranky when they’re hungry, spend 10 minutes scrolling through their social media feeds for every minute they spend talking to you, or are the ones who always make more work for other people because they prioritize their Personal F—– Agenda (PFA) over the organization and the mission.
Unfortunately, you probably won’t know everyone applying for this job, but Networking can get you the next best thing. If you know someone, a 3rd party not involved in your hiring process, who has worked with one of these applicants in the past, you can get that same level of information about him or her. Your interpretation of that information will be based on your personal knowledge of that 3rd party individual, but it’s still better than nothing, right?
We try to use letters of recommendation to accomplish this for flying jobs, but most of us aren’t good enough at networking early in our careers to make these effective. We might get glowing praise from a former boss, but unless that former boss knows our (hopefully) future boss, that information can’t be verified.
However, sometimes we applicants can meet someone who knows someone in the hiring process for that new job. We can spend time together, ideally we can fly together, and this creates a path for the hiring manager to get a better idea about an applicant than he or she otherwise would. A letter of recommendation, or even a personal recommendation, carries a lot more weight in that situation.
Many hiring managers use this kind of networking incorrectly. They say, “Steve recommended this applicant. I trust Steve, so I’m going to hire the applicant without further consideration of his qualifications or looking seriously at any of my other candidates.” That’s the wrong answer and those hiring managers should be fired.
However, it is good and meaningful for the hiring manager to be able to note on an applicant’s resume that, “Steve recommended this applicant. Steve is a good pilot with solid judgement, so this applicant definitely makes it onto our short list.” Then, as long as that applicant checks out at least as well as anyone else at the interview, the hiring manager can offer him the job with increased confidence.
Again, though, networking is not all about you getting a job!
I’ve rarely been the smartest person in the room. There are many skills I wish I had, though I realize I have a lot of useful skills that others lack. No matter what you’re trying to accomplish in life, working with others increases your chances of success. I appreciate being able to get help when I need it. I also get excited when I can provide that help to others…when I can be the missing piece in a puzzle for getting something done.
Networking opens your world to opportunities for doing interesting things in life. I was wandering through the aircraft displays at the EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh one year when I came across the Pacific Aero P750. As a PC-12 pilot I immediately saw the potential of the airplane, and enjoyed looking at it.
I could have just continued to the Beechcraft display next door, but decided to talk with the P570 rep for a few minutes. I mentioned that I was a U-28A (aka: Pilatus PC-12) pilot for the Air Force and his ears perked up. He gave me a more thorough tour and mentioned that he had a demo aircraft at nearby Fond du Lac airport (KFLD). He said he wanted to bring it to Oshkosh (KOSH) so he could give demo flights without having to drive people 20 miles down the road, but he wasn’t comfortable dealing with the special arrival procedures.
I mentioned that I’d flown my C-170A in a few days earlier and I’d be happy to help if he wanted. Long story short: a few hours later I landed a P750 on Runway 27 at KOSH. The tower controller had assigned us a dot to land on further down the runway, but ended up offering us the threshold. I put it right on the piano keys and had it stopped so quickly that we had to add power to get to the first taxiway to exit. The controller was very impressed.
I had a great time flying that airplane…it’s a unique experience that I will always remember. I didn’t get paid for it, and I haven’t ever sought a favor from that rep. However, I took a few minutes to talk with him and that made a big difference. That wasn’t all though…I’m sure he had conversations with hundreds of visitors before me. I’d taken the time to get to know him and his goals. I also happened to have the exact expertise he lacked at the time. I liked his airplane, I wanted his company to be successful, and was happy to help bring his demo aircraft in and help him learn the local procedures in hopes of making his goals happen.
Yes, I benefitted by getting to do that flight, but that pales in comparison to what he got out of this interaction. And that’s what made it awesome networking.
How to Start
Based on my last example, you think that my first point under “how to start” will be simply talking to people. That’s next, but #1 is actually:
Don’t be a Jerk!
It doesn’t matter whom you’re dealing with, you need to be nice. You never know what role that person will play later in your life. You never know who their relatives or friends are. If networking relies on the principle of aviation being a small world, you can’t afford anyone in that small world having reason to think that you’re a jerk.
I try to get along with everyone I know, but I’m ashamed to admit that I have had a few regretful interactions in my life. They’re almost all my fault and I should have just been more patient or understanding. I can see concrete ways that these interactions have limited my options for the future.
Don’t ever pass up the opportunity to take a breath and be nice to someone. Or, if you don’t think that’s an option, then just shut the hell up! Don’t burn a bridge because you never know when your path will loop back to that same point.
