I have a strong appreciation for student athletes. As a former track athlete at the University of Wisconsin I understand how hard it is just to earn an opportunity to participate in college athletics. I know how difficult it is to balance the demands of athletics and academics. And I know how well those demands prepare you for life after college. But I was reminded of this lesson again over the past year.
The W Letterwinners Club
A year ago I started attending W Club events at the University of Wisconsin. The W Club is the varsity athlete letter winners alumni club. If you won a varsity letter as a Badger you are automatically in the club. And if I were to rebrand the club, I would name it the W Letterwinners Club, so that the name would express in two words and one letter what it has taken me 2 sentences to explain.
Scott and Stephanie
The incoming club President, Stephanie Herbst-Lucke, and Vice President, Scott Brinen, asked me to join the W Club’s advisory board when I moved from Atlanta to Milwaukee. Because it is much easier to get involved in things centered in Madison when you live in Milwaukee than in Marietta, Miami or Mozambique.
At my first advisory board meeting in October of 2018, Stephanie introduced me to one of the representatives from the women’s track team named Sarah Disanza. Sarah was an All-American distance runner who had just graduated 5 months earlier. It was clear that Stephanie and Scott really liked this young woman and had invited her to join the advisory board right after graduation.
Badger Athlete Reunion
Following the W Club meeting we all migrated to a fun event the W Club hosts annually called the Badger Athlete Reunion. It was held at the most iconic of iconic Madison bars, State Street Brats. The event, as the name so aptly implies, is a reunion of all letter-winning athletes who ever attended the University of Wisconsin.
The Badger Athlete Reunion is athletically eclectic. Like the Badger’s version of Studio 54. Every sport is represented. Every era is represented. Female and Male athletes are represented. And it makes it clear that being a student athlete at Wisconsin prepares you for great things after graduation. Because the room was full of ass kickers and name takers. Not just athletically. But in business, and life.
That evening I spent more time talking with Sarah Disanza and I was impressed. She seemed to fit right in with groups of former athletes who were 10, 20 and 30 years her senior.
The Suggestive Sell
A few months later Stephanie Herbst-Lucke contacted me and said, ‘I think you should consider hiring Sarah Disanza on your team at The Weaponry.’ The Weaponry is the advertising and idea agency I founded in 2016. Stephanie is a rockstar marketer herself, so I took her suggestion seriously.
Sarah was the national runner up in cross country, and a 4 time All-American at Wisconsin. She was still training seriously and had been working at a great restaurant in Madison. But she had met her life quota for garlic smashing. And decided she wanted to start her real career.
I asked Simon Harper, one of my talented account leaders, to meet with Sarah the next time he was in Madison. He did. And he liked her like everyone else does. So we invited her to come to Milwaukee to meet with our broader team. (Broader meaning diverse, not wide.)
Sarah came to our office a week later. She was on time. She was prepared. She asked great questions. Again, everyone liked her. But we didn’t have an obvious opening for her to fill. So we didn’t have an obvious next step forward.
Then Sarah did something that distinguished her from other talented people. Yes, she followed up. Which is always the right thing to do. (See How to impress others with a follow up note for how to crush the follow up letter.)
But what Sarah did went beyond manners, protocol and good form. She added value. When she followed up with me she noted an initiative I had mentioned during our conversation in my office. It was a research project that I wanted to undertake related to new business development.
She shocked me when told me she did the project on her own! When she sent me the file containing her research work it was so good I told her that she had to charge us for her time, because it was truly valuable to us.
The Door Opens
I then invited Sarah to do some freelance work for us on another project for a major client. Sarah always showed up early, ready to roll. She took initiative. Displayed great people skills with our client. And she did such a great job we found ourselves looking for more places to get Sarah involved.
Sarah eagerly jumped at anything we offered. And I was convinced we should add this go-getter to our team full-time. But before we did, I wanted to do one last check on Sarah with someone who knew her as well as anyone: her college coach.
Jill Miller coached Sarah in both Track and Cross Country at The University of Wisconsin. I emailed her, asking if she would be willing to talk to me about Sarah. She enthusiastically agreed.
Jill and I had a fun conversation as we connected dots between the people and places we both knew (#DublinOhio #RachelWeber). Then the conversation turned to Sarah. Jill enthusiastically confirmed all of the great things we saw in Sarah. She talked about her work ethic, her punctuality, her sense of responsibility and accountability. She talked about Sarah’s great family and the strong character that clearly came from her parents, Paul and Debbie Disanza.
Just Do Grit
Jill told me that Sarah had the highest pain threshold of anyone she has ever coached. Which is a clear indicator of grit and determination. Which is valuable in every endeavor in life. I had heard enough. But Jill Miller (who I would like to nickname Jiller) had one more thought to add.
‘As a coach I often think about which of my athletes I would hire if I had my own business. I have had a lot of great athletes that I would gladly hire. But there are 2 that stand out as the first people I would hire. And Sarah is one of them.’ – Jill Miller
That was quite an endorsement. I told Jill how much I appreciated her time and insights. And I had all I needed to know.
In August we offered Sarah a full time position with The Weaponry. She started the day after Labor Day. And she has been as good as advertised. Or better. She is eager. She is a fast learner. She asks great questions. And she has deftly handled everything we throw her way.
Best of all, she is super fun, super funny, and has a great personality that really adds to our team. Which means that she is like so many badger athletes, past and present: Hard working, smart and determined. Yet as fun and full of personality as the kids who fail out of lesser colleges.
But the reason Sarah is on our team is that she took initiative. She spotted an opportunity during the interview process to wow us. She performed her own research that was highly valuable to our business. She built her own on-ramp. And she was so good we couldn’t ignore her. So we didn’t. Anyone can do this. Although very few will. Just those willing to perform like All-Americans.
If you want to get your foot in the door with a new employer, a new client or a new relationship, add value. Show how much you would bring to the table every day. Don’t wait to be asked. Show initiative. It will tip the scales in your favor. Those you are trying to impress won’t want to lose you as a valuable asset. They’ll make exceptions for you. Be patient, but persistent. And keeping adding value. You’ll find that doors will open for you over and over again.
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