Talking horse? In job search, placing connections ahead of agenda

With a tip of the hat — and the reins — to New York Times contributor Tara Bennett-Goleman, I  was inspired today by a thoughtful piece on how horses build connections, The Horse Sense That Builds Trust.  The author draws a powerful comparison between “collaboration in a herd…the way horses look out for each other” and the perhaps more human tendency to take an “us-versus-them approach” to interacting in the workplace.

Using a “horse-whispering” term, ‘join up’, Goleman-Bennett describes the profound difference between going in for the quick sale versus taking the time to truly ‘join” with the customer to build a connection that transcends a single transaction.  Her column made me think about a lot of conventional wisdom we offer to job seekers.  “Target your prospects.”  “Use your connections to make a contact.”  “Have your talking points ready.”  And yes, “close the sale (interview).”

None of this is bad advice, of course.  Strategic principles of marketing and tactical selling strategies can translate quite well to the job-search process.  But without meaning to sound too new agey, how often do we lose a greater purpose in the journey?  How many opportunities do we miss to truly “join” with connections rather than viewing them as stepping stones to a narrowly focused agenda?

Just recently I had the privilege of interviewing a human resources executive who modestly described a path of “bumbling” into good fortune in his career. However, as he expanded on how he availed himself of continuing education opportunities, learned from those around him, and always stayed open to how and where he might best contribute his talents, it was clear that he was anything but a bumbler. Rather he made deep and lasting connections, and was not constrained by such a tightly scripted career plan that he might have missed out on a few meaningful sidesteps along the way.

According to Goleman-Bennett, the key to building trust and connectedness is demonstrating that you can “speak horse,” that you operate with kindness and an authentic interest in meeting the needs of others.  In the currency of the employment market, I would define ‘horse speak’ as demonstrating an appropriate degree of self-interest within the broader context of genuinely wanting to help solve a problem. If you were hiring, would you prefer the candidate who purports to be all things to all people — or the one who knows when the fit isn’t quite right (and doesn’t hesitate to recommend others who might fit the bill more closely)?

Networking comes to mind as well. Fluency in ‘horse speak’ suggests listening, then speaking versus talking and waiting. Rather than steering the reins back to a pre-set agenda (for example, the common advice not to leave a networking interview without the names of two additional contacts), it suggests staying in the moment, and appreciating the dialogue with the person right in front of you. While some argue that job search is just a numbers game, horse speak says that if you focus on making every connection deep, you may never have to learn how to count all that high.

In closing, Goleman-Bennett cites a pearl of wisdom by a longtime mentor and expert on horsemanship:  “Don’t put your purpose before your connection.”  These could be words for all of us to live by, whether giving or receiving advice on navigating a job search. Purpose shifts — as it should — with time and perspective.  Horse-worthy connections can last a lifetime.

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