That said, let’s get back to #2:
Talk to People
Yes, the next most important part of networking is actually talking with people.
I’ll admit, I’m not great at this. I’m naturally shy and would usually rather just sit awkwardly by myself, or with someone who already knows me. It’s also become vogue to carry incredibly powerful computer terminals around in our pockets. These provide us an endless stream of entertainment, distraction, information, and communication. It’s tempting to just bury our noses in these things and never come up for air.
But since you’re reading this, you know that networking is more valuable than scrolling through more punny language memes, right?
When you’re in a novel situation, go introduce yourself to people.
I’m not a fan of the Air Force’s Professional Military Education (PME) programs. However, they provide fantastic networking opportunities! I had a great time attending Squadron Officer School because I was with a great group of people. We snuck out for breakfast at Waffle House, we saw Cake in concert, and I took a few of them flying in my C-170. We also happened to cover some PME material and discuss the Air Force in general.
Since then, I’ve had opportunities to reconnect with these people over the years. I’ve asked for and given advice, I’d helped people find Guard or Reserve units to apply at, and I’ve helped people from my old flying communities meet people with expertise they needed to get a mission done. All of this happened because I took the time to talk with these people and form meaningful relationships.
As part of this, you need to have two versions of your personal elevator pitch ready. The first one is less than 10 seconds long, and the second one can be as long as 60-90 seconds. However, this interaction is not about you!
Your goal in introducing yourself to someone is to find out who they are, and what they’re working toward in life. As you have that conversation, your next goal is to figure out if you share an interest in this person’s goals, if you have any expertise that can help that individual achieve those goals, or if anyone you know fits that description.
Notice that at no point in there did I say your goal was to figure out what you could get from this person…because it isn’t! Networking is about forming relationships and helping others. If you do that, any resulting benefits will take care of themselves.
Have Something to Contribute
If you want to form a relationship with someone based in part on mutual goals, you ought to have some ability to contribute to that overall effort. When people start raising criticisms of improperly used Networking, this is usually at play. Networking is not about getting a job for which you’re unqualified just because you know someone. It’s not about you sneaking a ride on someone’s coattails.
If you’re young or new in an industry, networking should not be the first thing you start doing. Your first steps should be to learn and gain experience. Most communities, like aviators, have a minimum acceptable level of competence before you really start belonging. This could be having your Commercial Pilot certificate, your military aviator wings, or an ATP in airline circles.
Is it okay to start networking with future airline industry people when you’re just a brand new copilot or wingman? Yes, but it should only occupy a tiny portion of your attention or energy.
In this position you are John Snow, so you have nothing to contribute. For now, your time is far better spent flying and studying. (I worded this another way in my letter to Baby Pilots.) Once you’ve reached Combat Mission Ready (CMR) status, and you’re at least competent enough to not make a fool of yourself when you go fly, it’s okay to start using some of these networking strategies.
In many communities, however, it’ll take years to measure up to the levels of experience that others have. You may be a CMR fighter pilot, but that’s meaningless compared to the Flight Leads and IPs with a decade or more of experience and more combat hours than you have total time. Before you start trying to network with these people, you need to go out of your way to be great at your job so that you can at least contribute to the mission when you go fly.
Once you’ve achieved that level of competence, it may be worthwhile to develop skills, knowledge, or experience that aren’t commonly held in that group.
I’m not the most experienced pilot in the world, and I’m not a master of personal finance. However, I’ve spent a lot more time studying personal finance than the average pilot…enough that I wrote a whole book on the subject. I’ve been able to use my unique skills within my community of pilots to help a lot of individuals improve their family’s financial situation. I have yet to charge someone for my financial advice. Sure, I make a couple bucks if someone buys my book, but I’ve spent so much time doing individual coaching that I could make more flipping burgers.
I’m also active in military and civilian flight instructing and writing online. When a group of entrepreneur-pilots recently decided to start a new company called Pilot Pipeline, they needed someone who could write well about flight training. They happened to be in contact with BogiDope’s founder, John McFarlin. They mentioned to him what they were looking for and commented that they wished they could get the guy who wrote Pilot Math Treasure Bath. John smiled and said, “I know that guy. He writes for BogiDope.” The rest of this story worked out about like you’d imagine.
This was networking at its best. I’d worked hard to write great content both in my book and on BogiDope. I’d developed skills and knowledge that aren’t as common among pilots as they could be. When the folks from Pilot Pipeline started talking to John, it was the power of his network that allowed him to put us together. He got nothing direct from that introduction other than the gratification of knowing that Pilot Pipeline would hopefully become a good product with my help. (Though, if anyone from Pilot Pipeline has questions about getting hired by a Guard or Reserve unit, you know exactly where they’re going to turn!)
