Student Networking: Career Advice from Mark Wehling

Photo from inside an urban building with two stools and two stacks of books on the window ledge.
What books do you have on your shelf? Read on to find out Mark Wehling's book recommendations.
by Ann Abbott

In last semester's "Business Spanish" class, student teams had to do a networking project that culminated in each team reaching out to one of my former students to ask for career advice. (We did the work over several weeks, but here's a link with most of the information about the project.)

My hope is that students learned about how to network appropriately. But of course the real gift was that all three former students answered the current students and gave them valuable advice. Such valuable advice.

I won't delay any further, just enough to say that I had goose bumps reading Mark's reply (below). He is truthful, inspiring and detailed. I think he should write a book.

Here's his email!

Hola Kristin, Shamir, Haley, Daniel, y Xuefei (quieren copiarl@s?)

Me da mucho placer poder contestar estas preguntas y ayudarles de esta manera! Pero lamento mucho que hasta ahora no les he podido responder. No me puedo disculpar, pero les cuento que este mes pasado fue una locura: me mude de Nueva York a Singapura, y al llegar a Singapura ya estuve viajando por la region con el trabajo. De todas maneras, que me perdonen y que esto aun les sirva bien! (Y perdonen la falta de acentos) 
La verdad es que hay mucho que podria decir sobre sus preguntas (vuestras preguntas! si yo te respondiera en 2002 cuando estudie en Barcelona y me comunique asi - tal vez alguno/a de Uds es asi ;), pero voy a comentar con algunos puntos que veo como importantes.

1. How have you benefitted from working in a variety of sectors, including the energy effiency, legal services, and banking sectors?

It has been a really enlightening experience to work across several sectors, but challenging to be sure. To clarify in rough and very brief summary, I began my career in public health policy (classic DC-based international development). I was in that space roughly 4 years before transitioning to the (clean) energy sector as a result of the my Luce year in China, where public health => pollution => clean energy. I fundamentally care about human health, which is why/how I moved my career further "upstream" to the root of certain health problems:  business. It touches CSR or sustainability in a sense, but really pure business in the energy sector.

The energy sector is broad and interesting, because it deals with everything we eat, do, use: raw material in our phones, computers, lights, vehicles, and more. No matter how much we dislike the global system we're in with corporations strong-arming their way to dictate policy, we are consumers providing the demand to their supply. Everything comes back to economics of supply and demand. And energy projects of any kind are large in scale and require considerable up-front capital (someone has to take that risk and finance it, hoping they get a return on it later when the project is in use by society, thus your alluding to banking, above). The energy sector around the world is undergoing a massive transformation and it is a really fascinating time to be involved in it.

So the benefit I have had is understanding the world and our challenges from a wide variety of angles, both sectorally and geographically. so I have familiarity with Washington DC institutions, developing countries, Latin America, Asia, public health, the energy sector, chemicals sector, and the banking and finance sector. But it is important to understand my challenge: that I am not deep in any one of those sectors or areas as a peer who is a Latin America expert, or a public health expert with an MPH would be. I can't match a peer who has focused 100% in that sector consistently over that same 11 year period since I graduated. I am fine with not having that depth, as I instead bring other skills to my work. But I do have to work harder to learn and "play" at the level of those who have been in that particular sector/field/space much longer and who may have a Masters in that field as well. My philosophy has been to maximize the return on my undergraduate investment without pursuing that next step of a Masters degree, instead building my value with experience. That is simply one perspective based on understanding perspectives of various employers and being in the position of hiring manager. I may likely return to school for that Masters, perhaps in Chinese or Spanish(!) or sociolinguistics at some point.

2. What have you learned while working in cross-cultural settings, such as your job in Peru and time spent in China with China Greentech Initiative?

I think about this in two ways:

One is that I worked in local offices in Rabat, Lima, Beijing, and Singapore and have learned some of the same things you are likely learning in your language and cross-cultural classes, and your Spanish for business classes you'll take with Ann. I've learned to approach any situation with humility, an inquisitive and listening ear, and respect for my counterparts and also for myself. When doing business in another culture, you adjust to their system and their work flow. Eat breakfast or lunch with your colleagues, in a way that they may. Be aware of personal economic differences. You are the adapter, not them, no matter what Harvard Business Review (HBR) advises as a best practice on a given matter (i.e. that you may otherwise know to be best for the situation). That said, there are ideas you can bring (only after listening and very openly absorbing theirs!) that can be interesting additions or even lessons for your host working culture.

The other way is doing business with another culture, where you are working in a Western office, but perhaps transacting with a client of another culture across the table from you. For this, you want to be aware of the same types of things, from customs of timeliness, to dress, to eating/drinking, hierarchical relationships, and more. Understanding your client's culture is important, whether it is of another culture or simply another US organization's own internal culture.

3. What made you choose to major in Global Studies and Spanish at U of I and how have they helped you in your professional life?