If all you’ve ever done is drive the bus, you’re a great fit for a lot of things. However, you probably have other hobbies and skills. Take the time to develop those, and consider getting really good at some of them. I promise you will find opportunities to use them to take part in impressive, desirable opportunities.
Once you have something of value to contribute to people in your network, the next step is to actually demonstrate it. Whether you just met someone new, or you’re catching up with an old friend, look for opportunities to use your skills to advance whatever it is they’re working on.
Yes, there may be significant value in you taking part in that project; however, your primary focus should be on providing value to that project and those people.
This doesn’t mean sacrificing your own wellbeing or your career. However, if you focus on your long-term goals, you’ll see that putting forth a little extra effort now can be worth a lot.
Not many people know that the USAF Academy has two competition soaring teams. One competes in aerobatics, and the other competes in glider racing. As a glider instructor, I really wanted to be on the racing team. I applied and got chosen as the alternate, while three of my good flying buddies made the team. I was disappointed, but I didn’t give up.
That summer, the USAF Academy hosted the 1-26 Nationals, a competition for the type of cross country racing glider we flew at the time. The seniors on the team were all slated to compete and the juniors (my class) were slated to spend the week as ground crew/race officials. As the alternative, I wasn’t expected to take any part in the event. I wasn’t officially on the team.
However, I happened to have the week off and I figured it’d be fun to hang out with my friends and be around a glider race anyway. On Monday, I showed up outside the 94th Flying Training Squadron and walked up to the group as they were loading vehicles for the drive to Bullseye. My buddies knew I might show up, but the coach was surprised to see me. I asked if I could tag along and he figured the extra slave labor wouldn’t hurt.
I had a great week with my friends at the competition. I learned a lot, and got to meet some impressive pilots. I already had relationships with many people on the team, and that week let me show the coach that I was a hard worker. The next time the coaches held interviews for these teams, mine basically consisted of, “Yo Depew, you still want to be on the team?”
Yes, I gave up a week of leave to spend hours working in the scorching summer sun. It was totally worth it though. Sometimes it just takes a little hard work to show the value that you can provide to someone else.
Remember that the whole point of this networking thing is to form lasting relationships. This requires some care and attention on your part.
Step one is to make sure you remember who it is you just met and what you have in common. It may be worth keeping a personal journal or notebook of these contacts. Now that our phone contacts are stored with Apple or Google, and not on our phones themselves, you can potentially use those contact books to make note of the people you’ve met.
Then, look for opportunities to meaningfully maintain your relationship. Did your contact just achieve a big goal? Send a quick note of congratulations. Did you just learn something that might be really critical to his or her efforts, maybe send that along. If you’re going to be at the same event or you’re stopping through his or her area, float the possibility of meeting up. Ideally, part of the reason you formed this relationship is that you enjoyed each other’s company. Meeting up is hopefully something you’d want to do anyway.
As time goes on and your network expands, it will be tough to give individual attention to everyone in it. That’s okay, and everyone understands it. Look for opportunities to reconnect when you can, but don’t spend your whole life just stoking the coals of these relationships. Instead, focus on pursuing your goals and increasing your skills. You’ll be able to see opportunities to benefit people in your network when they arise.
This also means you may end up going for a long time without talking to some people in your network. In general, this is fine. We all know that life is busy and your contact probably doesn’t have any more spare time than you do. I’ve been doing my best to contribute to the USAF’s pilot shortage by reviewing airline applications and writing letters of recommendation for as many of my friends as possible. Some of them are people I haven’t seen in a very long time, but I’m still happy to help.
Network connections will naturally weaken over time, so the best ones start out very strong. If another pilot and I served in a squadron and flew combat missions together, I’ll go out of my way to help even if we haven’t been in contact for a long time. If I were to hear from a random acquaintance I spent a few minutes visiting with at a conference a decade ago, I might not be as enthusiastic to put forth a lot of effort to help.
This isn’t a bad thing about networking, it’s just how it works. Bear it in mind when you go out to ask for help from your network. In the meantime, if you can do something to strengthen an old bond, don’t pass up the chance!
How Not to Network
Most of this should be obvious at this point, but we’re going to cover some specifics so that you have no excuse.
Don’t Be Selfish
Networking is not a savings account for favors that you plan to cash in later. People can see this mindset a mile away and you don’t want to be known for it.