I like this question because when I transitioned back from China in 2012, and before taking my role at Bloomberg in early 2013, I stepped in temporarily for a previous Global Studies advisor's maternity leave for three months. I really enjoyed sharing with students, from Fresh/Soph navigating their courses, their study abroad options and internship opportunities, to Juniors and Seniors thinking about their career options. Just as you're well aware, the major is perfect in that it pulls on a rich variety of disciplines, but not perfect, because you still have to craft for yourself that unique skill you will bring to your work. Unlike accounting or engineering or CS, there is not a clear career path awaiting you as you step out the UofI door. Also, think again about supply and demand economics. You're aware that the supply of LAS students around the country is high compared to the demand for LAS talent right now. That doesn't mean an LAS degree is not a good one for the the job market. It just means you have to get more creative and work at crafting a unique "differentiator" in your story. Then tell that story to your prospective employer. Sell yourself, but built on your experiences during school and internships - and Ann's life-applicable classes in particular.

In overcoming this challenge, I suggest you first do what you can to really carve out unique technical strengths and skills where you can (more on that below) but also really think and write and process, and think and write again, and then reflect on what you care about, what you are good at, and what you love to do with your time. Think about these three items: what your talents are, what you love to do, and what issue or world problem motivates you.

When talent-passion-issue align, you can do great things. Pursue that issue/topic area with your passion and your talent. If you have the talent for the issue/problem but not the passion, it can become frustrating. If you have the passion for the issue but not that talent, you can imagine it also becomes frustrating. How can you align all three for yourself?

4. What do you think is the most important skill college students should gain to get their first job or internship after college?

I'll focus here only on one, but with three parts: communication skills.

1) Present, present and present some more so that it feels less and less stressful to do so, and less and less painful to prepare. You can never be too good at presenting, whether to one person at a table, or to a room of 5000 people. Steve Jobs is an example many refer to. When presenting, less is more. Make the complex simple.

2) Writing skills: The better you can write, whether in long report form or in short email form, the more value you will bring ANY employer. So much communication happens on email today - and not in short-form texting only! ;) - that you'll want to have an ability to write something that could take many paragraphs in just 5 lines of email. You have to convey complex ideas but in a way that in the first line says the purpose or point of the email (why should I continue reading your email) and also has an ask or a request for action. Nearly every email has a main point and a request for action - make sure yours grab attention, state the purpose, and leave the reader with an action.

3) Networking: This is very close to number 1 above, in that when you network, you are presenting as well. Know how to describe yourself or your goals or background in 10 second, 30 second and 30 minute form. You are presenting. But importantly, don't let this create a fear of networking. When you speak to your family or friends you are also presenting. You are listening and you are selling. You might be selling 4pm vs. 3pm to have that afternoon coffee together, or one movie vs. another movie to go and see together. You are selling and presenting yourself and your ideas always, without're a sales person! So in networking, think of it not as a greasy sales pitch but instead remove the baggage of the word and think of it as purely making friends, helping someone out with something on their mind or that they're working on. In conversation over cocktails or coffee, be interested in the other person and be relevant for him/her and helpful where you can. Simple kindness, interest and generosity build relationships and that's all networking is. You each have a goal. How can you help one another reach them?

5. ¿Tiene algunos consejos para estudiantes actuales?

Yes, read the above again and take notes on it as it applies to you and your situation.

And see this link I wrote on the Global Studies website. It is a bit dated, but it is one I wrote up more than five years ago for Dean Hancin-Bhatt when she was building more alumni connections for GS students. For perspective, it was written after moving from my Lima/DC base to China for the Luce scholarship. Now you're catching me after several more years in China, that brief stint at UIUC/GS before three years in New York City, and now to a new place (for me) in Asia, Singapore.

I hope that link is a good complement to this. It gets into the idea of having a technical skill alongside your liberal arts degree, among other ideas like visiting David Schug and making the most of the Illinois Scholarships office. I was a Spanish and International Studies (IS, now GS) major, but if I could do it again, I'd find a way to bite the bullet and add a few more tech/CS/math/engineering/finance/economics classes in (STEM, really). Frankly, just personal finance and the like have useful life lessons that should even be automatically built into undergrad curriculum or orientations in some way.

One final thought to to ponder: every one of my jobs has come from knowing a friend. I knew the friend in one setting and s/he later worked in the org and referenced me. None came from a generic online application without knowing someone there. Is there a lesson in that? Building friendships for your life = job networking? (Related to this see book one, below).

3 indispensable books:

1) 2-hour job search, written by a Duke Univ MBA admissions officer (all you need to execute an effective, efficient job search)
2) Delaying the Real World, this came out the year I graduated. Someone told me about it on the quad. I swallowed it whole and put stickies and notes all over it. The pages are thick and durable. It's a field guide to the non-conventional job, so buy it and mark it up if you're adventurous. Author Colleen Kinder is now a dear friend, introduced by accident by mutual friends in China.
3) Interview like an MBA (this is gold when you are at the interview stage)

I wish you all the best and do not hesitate to connect with me separately via email or LinkedIn. Just remember to state your purpose and reference whatever connection we may have. I receive connection requests from UofI students on LinkedIn and they don't state why they're connecting to me or what in my profile interested them. Sure, I see the UIUC connection, but a simple sentence or two is all it takes to gain that extra bit more of my interest to engage with you and accept your request. Quality of relationships can matter more than quantity. It is good to go for both. And that is the ultimate lesson: express your interest in people clearly, succinctly, but with a human self! Give people a reason to want to work with you. They will want to! Even Obama or the Pope will respond back if given a reason to.

Go get 'em,


Posts from this networking project:


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