Networking should always be an effort to provide mutual benefit, or skew benefit slightly away from yourself. People can also tell when your actions are mostly or completely about your benefit. You might get to finish the project you’re on, but don’t expect to get invited to participate in the next big thing. Worse, years from now you might find yourself really wanting a job or other opportunity. If you’re known for being selfish, or worse, detrimental to others, you’re not going to get what you want.
Social Media is Not Networking
Networking is not having a bunch of “friends” on Facebook, followers on Twitter or Instagram, subscribers on YouTube, or Connections on LinkedIn. There is value to having big numbers in those categories, but they are tools for a completely different purpose.
Social media has given rise to the idea of becoming an influencer. This person’s followers are potential customers for a good or service. Companies communicate to customers through an influencer, and the influencer earns advertising revenue in return. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, but it is not networking!
A great example of this is one of my personal heroes, Mr. Money Mustache. What started as a simple blog turned into the de facto flagship of the Financial Independence/Retire Early (FIRE) community. MMM gained thousands of readers and social media followers. He’s made hundreds of thousands of dollars from his writing.
However, he realized that despite all his “fame,” it was extremely difficult to form meaningful individual relationships with those followers. He fixed the problem by purchasing and refurbishing a run-down building in his town and turning it into MMM Worldwide Headquarters. While it’s primarily a coworking space, he’s used MMM HQ for everything from concerts, to hosting classes, to learning how to install solar panels.
MMM was one of the most successful Influencers in the world, and yet he wasn’t getting any meaningful networking done. It took real human interaction to form the kinds of relationships he was looking for. This should tell us a lot about the benefits and shortfalls of social media.
Don’t Overdo It
Although it’s important to go out of your way to meet new people and provide value, don’t be obnoxious.
Don’t be the pinger who rushes around a room trying to meet everyone and scribble down your notes about everyone as fast as you can. I’ve known people like this and their mentality is a huge turn-off. As far as I’m concerned, this person’s network is no more useful than an influencer’s social media following. Sure, the numbers are big, but the value of those relationships is small.
If you can’t see a way to provide value to someone else right now, don’t try to force things. I’ve watched individuals desperately trying to find something to offer a potential contact, usually because he or she wants to “collect” that contact more than out of a genuine desire to provide value. At some point, this gets awkward and you end up doing more harm than good.
If you want a relationship with someone in particular, but can’t provide value yet, just be patient. Sometimes, it may be enough to show interest in what they’re doing, convey your support, and wish them luck. Sometimes, it’s better to simply walk away. Take your inability to form a connection as a way to help you determine what skills or knowledge you would need to develop to make that connection significant. Then, go out, attain what’s missing, and try again another time.
Networking can definitely be a superpower as long as you approach it the right way. Make sure you have plenty to bring to new relationships, then go out and pursue them. When you form a connection, take the time to follow up and keep it strong.
Above all, keep a long-term perspective and focus on helping others. You are not doing this to gain fame or followers, and you’re not doing it so you can build up a stack of favors to cash in someday.
If you’re early in your flying career, focus on developing your skills and knowledge for now. Work hard to attain the flight experience that gets you entrance into the club before you start trying to network with the members.
If you’re already a member of the club, it might be worth taking some time to consider the relationships you already have. Think through all of your current and past coworkers, and your friends. What are they up to? (If you don’t know, now is a great time to give them a call and find out!)
Once you’ve identified the things that the people in your network are pursuing, take some time to consider if you can contribute to any of their efforts. If you’re new to the idea of networking as a discrete discipline, try reaching out in some small ways to help others at first. Ask if they need some website maintenance, or help building that shed in their backyard, or a fresh pair of eyes to look over their resume.
The more you do this, the better you’ll get at finding ways to help the people you know. You’ll find bigger and more interesting projects to work on. Eventually, they’ll start thinking of ways they can help you too. Your network will expand and you’ll find it’s increasingly easier to achieve your own goals.
Before you know it, you’ll find that networking has become a powerful force for good in your life…and in the lives of those whom you help. Now, go get to it!
This post’s feature image shows a USMC F-18 unit networking with a JASDF F-15 unit: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/2470701/komatsu-atr.
The 160th’s helos are from: https://www.goarmy.com/careers-and-jobs/special-operations/soar/SOAR-helicopters.html.
The wingman in a debrief is from: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1806976/seymour-johnson-afb-source-f-15-airpower-part-2.
The TG-3A photo is from the 1-26 Association’s report on the 2002 Nationals: http://www.126association.org/?page=02champs.
Our social media user photo is by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash.
U-28A hot FARPing: https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1942218/u-28a-farp-refuel.